Revolution #216, November 14, 2010

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

from Chapter Seven: "...Are Beyond Your Command"

Family Conflicts

Huey and Bobby formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966, and shortly after that Eldridge joined up with them. I've written about this elsewhere, but it may be hard today to realize just how radical and, yes, shocking the Panthers were when they came onto the scene. Here you had Black youth, dressed in uniforms of black leather jackets and berets; carrying guns not to use in "gang warfare" but to defend the masses against police violence; and attempting to apply Mao's Red Book1 to making revolution in America. This took everything to a whole other level. There was nothing remotely like this on the scene in terms of the specter it raised and the impact it had, and I'll get more into this in the next chapter. But here I want to speak to the impact that my relations with the Panthers had on my relations with my family.

A little while after the Black Panther Party formed, I began working with and supporting them, and even writing articles for their paper. And with that, I really crossed a line with both my family and Liz's family — and Liz herself. I remember there was something almost like a "summit meeting" where both sets of parents came over to our apartment and basically read me the riot act for what was I doing.

Liz's father, who was the most political, actually tried to engage me on an ideological level, criticizing the Black Panther Party for speaking in the name of the "lumpen proletariat" as if that were the most revolutionary force. The Panthers were really talking about sections of Black people who were largely proletarians, in and out of jobs, especially a lot of youth — while the "lumpen proletariat" actually refers more to people whose whole life is centered around crime. Now there aren't hard and fast divisions there, especially when you're talking about an oppressed people, but really the people the Panthers were rallying were a lot of proletarian youth by and large. Some of them had been in jail, because that was the situation for huge numbers of Black people, especially youth, at that time (and it is even more the case now). And they were constantly harassed by the police. But a lot of them were also in and out of jobs and actually had a more proletarian position.

Anyway, Liz's father was arguing with me: "The lumpen proletariat is not a revolutionary force. You're making a big mistake here." He tried to argue with me ideologically and politically as to why the Panthers were wrong and why I was wrong to be uniting and working closely with them. It ran the whole gamut, though. All of the parents were arguing that I was wrecking everybody's future — my future, Liz's future, everybody's future was being dragged down by what I was doing. So this was very intense and emotional.

My relationship with Liz was going through changes as well. As I said, when we first met Liz was more politically experienced, more politically advanced, more politically active than I was, and she had a very positive influence on me in that kind of way. But at a certain point — and I'll try to get into some of the complexity of it — she began to pull back from more radical positions, and especially to pull back from political activism. Now, part of the basis for that was that the women's movement was beginning to develop, feminist ideas were beginning to be brought forward more forcefully within the movement and also more broadly in society, even though this was the beginning stages of that, the mid to late 1960s. She was beginning to examine her own life and her own role in things, and she also had criticisms of our relationship because there were aspects of it that were more traditional, even though we shared a lot of intellectual interests and political beliefs. She was upset, for example, that when I dropped out of school, she was working while I was being a political activist and she felt like this is the traditional way in which things have always been done — a woman working to support a guy while he pursues his interests — although that situation did change once I got a job at Ramparts and we were both earning money.

But there were a lot of different aspects to this. Women were examining their position and role in society — and they were demanding changes in their personal relations. Liz was part of that in an overall sense, but one aspect of this was that she began to see things more in personal terms, to more and more turn inward, and to pull back from involvement in political struggles. As I was coming to see the problem as the whole system and starting to consider the question of communism, I remember at one point we had an argument where she was reading this book and she said, "Listen to this. Listen to this." And she read from this book where one of the characters says: "One nurse holding one bedpan in one hospital one night has done more good for humanity than all the communists in the world." Liz was reading this in a way that made clear that she agreed with it. And I said, "You know, that's exactly wrong. That's exactly upside down."

This kind of captured the different directions our lives were taking. I was struggling with her, "Look, we've got to become more radical, more revolutionary." As part of this, I was talking about moving from Berkeley — where we were living — to Richmond, which, as I mentioned before, is a more proletarian town. "We've got to go and integrate with the proletariat and take radical politics to the proletariat." So we were having a lot of struggle because she was resisting that. She was still progressive, she still had enlightened views on all these questions, she was still sympathetic to these struggles; but, partly out of feminist concerns and partly out of the fact that, as exemplified by this passage she read from that book, she didn't see how you could change things on a big scale in society, she was turning away from efforts to do that. She thought that the enemy was too powerful, that what you were up against was too great, or that in any case this wasn't the right way to go about changing things. More, the idea that started gaining currency with her was that you should change people individually or one at a time — people should seek change "within" and that would ultimately lead to change in society. So we were going in very different directions at that time, and it was a very emotionally difficult thing because we still shared a lot in common, but we had these fundamental differences about the direction of our lives and our priorities were becoming very different.

To be continued

1. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1966). [back]

Insight Press • Paperback $18.95
Hear Bob Avakian read sections from his memoir.

Go online to or

Send us your comments.

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

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond