FSM Reflections
On Becoming a Revolutionary

by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA

November 17, 1996 | Revolution Newspaper #882 | revcom.us


Perhaps the most vivid memory I have of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) is not the many rallies and demonstrations, nor the moving speeches by Mario Savio, nor even the mass arrest of the 800, among whom I have always been proud to count myself. Probably my most vivid memory is the event that was the immediate prod that compelled me to join the FSM in the first place. In the midst of the "police car incident"—while hundreds of students were blocking the car where police had placed Jack Weinberg, preparing to take him to jail for refusing to fold up political organizing on campus—I attended a reception given by Chancellor Strong for undergraduate honors students. One of the students there asked the Chancellor to explain what was going on with the protest, and his explanation was that the University Administration had been contacted by the management of the Oakland Tribune and asked to do something to stop campus organizing for civil rights demonstrations aimed at the Tribune because of its discriminatory hiring and employment practices. Well, I wondered what the Chancellor was intending to say because, having grown up in Berkeley, I had long seen the Tribune as a particularly forceful and crude voice of dark-ages conservatism—among other things, its principal owner, William F. Knowland, was often called William "Formosa" Knowland because of his especially rabid opposition to the Chinese revolution led by Mao Tsetung, which had driven American-backed Chiang Kai-Shek off the mainland of China and onto the island of Formosa (Taiwan). Chancellor Strong went on to say that, in response to this urging by the Tribune, the University Administration—which already banned on-campus organizing for "off-campus political issues"—had looked into the matter and had discovered that an area near the southern entrance to the campus, where political literature tables and organizing were centered, was not City property, as they had previously thought, but was actually University property, and therefore they had moved to put a stop to the civil rights and other political activity that was going on there.

I couldn't believe it—I was shocked! Not just by the content of what Strong was saying but by the fact that he didn't even try to disguise it or dress it up—he didn't see anything wrong, or even controversial, about what he was telling us, and it was clear he didn't expect that we would either—apparently he thought that, being "model students," we would be also be "model citizens": narrow-minded, self-centered "grade-grubbers" in training to become "money-grubbers" and loyal upholders of the status quo. As others have pointed out, and as I was to learn more fully as I became active in the movement, the university has always been very political: it plays a major role in the functioning of the military and other institutions of the state, and of finance and industry, as well as playing a decisive part in the shaping of information—in short, it is a key part of the machinery of the ruling class—and the students are expected to play their small, and passive, role within this.

I immediately left the Chancellor's reception, walked over to the sit-in around the police car, got in line to speak and, when my turn came, climbed on the car and told the others there what the Chancellor's "explanation" had been and that, as a result, I was joining in the protest and donating my $100 honor-student honorarium to the cause. Although I did not yet know it, this was a turning point in my life, as it was for many others. And, while the incident that, in immediate terms, propelled me into the movement had its own peculiarities, there were deeper causes influencing all of us who became part of the movement. As a number of others have also pointed out in reflecting on the experience of the FSM and its larger context, it was not merely about student rights in the abstract or in themselves but about the right—and, yes, the responsibility—to support and take part in the struggle against the glaring injustices in American society as a whole, especially the oppression of Black people. Had this not been the case, the FSM would not have had the great attractive force that it did.

At the time, I personally felt this in a very powerful way. When I entered college, I was already a strong supporter of the civil rights movement—except that I did not agree with the insistence on non-violence under all circumstances. Long before I became a revolutionary, I had come to feel strongly that Black people had the right to defend themselves against the brutality of the KKK and the police—who, as we know, were and are often literally the same people. My stand on this had been shaped by the fact that I was extremely fortunate to attend a high school, Berkeley High, which for many decades has had a large number of Black students: some became close friends of mine, and both their personal stories and the larger experience of Black people that I was made aware of—the horrendous atrocities as well as the daily outrages and insults they were subjected to—burned into me very militant feelings about fighting against this oppression and made me recognize the rightness as well as the righteousness of Malcolm X's stand that this fight should be waged by any means necessary. My commitment to the fight for Black people's rights was an essential reason why, once I became aware of the larger dimensions and implications of the FSM, I threw myself into it and never turned back.


But I don't mean to suggest that this was all one-dimensional or "straight-line ahead." There were also other factors influencing me—and many people—in terms of political attitude and involvement and, as with all things, this was a process of development, with a number of factors leading up to a major change. For example, the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the whole world was dragged right to the brink of nuclear war, had a very profound effect on me—not just in a general sense but also in shaking the belief I still retained, despite my anger about the treatment of Black people, in the institutions and government leaders in the U.S. One thing in particular I remember: In a speech at the time, President Kennedy justified his actions, in putting a naval blockade around Cuba and declaring that any attempt to break the blockade would constitute an act of war, by claiming that the placing of missiles in Cuba by the Soviet Union was, among other things, a violation of the UN Charter. I went to the University library, found the UN Charter and carefully read it over—naively expecting, or at least hoping, to find that it would literally say something about how the placing of missiles by the Soviet Union in Cuba was a violation of this Charter! Well, of course, I was frustrated in this—even after reading the Charter over several times, I could not find anything of the kind, nor could I even find something more general that might validate the basic point Kennedy was making, something about how it was a violation for one country to place missiles in another country. It was only later that I learned that the U.S. all along had missiles in Turkey, even closer to the Soviet border than the missiles in Cuba were to the U.S. border, but just having to face the fact that Kennedy had clearly lied, before the whole world and with the fate of the whole world at stake, had a profound impact in undermining my previously more or less blind belief in the institutions and leaders of my country.

This did not, by itself and immediately, propel me into opposition to the whole system, but it did raise fundamental doubts and questions and sharpen the critical spirit in me. For me, as for many others, when the FSM happened, in the context of the civil rights movement and other major developments in the U.S. and the world, many things "came together" and I made a leap in my outlook and my commitment. But, again, there was much back-and-forth within this. I remember at least one time, during the course of the FSM, when I was called by someone from one of the branches of FSM organization (they were called "Centrals," as I recall, and if I recall correctly there was even at one point a "Central Central"—or was that just a joke we told on ourselves?) and I was asked to help pass out a leaflet the next morning on campus. I resisted—I had homework and, after all, I couldn't give my whole life to the FSM!—but the person calling refused to accept "no" for an answer and eventually I agreed, cursing her as I slammed down the phone. She won out, however, not because she was more stubborn than me, but because, when all was said and done, I couldn't counter her argument that the FSM was a movement of people and it depended on the people involved to go up against the powerful foes digging in against it. This experience as someone newly involved, who was not a leader, not involved in the "inner sanctum" of decision-making, is something very valuable to me—something that continually serves as a point of reference to me—something that showed me both the necessity for leaders (I knew somebody had to make decisions and, while I definitely wanted to have my say and contribute to this, I knew I wasn't prepared to take a leadership level of responsibility) as well as the necessity for those who are not leaders to contribute as fully as possible, not just with their bodies but with their minds.


There were times when the leadership "lost me"—not for good and not fundamentally, but times when I resisted the direction they were giving—times, for example, when the maneuvers of the Administration made me wonder, momentarily, if our leaders were being "unreasonable." But then the Administration would once again reveal its real nature and intentions and win me back more firmly to the course the leadership was pursuing. There were times when I felt the leaders were "pushing things," trying to force us to draw connections that were beyond the bounds of our unity. For example, I remember that during the course of the Sproul Hall takeover that eventually ended in the 800 arrests, Mario reported on the latest maneuver by the other side and then said something about how this was just like what the U.S. government does in Vietnam. I was uncomfortable with this, because I had not yet made up my mind about Vietnam. But, in "telescoped" times like those, it was only a matter of a few more months, and some major developments in Vietnam and in the U.S.—including the assault on the civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama and the failure or refusal of the U.S. government to do anything to stop the attackers—before I came to see clearly that the U.S. government was not and could not be about trying to bring freedom to the people of Vietnam—and in coming to that recognition, the arguments of people I respected, such as Mario Savio, were a major influence.


Through all this—the whole rich process of the FSM and the larger movement of which it was an important part—there was an essential thrust of fighting against injustices that are bound up with the basic institutional structures and social relations in U.S. society. This comes through strongly in listening to the "Christmas Carols" ("Free Speech Carols") that were written at the time to build support and spread the message of the FSM, satirizing the Administration and the authorities generally and contrasting their aims with those of the movement (my favorites are still "Oski Dolls," to the tune of "Jingle Bells"; "U.C. Administration"; and "Joy to U.C."). Listening to these carols now, it strikes me that there is a contradiction expressed in them, between belief in the "democratic ideal" professed by the rulers of America and a desire to give true realization to that ideal, on the one hand, and on the other hand something deeper and more radical—a sense that the nature and purpose of the major institutions of American society, including but not limited to the university, is one in which the people are mere instruments to be used and manipulated for the benefit of those who control these institutions and whose concerns are not the needs and rights of the people but profit and might.

Certainly, this comes through in the powerful, still-haunting words of Mario Savio on the steps of Sproul Hall before the takeover: "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part, and you've got to put your bodies on the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

Acting on that challenge and pursuing it to its fullest expression has led me—not in a smooth, linear way but through a sinuous course marked by radical leaps—to the conviction that only a communist revolution, in the U.S. itself and throughout the world, can fully and finally uproot the injustices that we were rebelling against in the FSM and others that have since been brought more sharply into focus, including imperialist domination of oppressed peoples and nations, the oppression of women, the despoliation of the global environment, as well as the fundamental fact that the economy of the U.S. and the whole world economy is founded on the exploitation and plunder of the great majority of the world's people for the profit of a relative handful. And this conviction has been deepened through more than 25 years of being engaged in the struggle as a communist revolutionary.


It is easy to look at the difficulties that such a world-historic revolution involves—up against thousands of years of tradition's chains as well as the military might of the guardians of the old order, above all the rulers of imperial America itself—and decide to settle for something less. And this is all the more the case when the ruling classes, from Russia to China to the U.S., are seizing on the open abandonment of communism in the Soviet Union—or, to be more accurate, the fact that what existed there, since the time of Khrushchev, was a bourgeois society which is now only becoming more openly bourgeois—and on the fact that, after his death, the revolutionary China of Mao Tsetung was turned into yet another feasting ground for capital. On this basis, the "death" and the "failure" of communism are being loudly proclaimed. But, as Mao himself put it, speaking of the ascent to communism worldwide, "the road is tortuous, but the future is bright." It should not be surprising if the communist revolution, representing such a radical rupture in human history, cannot proceed straight ahead from one victory to another but instead will be marked by twists and turns, setbacks and reversals, as well as great leaps forward. And there is something that is ultimately more fundamental and more powerful than all the means of deception and of destruction in the arsenal of the reactionary ruling classes: the communist revolution conforms to the basic interests of the great majority of the world's people and represents the only road to the elimination of the conditions of exploitation and oppression that mean for them continual misery and agony, unspeakable and unnecessary privation and destruction which continue for the essential reason that capitalist imperialism thrives on and must maintain these things.

Nowadays especially, this is often dismissed as mere rhetoric, or some kind of anachronistic dogma, which is naive at best. But look around—and cast your gaze far and penetratingly—and tell me that the problems in the world are not as extreme or the causes as deep-seated as I have portrayed them. There are, of course, many who took part in the FSM, and have continued to fight, in their own way, against the same injustices which propelled them into struggle years ago—and there are new generations who are confronting for the first time the question of whether and how to fight the powers-that-be in order to right wrongs that are so glaring today—who have not become convinced that communist revolution is necessary, or desirable, or possible. I would urge them to take up, or to continue, the fight against the same evils that we confronted in the FSM and more generally in the '60s as well as those which have been brought more fully into focus since then; to follow their own convictions and carry on the struggle against this oppression and exploitation so long as it remains; and to have the same daring and determination to search for answers that marked the FSM and the movement of the '60s. Just as I have become firmly convinced that this will lead to the conclusion that communism is necessary, desirable, and possible, I have also become firmly convinced that the way to communism, while it has one main road, also must involve many different pathways leading ultimately into it, and that throughout the whole historical process of struggle to reach communism there will be the need for unity-struggle-unity between all those who do genuinely seek an end to exploitation and oppression.

The communism I am convinced must and will ultimately triumph is one that encompasses, and is enriched by, the "process of discovery" of people newly awakening to political life and newly involving themselves in the struggle to change the world, challenging convention and "conventional wisdom." It is a communism that, as a movement and as the future society, not only "makes room for" but gives the fullest expression to the kind of idealism that was a defining quality of the FSM, as given voice so eloquently in that speech by Mario Savio. Contrary to what is so often said, these days especially, it is not at all the case that communism makes no allowance for and cannot give flight to the human spirit—to suggest this is to misunderstand and vulgarize Marxist materialism. When Mao Tsetung called for combining revolutionary romanticism with revolutionary realism, in art and more generally, he was precisely rejecting mechanical materialist tendencies and speaking to the need to inspire people with the most lofty vision, and to do so in ways that unleash the imagination together with giving people a most profound understanding of reality and of the means for revolutionizing it.


If, in today's world, the things that were fought for in the FSM, and that found a birth, or rebirth, in the movement of that period, have not been fully achieved—if, in fact, the things that we were fighting against then are in some ways even more pronounced and entrenched—that is not a sign that the movement of that time, and since, has accomplished nothing of significance. Still less is it a sign that the movement at that time, especially in its most radical, revolutionary development, "went too far." Without doubt, the FSM was a high point. But it was also a beginning, and the unity it embodied was also full of contradiction, out of which new struggle was bound to emerge, or things could not have gone forward. The notion that, after the FSM and as the movement became more radical, things degenerated or went downhill is a misreading or rewriting of history that cannot stand. On the contrary, the problem is that, although it accomplished a great deal—so much that leading representatives of the ruling class find themselves compelled even today to make an attack on "the '60s" a major thrust of their program, while others try to co-opt aspects of "the '60s"—and although, in reality, the more radical it became the greater was its positive accomplishment, the fact is that the movement of that time did not go far enough. The same system is still in effect—the same fundamental relations, institutions, and ideas continue to dominate society and the world—all this remains to be overturned. And the basis to do so is not diminished—in fact it is objectively greater.

A great new beginning was made in the '60s and the FSM was a significant part of that. There remains a world to win. As Mao put it, so many deeds cry out to be done, and always urgently.