Revolution #193, February 21, 2010
Reflections on the First Round of the Raymond Lotta Campus Speaking Tour
Breaking Open the "Communism Debate"
A highly unusual scene took place last November at the University of Chicago. 320 people, the vast majority undergraduate students, crowded into a lecture hall to hear—and debate—a speaker that most had never heard of two weeks earlier on a topic we are constantly told is no longer on the map.
I was the speaker.
The topic? "Everything You've Been Told About Communism Is Wrong: Capitalism Is A Failure, Revolution Is The Solution." This was part of a national campus tour that began in the fall and is going to continue—and heighten—over the next few months.
I'll come back to what transpired that night in Hyde Park a little later. But first I want to say a little about WHY this tour now—the need it's seeking to fill, and the larger objectives it's part of.
To speak bluntly, the intellectual and ideological climate in the universities today is marked by a paucity of radical discourse, radical ferment, and revolutionary imagination. This is a big problem in society. And it poses a serious challenge. The fact is that if there is to be a revolution in this society, indeed if there is to be any degree of serious resistance and ferment that challenges the status quo, the question of a radically different world needs to be broadly taken up and debated by students and intellectuals, and that debate in turn needs to bubble up into society.
Here we are. Clearly this is a world that cries out for radical change. The world is a horror: the escalating U.S. war for greater empire...the penning of over a million African-Americans into the prisons of this country...the degradation that confronts women everywhere...the accelerating environmental emergency. But the question is posed: is revolution possible, or even desirable?
Since the defeat of socialism and restoration of capitalism in China following Mao's death in 1976 (a counterrevolution obscured by the fact that China's current leaders call themselves communist)—the imperialists have passed up no opportunity to attack and smother communism. "Revolution...don't go there...you'll end up devouring yourselves." The message is that the best you can do is to tinker on the edges of the system.
This ideological assault on communism exacts a heavy toll. Most students know little if anything about communism, and most of what they do know, or think they know, is wrong. Professors who at one time would have (rightly) dismissed studies by reactionary scholars that ritualistically demonize Stalin as cold war hackery now uncritically accept their premises and conclusions. The dreaming of the young generation is shackled.
This is the milieu that this tour is entering into...and seeking to radically change.
Where I'm Coming From
Who Has Been Coming Out to Debate Communism?
The Raymond Lotta campus tour events have drawn an interesting cross section of students. At NYU and even more so at the University of Chicago, the controversy and turnouts began to approach a certain threshold where the tour was starting to have a larger campus-wide impact. Who has been coming out so far?
* There have been the defenders of capitalism. In some cases, these were libertarian types with strong anticommunist views. In other cases, these were people who felt that a "pure capitalism," not the really existing capitalism of the world, offered the greatest benefits of individual initiative and reward.
This sort of "utopian capitalism" has real influence, even as capitalism is in crisis. It is a view of capitalism that separates profit from its source, exploitation. In part, the reason for this is obvious: it is what the reigning orthodoxy promotes. At the same time, this notion of an "ideal capitalism" flourishes in an atmosphere where there is not at this time widespread, visceral hatred, among significant sections of students, for the crimes of capitalism and the U.S. empire.
Overlapping with this grouping were the committed opponents of communism, including people coming out to raise charges of mass murder. Some were quite puffed up and vociferous. But this was all part of the mix...yes, I was taking on all comers.
* There was a section of students who wanted to hear whether and how a compelling case could be made for socialism and communism—and if that case could stand up to scrutiny and question. These students were motivated by a certain intellectual curiosity but also by a sense of larger social injustice.
Many of these students wanted to test their own and received ideas...and see my ideas and convictions put to the test. They felt the weight of an oppressive status quo, but some of them felt that it was just as wrong to indict capitalism as a system as it was to totally dismiss socialism—maybe there could be some "blend" of the two. Some of these people were receptive to what I was bringing out about human potential and the possibility of a different world—but they were also struggling not to let go of much of what I was challenging in their thinking.
One student wrote on a questionnaire: "If all your facts and predictions are true, I think I agree with you. But I am wary of human nature, practicality." That seemed to express a strong sentiment in the audience.
* There was a smaller grouping of students who had anticapitalist and radical inclinations, and who came with substantive and heartfelt questions about making revolution and creating a new society. Some were influenced by different trends of socialist, Marxist, and anarchist thought. Some were influenced by different strands of radical social theory taught by certain professors.
Many of these students are intrigued by a coherent and spirited defense of the past, present, and future of the communist project. They do not want to embrace what is wrong masquerading as what it is right...and they do not want to accept the world as it is.
Several of these students said they agreed very much with what I was putting forward about revolution but could not see how we could motivate people who seem so complacent. How do you change people’s consciousness and their priorities? We got into revolutionary strategy. At NYU, there were questions about socialism and women’s liberation and about religious belief and the struggle around religion in socialist society.
At UC, when I started talking about Avakian, some in the audience began googling his name. A student came up afterward and asked, "If I am going to read one thing by Bob Avakian so I can learn more about the new synthesis, what would it be?" Clearly, the talk and debate piqued interest in Bob Avakian.
I base my work on Bob Avakian's new synthesis of communism. Avakian has deeply summed up the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions—their overwhelming achievements as well as their problems and limitations—and firmly grounds himself in the stream of thought and revolutionary practice that stretches from Marx through Lenin to Mao. At the same time, he's introduced some very new—some radically new—dimensions to communist methodology and to the understanding of the character of the socialist transition period, the basis and practice of communist internationalism, and revolutionary strategy.
The speech I've been giving does two main things: I'm bringing to students a vital historical understanding of the experience of socialist revolution in the 20th century that punctures the official verdicts on communism as a "failed utopian project" that can only lead to "totalitarian nightmare." I do so with facts and analysis and showing that these verdicts rest on misrepresentations, distortions, and lies.
Second, I am introducing students and intellectuals to Bob Avakian's vision of a vibrant and emancipatory communism. The idea here is to bring something new and radical on to the campus scene, begin to change the situation in a few key places, and do all this as part of an effort to popularize revolution—communist revolution—in society more broadly.
As I said earlier, that beginning was most vividly in evidence at the University of Chicago. Some 320 students came out—it was standing room only—to hear my presentation. People had found out about the event through leaflets, posters, a newspaper announcement, sidewalk graffiti, and word of mouth.
I had issued a challenge, and it struck a chord of interest and curiosity, and outrage as well. Could I really defend communism? Was I serious about "taking on all comers," as I had promised?
The audience was engaged. People posed deep questions about the division of labor in society, and asked how a socialist economy would perform better than capitalism. Someone else asked: Will the right decisions about environmentally sustainable technology be made—and will they be made in the right ways, not just arbitrarily decided? He was skeptical and aggressively grilled me...and, I must say, very much on point. Bob Avakian's new synthesis speaks in depth to real questions and concerns that people have about socialism—and this is the framework out of which I am responding to such concerns and criticisms.
Someone stood up and charged that Mao was responsible for 30 million needless deaths during the collectivization and social upsurge of the Great Leap Forward. I argued the falsity of the number, the statistical methods and political agenda behind these numbers, and got into the actual policies guiding the experience of the Great Leap Forward. People were checking facts and statistics on Blackberries and computers.
There came a certain moment of reckoning. A woman argued that the policy of sending professionals and doctors to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution was unfair and heartless, especially to their families. She received some applause. I said this was not a correct characterization of a very important social initiative to overcome the division between the cities and countryside, but also argued that social compulsion is not in and of itself a bad thing. There was derision from some in the audience. I went on. Legal segregation in the U.S., for instance, could not be ended without certain policies backed by the force of law and the power of the state—though, I further explained, you cannot rely on social compulsion to fundamentally change the world and people's thinking. This prompted reflection and a kind of reset in mood and thinking among others in the audience.
The campus newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, began its front-page account of the event this way: "In a talk that was part history and part sociology class, scholar and activist Raymond Lotta spoke to a packed room advocating the return of communism to the intellectual agenda." They were right. I am trying to put communism back on the agenda, but this is no mere academic dispute.
At the heart of this debate is the question of human possibility: how the first wave of socialist revolutions marked a historic breakthrough for humanity in creating societies free from exploitation and oppression, and how the world we live in can be transformed into something radically different and liberating, where human beings can flourish.
There is a lesson here: coexisting with the fact that people do not know anything about communism is a certain openness to engaging on this—exactly because it has been ruled so off the agenda.
A few days after the program, I talked with a grad student and acquaintance of mine at UC. He told me that he had been rather doubtful that this kind of event could take place at the University of Chicago. He was thrilled by the interest and controversy the program ignited: "I guess this sort of thing happened in the 1960s"—and then, pausing for a moment, added, "well maybe not like this." He was also right.
This was a presentation and debate about communism...straight up. Students were discussing and debating not just the history of communism but communism in its most developed, scientific form: Avakian's new synthesis.
Exposing Shoddy Scholarship
The event at the University of Chicago was a real success and important beginning, but our plan now is not to replicate it but to build on this experience, and take it higher. We are aiming to ultimately change the discourse of the whole society, and we are doing this with a keen sense of urgency. But precisely in order to take this further, I want to draw out a few key things we've been learning.
One thing that stands out about the tour is just how eye-opening it is, especially for students, to find out what even "state of the art" scholarship gets away with when it comes to communism—and I'm speaking of major matters of analysis and documentation. Students are incredulous to find out that, as we argue, they are systematically lied to about the history of communism. Some are indignant that we could suggest that they were being "intellectually taken." This is a dynamic factor, a source of controversy and debate, feeding into the programs.
In my speech, I give examples of this shoddy scholarship. To take one. In the book Mao: The Unknown Story, considered to be an authoritative biography of Mao, the authors claim that Mao was so maniacally bent on building China into an industrial superpower that he was prepared to throw away the lives of literally hundreds of millions. They quote a section of a speech by Mao in which he talks about huge numbers of likely deaths. But I carefully demonstrate (and this can be seen on YouTube) how this quote is torn totally out of context, and that Mao is actually saying precisely the opposite of what the authors allege.
I also point to an egregious instance of intellectual chicanery by Harvard scholar Roderick MacFarquhar in his massive and "authoritative" book on the Cultural Revolution. For now, I can only indicate that this drew an audible collective gasp from the audience. Rather than go into that here (and this will be going up on YouTube), let me say that I will be speaking at Harvard this spring. And let me say further: if Roderick MacFarquhar would like to defend his scholarship, or debate me on any other point of fact or analysis, I would be more than happy to change my speaking engagement to an equal-time debate with MacFarquhar. (I'll return to this point on debate a little later in this piece.)
This unmasking of the methods of such noted "China experts" and "China scholars" shakes people up. Students begin to see just how pervasive these misrepresentations are, and this awareness begins to raise questions about the seemingly solid edifice of anticommunist summation. New questions are thrown up about the search for the truth and critical thinking, about who has right (the facts and accurate understanding) on their side, and who has institutional might on their side (and how that influences what is deemed to be "right").
People also began to appreciate and become more open to the new information that I am communicating about what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution, why it was the most liberating episode in human history, and what its problems were.
A Vibrant and Serious Debate
But there is something else as well. People coming out to these programs are holding me accountable to the same standards of truth that I emphasize are so lacking in the mainstream academia when it comes to the question of communism. And so the discussions rolled on at the NYU program: what actually took place in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution? If temples were in fact destroyed, then who was responsible, why did it happen, and was this Mao's policy?
This kind of sharp interrogation is a good thing. It contributes to putting the debate that is needed on solid ground. And if people can show that my arguments are wrong, then fine, this is what we communists methodologically value: we need to get at the truth if we are going to deeply understand and radically change the world.
If we are going to change the situation on campuses, this can only happen through the most robust debate and controversy. We are telling people: if you are seriously concerned about the state of the world, you need to bring your toughest and most vexing questions to these programs. And to those who want to defend the system, we are telling them: we will take on your arguments.
It means a lot when people can engage, and see others engage, on these questions, in a no-holds-barred way. It means a lot when fervent advocates of neoliberal capitalism are being challenged by me, and challenging me, in a setting where the core question is: is a radically different world possible?
At NYU and the University of Chicago, two op-ed pieces in the campus and community papers attacked my speech. Both excoriated me for ignoring "Stalin's crimes" and "Stalin's victims." I responded with op-eds in the same papers directly taking on their charges. I discussed the challenges facing the Russian Revolution and what was going on during the 1930s. And I offered substantive, non-sensationalistic evaluation of Stalin and his errors. Think about it: in the campus papers of two major academic institutions, a two-sided debate about the history of communism. This is something new, but this has to break out into wider streams of intellectual discourse.
Who Has Been Coming Out—And Who Has NOT Been
In the accompanying sidebar, I go into some depth into the different trends of thought that have been in evidence during these speeches and the debates that have followed. Briefly this has encompassed defenders of capitalism and, with some overlap, committed opponents of communism; students who want to hear whether a compelling case can be made for socialism and communism; and a small section of more radical students who had very serious questions about whether revolution could be made and a radically better society actually brought into being.
But while students have responded to the challenge the tour has put out, liberal ideologues of anticommunism have largely stayed away. They have not felt compelled to come out to debate and defend their positions. This is a weakness. If this tour is going to substantially impact the intellectual terrain, it must involve various forms of direct and open intellectual-ideological engagement with these ideologues and their defenders.
We made a start at NYU. I issued an open letter to Tony Judt, the prominent public intellectual and avatar of liberal anticommunism. Judt equates communism with Nazism. He propounds the view that communism is a "closed and totalizing" system of thought intent on "solving the problems of mankind in one stroke"—leading to "moral disaster."
Calling this out, I wrote: "You are wrong, you are spreading lies, you don't know what you are talking about, and you are causing great harm." But I also emphasized that Bob Avakian's new synthesis recognizes the indispensable role of intellectual ferment in socialist society. Indeed, socialism must be a place where a Tony Judt can and must have the ability to articulate and disseminate his views, and where these views will be debated. And I invited Judt to attend the NYU program.
A few progressive professors commented on my letter. One supported my issuing it, saying that in his estimation and experience, Judt plays a very reactionary ideological role. Another scholar welcomed the letter, suggesting it would contribute to building the tour on his campus. But, he added, he could not personally circulate my letter unless it originated from some academic source or site not directly associated with the tour. Overall, the responses I was getting indicated that people appreciated the fact that I was stepping out on these questions, but also seemed to be signaling that this takes a lot of intellectual courage.
Clearly, this liberal anticommunism constrains and constricts intellectual-political discourse. And, just as clearly, it has gone uncontested for too long.
So I will not only reiterate my challenge to MacFarquhar (or to anyone who wishes to defend MacFarquhar), but I will also guarantee that this spring I will, on every campus that I speak at, do all I can to pose this challenge to these anticommunists provocatively enough that, in the words of the boxing maxim, "they can run but they can't hide."
But to do this, I am also asking those of you who have significant differences with the communist project—or who even disagree vehemently with us—but who nonetheless see the great importance of discourse between committed opponents who can bring substance to bear in a debate... I am asking you to help in bringing positive moral compulsion on anticommunist intellectuals to actually argue out their position with someone who can take them on.
One thing my tour thus far proves: there are students there who do want to hear about alternatives to the current order of the world. They deserve to hear those ideas argued out by their best defenders and fiercest opponents. And they—and the discourse of all of society—are cheated when such debate does not occur.
With this in mind, I am calling on students, professors, and scholars to contribute ideas and energy, and to contact me, so that this crucial debate that I am opening up can happen on the scale it must and promote the kind of ferment that is so sorely needed.
Raymond Lotta is a revolutionary intellectual who takes Bob Avakian's new synthesis as his foundation. He has written and lectured extensively on issues of the world economy, the experience of socialist revolution in the 20th century, especially the Cultural Revolution in China, and communist revolution in today's world.
Spread the Word and Help Crack Open the Debate: Raymond Lotta Tour to Hit Columbia and Harvard Campuses this Spring
Raymond Lotta’s speaking tour, “Everything You’ve Been Told About Communism Is Wrong: Capitalism Is A Failure, Revolution Is The Solution,” will be coming to Columbia and Harvard universities this spring.
At these programs Lotta gives a dynamic presentation, followed by a no-holds-barred dialogue and debate. As part of the tour, Raymond Lotta will also be speaking in the media…writing op-ed pieces… creating YouTube segments taking on prominent liberal anticommunist ideologues…meeting with students and professors.
This tour has already revealed enormous potential—and it needs to go to a whole new level. People should be getting the word out about the Columbia and Harvard programs in creative ways. And funds are needed to build and spread the tour. This is something very new on the scene, and it requires broad support and assistance.
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