Revolution #247, October 9, 2011

Debate and Controversy at Harvard: Two Constitutions, Two Futures

Revolution received the following correspondence:

I was part of a team taking out the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic of North America (Draft Proposal) from the RCP at the recent Conference on a Constitutional Convention held at Harvard, co-sponsored by the Law School and the Tea Party Patriots. It was quite a time!

In the week leading up to the conference, we were out on the main Harvard campus, with a 4' x 6' placard of the new Constitution and an Open Letter to the Harvard community from political economist and writer for Revolution, Raymond Lotta. We were meeting hundreds of students -- many of them first year, who got the Open Letter and began checking out the new Constitution. Things really started to heat up once an op- ed from Lotta, "Two Constitutions, Two Futures," appeared in the official student paper, the Harvard Crimson, the Thursday before the conference. We immediately printed up the op- ed in quantity and made a large poster out of it, while an artist made a large image of the cover of the new Constitution.

Most students didn’t even know the conference was going on and were extremely upset about the Tea Party being invited onto campus. Many were still checking things out and wanted to read the op- ed before considering getting the new Constitution. Even though they were upset, some didn’t think it was that big a deal. "Harvard is always hosting these kinds of events," was a common refrain. We had to point to what it meant that the reactionary Tea Party was getting this kind of platform and legitimacy in the name of dialogue.

The op- ed took on a life of its own. For almost a week it remained one of the top five read articles online at the Crimson, for a time reaching number one (competing with "Harvard’s 15 Hottest Freshmen" and "Harvard Scientist Questions ‘Faster than Light’ Particle"). Within a week of its appearance, there were over a 160 posts. This is almost unheard of at the Crimson. One editor said most opinion pieces usually only get 30 or 40 follow-up posts. Other websites started picking it up. One progressive professor told us that several of his colleagues had read the op-ed and asked him what he knew about Raymond Lotta.

Most of the posts were anti-communist, repeating conventional wisdom and standard distortions about the history of communism. But embedded in the conversations were very serious questions: around the defeat of the previous socialist revolutions, whether people could be motivated by something other than material incentive and what would be the new socialist state’s attitude towards dissent. A number of posters, including people opposing the editorial, went to the new Constitution website and drew on sections to make their arguments.

Even before the appearance of the op-ed, we had taken the new Constitution to an organizing meeting for the October 6 antiwar demonstration planned for Washington, D.C. There were about 20 students, with a number of veterans of the Alberta Tar Sands protest action. Afterwards, I was talking with one first-year student about coming to Harvard -- what were her aspirations, how were they being realized. She bluntly told me that her aspirations for a better world were not being met and she bought a copy of the new Constitution, while signing up to go to D.C. We ran into one another later on the campus and I asked her if she had started reading it. She said she had only cracked it but gave me her phone number and said we would talk more once she got into it--maybe on the ride down to D.C.

That weekend, a team went to the conference itself. We weren’t sure what to expect but we dove into it, handing out the op-ed to participants as they came in. There were people from all over the country from as far away as the west coast and the southwest. We mainly talked with people at breaks and lunch outside. While a number of backward Tea Party came out, I was struck by the number of progressives and liberals who had come with an almost desperate desire to find some basis to struggle over answers to bigger social question.

I approached people with a copy of the op-ed, "Two Constitutions, Two Futures," and the new Constitution. Most of the participants were not from the campus and had not seen the op-ed or had only gotten it that morning.

One of the first people I met introduced himself as a libertarian from Vermont who supports Bernie Sanders, the only self-described socialist in Congress. Before we even began to get into the Constitution, he told me how the recent Hurricane Irene had devastated his community, a small town nestled along a river in one of the many valleys of the state and he had just been able to get out the day before after three weeks of digging out. "I woke up and it sounded like a semi idling outside my door. I looked out and there was a river where the street had been.” He told me that he was a town official and they had spent the first three days after the hurricane combing the mountains above the town for survivors. He described how there had been little to no government aid to date and how it was only because of the initiative of people from other parts of the country that they had got as far as they had.

This led into a back and forth about what the new Constitution says about organizing the economy of a socialist society and how you could actually organize a society so that the interests of the people were at the forefront and where responses to natural disasters would be approached in a fundamentally different way by the government and society as a whole. We got into the government’s murderous clampdown in the wake of Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti and he expressed some real anguish and frustration over what was continuing to happen in both places.

When he bought the new Constitution, he told me he probably wouldn’t agree with a lot of it but kept coming back to the leaders don’t care anymore. If it was left to the leaders in Washington nothing would ever change. I told him that it is the system of capitalism that "doesn’t care" about the interests of the people but also that we do have a leader in Bob Avakian, who not only cares deeply about the people, but has also applied all his resources and thinking to determining a way out of this. He left promising to read the new Constitution and think about what we had talked about.

I had heard that in the last plenary before lunch, Raymond Lotta had spoken from the floor, calling on participants to take up the new Constitution and sharply admonishing the liberal and progressive organizers for seeking common ground with the proto-fascist Tea Party Patriots. As I approached a group eating lunch after a plenary, I asked people what they had thought of Lotta’s comments and if they had read the editorial while showing them the new Constitution.

One of the men immediately responded by saying that we had lost all credibility with him after Lotta spoke. "He was too strident and too dismissive about the people at the conference from the Tea Party. This conference is about having a civil dialogue to address serious problems in this country. How can we ever get anywhere, if we can’t sit down together and talk? How could your guy get up and accuse them of being racists and anti-immigrant? He doesn’t even know who they are!"

When I started to respond that we know plenty about the Tea Party’s political agenda and program, their anti-immigrant rants in Arizona, their call for a return to "States’ Rights" he shot back, "I don’t want to debate you!" Another man nodded in agreement.

I turned to the other guy and he acknowledged that maybe it was good that Lotta had raised some issues of content and not simply the form because the conference organizers were all talking about setting aside all political and ideological differences to have this civil dialogue and he wasn’t sure how that was possible.

We went back and forth and it became clear that both guys were actually very progressive and cared deeply about issues of the environment, imperialist wars of aggression and the oppression of women. I kept coming back to the fact that the Tea Party had a political agenda, which is vicious and reactionary -- no matter how "civil" their representatives at this conference were -- these were the people who cheered when Dr. George Tiller was murdered by anti-abortionists, who have accused Obama of being a socialist (which he isn’t) of all things! The real debate needed to be over "two different Constitutions, two different vision of the future" because the problem wasn’t simply the Tea Party but that the original Constitution itself is an exploiters’ vision of freedom.

Finally I asked the one guy, "In the days leading up to this conference of ‘reasoned discourse’ on getting back to the intent of the framers of the original Constitution, the state of Georgia executed a 42-year-old Black man, Troy Davis (even though there was overwhelming reason to believe he was innocent). The leading Republican presidential candidate and Tea Party favorite Rick Perry, applauded this execution, while Obama, the current Democratic president and supposed representative of the progressive people, said nothing at all. This was all done legally, under the framework provided by The Constitution of the United States. There is something deeply wrong with a society where this is allowed to happen and on a regular basis. There is a point where people know enough that they have to take action and it is not acceptable to turn their eyes away. This new Constitution presents a radically different model of how society can work and radically different terms on which people can relate to one another -- radically different and far better. It is a roadmap on how to get rid of this kind of bullshit once and for all. You need to engage with it. Are you prepared to do that?"

When I had mentioned Troy Davis’s name, he started nodding his head and was clearly very moved in thinking about what had just gone down in Georgia. As he bought the Constitution he vowed he would read it and try to communicate his thoughts around it.

A number of other people in and outside of the conference bought copies of the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic of North America (Draft Proposal) and it turned out that the sharp contestation inside had not just "turned people off" but actually clarified for some what the real terms of debate were and need to be. And many participants left feeling it was a good thing the revolutionary communists had jumped into the fray. One of our mottos going forward should be less civility and more reality!

Those of us who had spent a lot of time on the campus are still striving to assess how to bust this out more here and beyond. The combination of the editorial and our presence on the campus has generated a real buzz and a number of people commented to one another that we were the same people promoting BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian (one guy visiting from Switzerland told us he had gotten a copy of BAsics from someone on the street in New York City). But we have a ways to go. One person described the situation where there is a lot beneath the surface but we still haven’t achieved the synergy where all the different aspects and facets of building a movement for revolution come together to really bust this open. This is our challenge.

A reader


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