Revolution #219, December 12, 2010

From Ike to Mao and Beyond
My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist
A Memoir by Bob Avakian

from Chapter Nine: Becoming a Communist

The Revolution Comes to Richmond

Because of the whole general upheaval that I've been describing, and all the back and forth over different ideas and programs, people were following closely what was happening all over the country. People in other parts of the country were very intensely following what was happening with things like People's Park, and people who didn't go to the Democratic Convention in 1968 were very intensely following that, and there were a lot of people who felt themselves a part of a whole movement, wherever things were happening. As one important dimension of this, there were over a hundred newspapers that eventually developed that were either written by or directed to GIs in the U.S. military — radical and revolutionary newspapers. And in different locales around the U.S., a lot of people were putting out their own newspapers. There were many different ways in which people were circulating their ideas and their experience, and many, many people were wrestling with all this. Of course, there were differences, but people were struggling out their differences, and even where you had differences, you would still unite in a lot of ways.

So, through this whole kind of process many people came to know about what we were doing in Richmond and the whole banner that we were trying to raise in practice as well as in theory of "going to the proletariat." A number of people were attracted to that, and people would get in contact with us. Some couples moved to Richmond and there were also individuals who'd come. A number of women came on their own to become part of this, and that was significant. As I said, we sort of started out, a few of us, with this view of ourselves as "macho revolutionaries," but we were changing — and being changed — in that, too. The women's movement was beginning to develop, and expressing itself in different ways throughout society. The RU initiated a major International Women's Day rally in San Francisco in 1970, but well before that all these different influences were all part of the ferment and upheaval that we were part of, and that were influencing us in important ways.

So we had sort of an inner core of RU people there in Richmond, but then there were broader groupings of people there who were working collectively and struggling collectively, and there were a lot of things going on in Richmond. At the same time, the RU was developing as more of an organization throughout the Bay Area — in San Jose and Stanford, in San Francisco and Berkeley, and in Oakland as well. And one of the most lasting and important things is that there are some people who got involved, who came to Richmond at that time, and who have stayed with things, in one way or another, all the way since then. People I can think back to, from the days in Richmond 35 years ago. At the same time, everything that this experience taught us became part of the development of a whole revolutionary line and program and strategy, and in that way it contributed to the founding of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1975 and to its further development. So all of that was important at the time, but also made a lot of lasting contributions.

Through all this work in Richmond, we started meeting more people. We would meet adults who had kids, or we would just meet kids who were in junior high or high school. I remember one great walkout where the kids in one of the junior highs in Richmond busted out and climbed over the fence. This was in support of the farmworkers, so they went down to the Safeway, which was being boycotted by the farmworkers, and trashed it. It became a big thing. Dozens of them were busted and the action was written up and denounced in the local paper. But we mobilized support for this, and they all got off without having to go to juvenile prison. We would write and pass out leaflets and pamphlets about local issues as well as national and international events, and a number of kids just loved to pass these out in the junior high and high schools, partly because they agreed with it and were part of the whole movement, and also partly because they knew it really pissed off backward teachers and principals and school authorities, and they loved that part of it, too. In fact, some of the kids we knew hardly ever went to school, and one of the rare times they'd go is when they could take our pamphlets or leaflets in and pass them out and stir shit up.

So we were doing a lot of that, and then in 1969 there was this anti-Vietnam "moratorium" declared, with big demonstrations against the war back east and in San Francisco. As part of that, we got together with the Panthers, who were also in Richmond, and decided to call for a walkout and rally on the same day in Richmond. This had some really key elements that were missing from a lot of the other anti-war demonstrations. We focussed it in a park right across from Richmond High. And Richmond High was like — well, I think I mentioned before that when I was at Berkeley High people would say, "Richmond High! Even the white guys are tough over there!" It had this whole proletarian character to it.

We knew a teacher who taught at Richmond High. I went to his class one time, not long after we moved to Richmond, and I gave this whole rap about Vietnam — the history of it, what the U.S. was doing and why it was wrong, and so on. And I could tell that the students in the classroom had never heard this kind of stuff. Their teacher was progressive, but they'd never heard this whole thing laid out like this, and maybe part of the reason he invited me to talk to them was that he figured I could do this more easily than he could — he could just say he was having visiting speakers or whatever. So, while I'm laying out this rap on Vietnam, I can see in their faces and their body language that this is new to them. Finally a guy raises his hand and I was preparing myself for an argument, because I knew kids like this were bombarded with the standard pro-war propaganda — and this was a new experience for me, too. But he said: "What took you so long? How come you haven't come and talked to us about this kind of stuff before?" So I said, "Well, you know, that's a good point, but now we are here."

So we were building on that kind of thing when we went to Richmond High and put out a leaflet and called for a walkout and a rally. And about 500 people came to the rally, which was very significant for Richmond — there had never been an anti-war rally on that scale before in a place like Richmond, and it was overwhelmingly these proletarian youth, Black, Latino, and white, who walked out from the high school. Then, at the end of the rally about two to three hundred of us went over and surrounded the draft board in Richmond, which was drafting people out of Richmond but was also a good symbol of the whole war and the military. And it was a very militant demonstration. We found out later that the draft board was packed with pigs, just waiting for any excuse to attack, though things didn't come to a major confrontation that day. But we made our point, and it was very important to those who took part, and the youth in particular, that they were part of this whole bigger anti-war movement but had also made their statement right there, in Richmond. This was one of the high points of our work in Richmond.

A little while later, when students were shot and killed at Kent State and Jackson State,1 we were already doing work at the junior college in Richmond, Contra Costa College, as well as other places. We had waged a struggle together with students at Contra Costa to get the college to fund a day care center, because there were a lot of proletarian students there who couldn't afford childcare in order to go to school. That was an important battle, but we were also doing a lot of other kinds of political organizing and educational work — passing out leaflets, having rallies, giving speeches, and holding protests.

So when Kent State happened, I remember speaking at a rally at Contra Costa College. Basically the whole college, or a large part of it, had come to a standstill, and the level of unity there was very high. There were some students there, including some veterans of the military and the Vietnam War, who had some differences with us, but on that day we were all very tight in our outrage and our support of the students at Kent State. And then we learned about the murders of Black students at Jackson State, and that became a question that we took to the students and others in Richmond as well. It was a very powerful day — basically the campus at Contra Costa College came to a standstill. Because of all the weight that proletarian people have on them, Contra Costa College, like Richmond in general, had not historically been a place where it was easy for people to mobilize themselves politically. And, as that high school student had spoken to, people weren't coming to them to bring them an understanding of these things and to enable them to learn about the world. But this was changing through our work and through the general upheaval that was going on.

Learning From The Proletariat – Deep Bonds

Mao wrote about revolutionary youth going to the masses of working people and how, in his own experience, he learned a great deal more from them than he brought to them, even though obviously what he brought to them was very important. And this was also our experience in Richmond and my personal experience. We made not only many political ties but deep personal ties and friendships and relationships of various kinds with people that I still look back on very fondly. I think of the people often and feel strong bonds with them, even today.

There were many people who taught me many deep lessons. I remember this one white proletarian youth who was really just a beautiful guy. He was open to learning a lot of things, but he also taught me a tremendous amount, coming from his whole life experience and what the practical realities were, the difficulties of becoming politically active with the weight that was on him and on his mother, who was working a low-paying job trying to support the family. I still think about him a lot, and I remember very sadly, in fact, the last time I saw him. He came forward and became very revolutionary-minded and, as I said, he taught me a lot, but he was also pulled down by drugs at the time, and the last time I saw him we had a very deep-going, honest talk for several hours sitting in a car in Richmond, and he confided in me that he was hung up on heroin, and therefore he couldn't stay active in the revolution. This was a heartbreaking thing to me.

There were also some individuals in particular with whom I developed very deep bonds, people who mean a lot to me personally, and from whom I learned a great deal. For example, William Hinton wrote this book Fanshen about the experience of the Chinese Revolution. I used to read that book to some people in Richmond who didn't have a lot of formal education. And it was amazing to me — it really struck me — how readily and deeply they identified with the people who were the main characters, the poor peasants who were rising up to change the world in China, as described in Fanshen.

But also, early on, when I was reading to them, they would often stop me and say, "I don't know what that word means." So, after a while, when I was reading to them, I would be looking out for this and I would change some of the wording as I was reading, breaking words down into other words, while keeping the meaning so that they would get the essence of it. I wasn't watering down what was being said, but I was changing the language as I read, because the people I'm talking about had been denied almost literally any kind of formal education because of the poverty and difficulty of their circumstances. So I had to break this down into language that would convey the same meaning, but that they would be able to get. I would always do my best to read in a way that wasn't leaving them behind. And there would be struggle and criticism because sometimes I would forget or wouldn't do it very well — or I'd go too far and they'd say, "You know, I'm not an idiot."

I still remember this very vividly and fondly to this time, and I also learned a great deal from it. Sometimes people would ask me, "How is it that you give these speeches that break things down so people can understand them?" And I would cite this experience as one of the main ways that I learned the importance of doing that. This is mainly a question of your political and ideological understanding, or political and ideological line, as we say, and how to actually understand things well enough to be able to break them down and popularize them; but there was this dimension as well that was crucial for me. Along with the deep personal ties I made, this was also a great learning experience for me. I was very fortunate to have this experience where I had these kind of ties and personal relations with people where they would speak honestly with me, let me know when what I was saying, or reading to them, was getting across to them, and when it was missing the mark.

This is something that has remained very valuable to me up to today. And, on a personal level, I still have very fond remembrances and strong deep feelings of affection for the people I was so close to then.

To be continued

1. On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen killed four unarmed students demonstrating at Kent State University in Ohio. Shortly after that, on May 15, state troopers killed three Black students demonstrating at Jackson State, in Jackson, Mississippi. The killings sparked a nationwide student strike, massive demonstrations and, in many cases, further battles with police and National Guardsmen. [back]


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What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond