Drawing Lessons From the Past in the Struggle for the Premieres: Making Revolution a Big Deal on Campus

March 10, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader

In 2009, there was a campus speaking tour by Raymond Lotta entitled "Everything You Have Been Told About Communism Is Wrong! Capitalism Is a Failure, Revolution Is the Solution." And at the University of Chicago, this tour actually hit like a storm. This event and the work building up to it gave a glimmer of what it is like when we begin to crack open the atmosphere. This took place especially around the question of "you've been lied to about the real history of revolution and the actual promise of communism... and we can prove it" and there was real, if beginning, and very widespread debate around campus and with individuals, and between groups of students and the revolutionaries who came on campus to build the tour around this question and other elements of the overall new synthesis of communism that has been developed by Bob Avakian.

Soon, on March 16-17 there are going to be premieres in a number of major cities of the film, BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! The RCP is calling on people to clear the day and come together with hundreds of others in theaters around the country to be part of this. The aim and objective here is to make these premieres a major step in building a movement for revolution in this country. Tens of thousands of people, including among the most oppressed sections of the people in this country, but also students, other intellectuals, and people of all sorts who hate the way the world is need to be aware that this is happening and what this film, BA and the revolution he leads is all about. And most important, hundreds countrywide from these very sections of the people need to be directly attending these premieres, understanding that if they seriously hate the ways things are and not only want a different world but actually know that the world urgently needs to be radically different, there is really nothing more important they could be doing on the day of these premieres than to be getting together in these theaters around the country to engage the most pressing questions of our time as spoken to by the leader who has made possible a whole new world. These premieres are not an end in themselves, but the premiere events need to be understood as a critical punctuation point in actually forging a movement for communist revolution in the U.S.

There are intense and wide-ranging efforts going on to build for these events. In the spirit of contributing to the discourse and experience in building for these premieres that have been posted on revcom.us, I was asked to write up some experience from three and a half years ago in building for the Lotta tour at the University of Chicago. These were intense efforts that met with a lot success in terms of the immediate objective in front of us of making this a major, major issue on this campus among, if not literally all, truly wide swaths of the student population and these efforts resulted in a standing-room-only event. But there are important distinctions between these two events, and there were also significant shortcomings especially in our working to draw together the more radical-minded students into collective cores, even if small, right on the spot in the course of building for this event and more so in its immediate aftermath. In this vein, there are important things we have learned since that time and are continuing to develop and sum up all very much anchored in the party's statement, "On the Strategy for Revolution." And it is important to keep in mind that this experience was in relation to an event that, while important, was not the same type of event or as important as a premiere of such a film by BA, as one of the filmmakers put it," ...this is a film, but that is not its essence. This is a daring, substantive, scientific, summoning to revolution. 6+ hours that can change how you see the world and what you do with the rest of your life..." But with that in mind, there are some things that would be good to learn from in the approach taken in 2009 to the Lotta tour.

By the time of Lotta's actual speech at U of C, pretty much every undergraduate knew about this event before and in the immediate aftermath of it taking place. Individuals, but also importantly whole groups of students, started piling into the auditorium the evening of the speech. Lotta spoke to an overflow crowd of more than 300 that stayed not only for the speech, but for a long formal question and answer period. Dozens of students came up to Lotta when the Q&A ended and engagement and struggle continued until the room had to be vacated. The following day a front-page article in the university newspaper, the Daily Maroon headlined, "Lotta asks students to reconsider communism," quoted Lotta's presentation including the point he made that "We need a different system—a total revolution. Exactly at a time when capitalism is in crisis, at this moment we are told we can't go beyond capitalism but can only tinker around the edges. It's as if there is a warning label affixed to the discourse on human possibility." And there was more back and forth in the period after the speech, e.g., a right-wing student paper writing a slam, a left group writing a piece countering Lotta's exposition of the new synthesis of communism, arguing instead for more fairness in the realm of distribution as a solution to the world's problems.

While Lotta's tour had an impact on a number of campuses, at the University of Chicago this impact was very close to reaching a situation where if you were on this campus you weren't going to escape knowing about this upcoming speech and it became a "you need to be there" for students tormented by the state of the world today and striving for answers, others intrigued by the possibility of revolution and also a good chunk of students that wanted to challenge Lotta from various angles. A good number of U of C students from capitalist-restored China also came, with one young man telling Lotta that he "had not understood the reasons for the nostalgia that exists for Mao in China until [he] heard Lotta's speech," where he got a glimpse of what the actual character of that revolution was and what it meant to masses all over the world.

In the last couple days leading up to Raymond Lotta's appearance it had become pretty clear that major waves had been made and there were hints that issues of profound importance to the billions of oppressed around the world and to the future of humanity were actually, at minimum, contending with "business as usual" in the minds of hundreds of students. As we were leafleting and postering in the last days, many, many students were telling us that they had seen and read the leaflet and the related promotional materials repeatedly; some would say to us things like, "my friends and I are all going to be there," or "I really want to go but can't because of a conflict but six of my friends are planning to attend." And more than one student said to us things along the line, "Damn, I can't believe how thorough, determined, systematic and effective the RCP and its supporters have been in getting out the word about this event and its importance." An important sign of the effect this was having on those who actually were grappling with these questions was that even students who thought we were wrong felt compelled to come to the event, and told us so. The main thing was this: the challenge this posed had tapped into something with students who do, on some level, yearn for a better world, but who normally keep the ideas of revolution and communism bottled up or not even in their purview at all. This had hit them, and because they were interested and drawn to this, it began to have an effect much more broadly.

And at the 11th hour, when the university administration tried to pull some regulatory bullshit to disallow the event, progressive clergy from the surrounding community, students, some profs, and a student-based leftist group stepped forward to assist in various ways to prevent the rug being pulled out from under this event. All the preliminary work had made this rallying possible on extremely short notice at this 11th hour. The university was forced to back down in its attempts to suppress this event.

So, what all went into this?

There was a group of people (ranging from four, but never more than six or eight, of us at any one time) committed to making this happen and very partisan to BA and the new synthesis. Within this group on any particular day, there were three to five people in their 20s and 30s, and the rest of the group consisted of veterans of the upsurges of the '60s. Doing this work at U of C was very new to the whole group. While some of us knew a few students and some professors on this campus, none of us at the core of these efforts were enrolled at U of C (and the few ties we did have on that campus in the main did not think students would be interested in a program with this title and argued against this approach). Nevertheless, we were able to accomplish a great deal despite this weakness of no students or profs being part of our core, and despite shortcomings in our own orientation in attaching enough importance to this, or seeing the possibilities of organizing people on the spot to contribute in some way to this, large or small.

There were within our crew building for this event a couple very good revolutionary leaders and agitators with real skill at leading right on the ground in forays of this nature (though again, it was not enough of our conscious orientation to try to cohere advanced people we found on the spot to join with these efforts and the overall movement building for revolution).

Our crew put in a great deal of time—long hours from early morning till the evening, consisting of various forms of mass outreach with punctuation points at various points in the day, where we would pull together a critical mass (like six or so people when we could), and made a big stir as leaflets were distributed and students challenged. Among other things that we all had studied in preparation for actual battle in the realm of public opinion was the "Set the Record Straight" materials (now available on thisiscommunism.org); BA's "Views on Socialism and Communism: A Radically Different New Kind of State, A Radically Different and Far Greater Vision of Freedom;" and the manifesto Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage. The RCPs message and call, "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have," had been issued a few months previous and all this was influencing how we were approaching things and even our body language.

What was key in what and how things were accomplished was that we all had a grasp that, from the perspective of making revolution, there was a real need to not throw up our hands in the face of a relatively stultifying atmosphere on most campuses. Instead, we had to work to transform this with real determination and to do so from this very revolutionary perspective. There is real importance to winning a section of intellectuals to take up the science of revolution, communism as re-envisioned by BA, and throw in with the movement for revolution he is leading, with the party at its core. This objective was constantly returned to as we learned more about the students and their thinking and this continued to inform and guide planning and all types of creative and really very lively ways that were unleashed to make this event actually have real impact. And in the evenings, we were stepping back and summing up what we were learning and examining our approach from this same perspective.

One issue that we had to wrangle with deeply pretty early on, and that there was a lot of struggle among us, was whether it was a negative that these youth were very serious about their studies. There was a line influencing some of us at first that this academic seriousness should be viewed and dismissed as simply scholastic careerism. We struggled over this and realized that while the very workings of this society turns pretty much everything to shit, this seriousness did not in and of itself reduce to this, but that there is real importance to and actually a major contradiction in this society in relation to working in the realm of ideas, and that we had to step back to a different plane to look at all this. What we were fighting to do was take to a section of these young intellectuals some really critical important understanding of actual human history that has been vilified and distorted and introduce them to the basis, vision, and strategy to fight to bring a far different and better world into being.

One of the things we wrangled with was the following from the "The Revolution We Need... the Leadership We Have":

And, despite the good intentions of many teachers, the educational system is a bitter insult for many youth and a means of regimentation and indoctrination overall. While, particularly in some "elite" schools, there is some encouragement for students to think in "non-conformist" ways—so long as, in the end, this still conforms to the fundamental needs and interests of the system—on the whole, instead of really enabling people to learn about the world and to pursue the truth wherever it leads, with a spirit of critical thinking and scientific curiosity, education is crafted and twisted to serve the commandments of capital, to justify and perpetuate the oppressive relations in society and the world as a whole, and to reinforce the dominating position of the already powerful. And despite the creative impulses and efforts of many, the dominant culture too is corrupted and molded to lower, not raise, people's sights, to extol and promote the ways of thinking, and of acting, that keep this system going and keep people believing that nothing better is possible.

And looking at this elite campus gave us a deeper perspective about how to actually struggle with and influence these students and other intellectuals related to the campus.

Overall, through this process we developed an actual determined plan that continued to develop; here are some elements of it:

1. An analysis that continually got further developed as we learned more as to the ways and means to saturate (repeatedly) the undergraduate student body regarding this critical subject matter and learning from the responses and challenges the students were raising. We had to think about and learn about what freedom we could grab to make this the kind of issue it needed to be. And we went out there with the confidence of knowing we were actually representing for the billions whose lives cry out for revolution in this world, that we had an important understanding of the problem and source of this, and the solution, and an actual accurate and real understanding of how all this critically needed to begin puncturing the discourse.

One of the things we wrangled with early on in these building efforts was not trying to replace ourselves (the organizing core on the campus) for people coming to hear and be part of Lotta's presentation. While we engaged and really challenged people and learned from the discussions we did have, we purposely didn't try to get into long, drawn-out exchanges with just one or two people, although with people really interested we took the time to go have a cup of coffee. But we really put the emphasis on people coming to this event to dig into all this in the depth and level the subject matter called for. In building for the program, the debate that broke out with defenders of capitalism or anti-communists served to reach a much larger group of students about the importance of digging into all this.

2. We had the benefit of the tour having already taken place in NYC, and a main leaflet had been developed out of those earlier efforts outlining four points that would be covered by the speech. This leaflet was distributed in many thousands. As part of this main flyer, we were able to circulate the questions that had been posed by the students at the previous leg of the tour and saturation with these was extremely critical, but not the only important element in puncturing the atmosphere. Another had been the quiz about the history of communism. As we were getting this out and collecting the results, the students at U of C actually did a little better than most campuses in relation to the questions on it regarding the Soviet Union, linked to influences of various academic and left trends on campus, but it was striking that the American-born students in particular didn't know anything about the history of the Chinese revolution and China when it was truly a revolutionary society due to a very "Eurocentric" (focused on Europe) and "economist" (confounding the struggle for better conditions of labor under capitalism with proletarian revolution) interpretations of the communist revolution. Taking this quiz out for a few days early in our efforts did attract a lot of students who fairly eagerly took it up and actually turned in their answers. They were also very interested to learn the results. Also distributed at different points were an open letter from Lotta to the anti-communist historian Tony Judt [that provoked a lot of attention] and another from Sunsara Taylor entitled, "The Furthest Thing From Your Minds." These were read by the students and periodically commented on. They told what it provoked in their thinking to the event organizers on campus. And we had Revolution newspapers and major works by BA that were available at the time (e.g., Away With All Gods! and Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy) to also get to people who would engage.

3. But we had a plan that we kept improving in the weeks we built for this.

On this particular campus there is a "quad" where most of the undergrads cross through when changing classes or going to the student union and campus coffee shops [we also discovered many small coffee shops and cafeterias on campus]. So, this was one important spot that we were at regularly and consistently, but it was also helpful to know the actual class schedule and other things about the students schedule to get a feel for when there were hundreds and hundreds of students crossing this quad and the best time to be there with the greatest number of our core we could pull together at those times.

4. But we didn't just leave it to that. Not all the students can be reached by being stationary at that quad, as important as that was. Quickly, through some Internet research of the syllabi of classes, and talking to students while we were out there leafleting, we found out what departments/classes had progressive professors and/or attracted the more progressive students (students would tell us, you got to go talk to so-and-so professor or go to so-and-so class with this), including some quite large, that might be particularly important to focus on (many students offered up suggestions actually). This was not simply what classes were open to radical concepts (but they included those, and at this particular campus part of the core curriculum for undergraduates includes some study of Marx, the father of the communist theory) but also things like the economics department, where many of the young intellectuals who have concerns about the actual horrors in the world were getting pulled into various dead-end capitalist schemes as maybe providing the answers. There had actually been an important major struggle a year or so earlier on that campus to try and stop the new economics building getting named after the arch-reactionary economist, Milton Friedman. Though this battle was not won, it involved hundreds of faculty and students. Petitions and such that had gone on in relation to that protracted battle were also the source of important information about especially the progressive segment of the professors and teaching staff. And one thing that was actually important is that a considerable amount of effort was made to leaflet the science building at the time of key class changes. A biologist from this campus had an author's event around the release of his book at Revolution Books, but more fundamentally, as was the case in the campus upsurges of the '60s, many, many people not majoring in the social sciences do also care deeply about the world and the world we want to bring into being must comprehend all these important spheres!

So, these various classes were leafleted at key class times. There was also "flash leafleting" in a number of the larger undergraduate classes right before class would begin sometimes including a quick and short agitational statement on the theme of the upcoming speech when there was an opportunity. Some professors welcomed this, some professors had not shown up for their class yet, and A FEW professors encouraged their classes to attend. These ways of reaching the student were completely unorthodox and added to the idea of rebellious thinking.

Many of the undergraduate dorms were also leafleted, mainly by students we met who lived in the dorms who took in leaflets. Our crew leafleted from the outside by knowing the schedule when students left to go to campus and came back for their meals. Some cafeterias were open to the public, and where they were, we sometimes joined the diners.

5. There were also additional "supplemental" elements that proved very important and that we heard a lot of comments about: Various quotes by Bob Avakian and the quote above from the "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have" were made into leaflet-sized mini posters, and one of these would get posted on every bathroom door stall and bulletin board that could be found for a day or two, and then we would do another quote for another two days. Which quotes we selected came out of our evening summation meetings of what we were learning in taking out and joining these questions with the students. It was interesting that the bathroom stall posters provided a means to run a "thread" with students debating the subject matter right on the posted leaflet and this "thread" ended up being two sided, some students writing pro-capitalist stuff or anti-communist stuff, and others criticizing those students' viewpoints.

Attention was paid to getting passes to the library which is for students only, since many students holed up there, so that the bulletin boards and the bathroom stalls there could be postered.

There were also full size color posters lining the walks from the dorms. This was done via "flash postering," with 100s prepared the night before and the best routes were mapped out where they should be put up like on the walks from the dorms to the campus. A very early morning crew went out and put them all up within a couple of hours so that when the students started arriving on campus that day, it was like when the flowers all of a sudden blossoming in the spring.

"Table Tents" (made by attaching together along the sides three palm card size promo materials) were placed at the center of every table in the student union coffee shop and cafeterias that could be reached.

A chalking-on-the-sidewalk graffiti battle also ensued after some students who were ardent defenders of capitalism had written a challenge to the Lotta event.

6. We went to various clergy and other progressive people in the neighborhood where the University is located about this event and caught a number of students who lived in those neighborhoods in the process. We also tried to meet with various professors and forge some beginning ties in some key departments.

And there is probably more that I am not remembering today, but these are some of the key elements that actually were part of a systematic plan that continued to develop and get enriched as we went along, that flowed from fighting through on puncturing the atmosphere on this campus in relation to the history of the communist revolution and the possibilities to fight for a new stage. This was a lot of work, and full of all kinds of controversy and challenges—and was a great deal of fun—and resulted in a glimpse of what could be possible...

In retrospect, there were also weaknesses to what we did. The key weakness, and one which we cannot afford with the work to build the upcoming premieres, was a failure to consistently enough find the ways to involve students in this and build relations with them going into this. Some of this was done; but again, not enough and not nearly systematically enough. Getting those relationships going where students who are interested are also challenged and drawn upon to actually help build it in many different ways, and where this activity further provokes their thinking and questioning not only could have made this event even more powerful, but it would have laid much more of a basis for people to come out with real ties to the movement for revolution.

In going on campus to build the premieres of BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS!, it'll be important to keep in mind the lessons above and even perhaps some of the specific ideas (though the point here is to learn and apply, rather than mechanically copy)... but we'll need to do all that in a way that much more draws out and draws on the potential initiative of the students themselves. We should be looking to bring cores of students—who already know each other through class, or who live in the same dorm, or are on the same sports teams, in clubs, what have you—as groups to these premieres. Sometimes it'll be one person in this who gets really deeply into seeing/hearing/experiencing BA, and it'll mean working with her or him to bring others along, who will also get something out of it and get into it. As we do so we need to be learning, and we need to be leading the people who do play a sort of "core of the core" role to understand and deal with the questions, both honest and slanderous, that they'll be presented with.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.