A couple of us were invited to speak in an “anti-oppression social work class” at a major university. The professor had assigned students to read the pamphlet with four articles by Bob Avakian (BA) “On Opposing 'Woke' Distractions and Obstructions," and wanted us to lead a discussion on this. This was a great opportunity to directly take on the identity politics framework which lots of people think is “radical,” particularly on college campuses, but which is actually a huge obstacle to understanding the world scientifically and uniting to change it in a revolutionary way—and to contrast this with revolution and the new communism of Bob Avakian.
We gave an opening presentation starting with what a real revolution is (as opposed to reforms within this system), why it’s desperately needed in order to deal with the huge problems facing humanity, and why the deep crisis and divisions in this society mean that revolution is more possible now than in “normal” times. And in that context, we got into why we urgently need to change the situation where the white supremacist fascists are on the march, whereas way too many of the “decent” people are preoccupied with dictating what parts of reality can be talked about, and by whom, canceling people for using the wrong words, rather than joining together to cancel this capitalist-imperialist system which is the source of oppression.
We had prepared a bunch of questions in case we needed to give more guidance to get the discussion going. But right away we were off and running with the debate. This was really exciting and also challenging, and we learned a lot in the process. Here’s just a taste of what happened:
* Right off the bat people raised a bunch of questions about what we mean by revolution. Is it like January 6, but with a different ideology? Is it a “physical” thing? We clarified that revolution is more than just a protest—it means defeating and dismantling this system’s forces of violent repression and seizing power. So yes, revolution ultimately is “physical,” but it has to be the act of millions, not a small group, and it can only happen in certain conditions: when the system is in a profound crisis and unable to rule in the old way people are used to, when millions of people are ready to fight for revolution, and when there is an organized revolutionary force that can lead those millions. This brought us back to the fact that right now this system is in a deepening crisis, but most people are going along with it, turning away from the larger reality and focusing on themselves and their small circles, relying on the Democratic Party (which is part of this oppressive system, and unable to deal with the Republican fascist threat), or thinking they’re “woke” by attacking people with a little more privilege, rather than targeting this capitalist-imperialist system that’s the cause of so much inequality and oppression. This is what needs to change, in short order!
* People were trying to understand our critique of “identity politics,” and whether it means we are erasing identity. A student brought up the experience and trauma of being Black in America. Another brought up the significance of trans identity in a society that’s so hostile to trans people. We made clear that each of these “identities”—being Black, or trans, or an immigrant from Mexico, or a woman—are real social groups, with real histories and present day realities of oppression under this system. The question is, how to END that oppression. “Woke” identity politics focuses on getting “inclusion” within this system, rather than getting rid of this system. It focuses on policing who has a “right to speak,” and who should lead, based on what identity people are, rather than basing things on what ideas people are actually putting forward. We spoke to this important point of epistemology (the theory of knowledge and truth): People who suffer oppression know what it feels like, and that experience should be listened to. But that is very different from understanding what is the root cause of oppression and how can it be ended—which people don’t understand automatically just because they’re oppressed. That takes science to dig beneath the surface of how this system works and the possibilities for radical change that lie within it. If you want to follow people just based on identity, you can go follow Kanye West and Candace Owens. But if you want to END oppression, you need scientific revolutionary leadership. This is what we have, at the highest level, in Bob Avakian. This definitely ruffled some people’s feathers. Someone raised why can’t we have “collective leadership,” why can’t everyone lead? We brought out the crucial work Bob Avakian has done, and continues to do, in terms of analyzing the dire situation we face and charting the roadmap for revolution, as well as developing the blueprint for a whole new society in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America—work which no one else has done. And as the sharpening crisis in this system unfolds, and people are increasingly confronted with reality and forced to question things they usually accept, it is critical that we bring this leadership to people so they can deeply understand what’s happening and what needs to be done in order to liberate themselves and all of humanity (which people will never understand spontaneously just because they’re oppressed), and not let anyone prevent us from bringing that to people just because Bob Avakian isn’t the proper “identity.”
* At this point several students started asking for details on the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic. What will the economy be like? Will there be freedom of speech? We talked about how the foundation of the economy will be public-state ownership of the means of production which enables us to have a planned economy and allocate resources based on social need, rather than the competitive chase for profit by a class of capitalist exploiters. We touched on the fact that dissent will not only be allowed, but given backing by the state. The professor raised that he thought the concerns of the students were like the song from The Who with the lyrics, “Meet the new boss same as the old boss.” He asked us to read some from the socialist Constitution, and said that he had a question about what will happen to religion. Will there be unity with religious people or will their religion be suppressed? We opened up the socialist Constitution and read the beginning of Article II, Section 2, 3F on religion:
The right to religious belief and religious practice shall not be denied or abridged, except in the case of violation of the law and through due process of law. At the same time, religion and religious practice may not be used to carry out exploitation and to accumulate private capital, in violation of the law, or to engage in violation of the law in some other way; nor may religious persons, groups, or institutions be granted rights or privileges which do not apply to the people in this Republic in general.
The right not to practice religion or to hold religious beliefs, and to propagate atheism, shall also be upheld.
While it was important to address people’s questions and bring in some of the texture of what the new system will be like, it was also necessary to emphasize the complexity of all this and the need for anyone who really wants revolution to get into this work more deeply.
* The professor also asked us to speak more to the accusation of “cult” about Bob Avakian. One student said something about Bob Avakian running for office and money being raised for that. When asked what her evidence of this is, she answered that she saw it on Google! This led us into a discussion about the recent attacks on Bob Avakian and Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, and the straight-up lies and slander being spread in order to get people to not engage with what he’s actually saying. We also talked about COINTELPRO and the long history of the U.S. government fomenting division and spreading misinformation in order to attack revolutionary leaders (and even set them up to be killed), and we challenged students to be more sophisticated in looking for actual evidence, rather than just believing anything that they see on the internet.
* One student raised that BA’s article “Pronouns and Starving Children” seemed to be trivializing pronouns, and why can’t we care about two things at once? We read the end of the article:
I am not here to argue about what pronouns people use—but I am here to argue about what people’s priorities should be: focusing on things like pronouns, or becoming part of a serious revolutionary struggle to transform the world so that the monstrous system of capitalism-imperialism, all the very real horrors it imposes on the masses of humanity, and the very real threat it poses to the future of humanity, will be swept away.
As one glaring example of people’s priorities being WAY OFF and the real world harm this does, we talked about how Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights was leading masses in struggle against the fascist overturning of Roe v. Wade, but then came under attack for allegedly being “transphobic” simply for using the word “women” when talking about abortion, rather than “people with uteruses.” These attacks intimidated a lot of people and became an excuse for many of them to capitulate, rather than continue fighting to restore abortion rights. There was a lot more we got into about why it is necessary to be accurate about who are the main targets of abortion bans—WOMEN—even as we encompass the fact that a tiny number of trans men also need abortions and should have access to them without discrimination. But the key thing was drawing a line on the harm of this identity politics, the way good people are being intimidated and silenced by it, and the need for anyone who sincerely wants to change the world to SPEAK UP and not accept the terms of these “woke” haters.
* Toward the end of the discussion, a student posed to one of us (a woman) that you're against identity yet you're passionate about abortion because you're a woman, but not as passionate about trans issues because you’re not trans. One of us (a guy) spoke about the fact that our most fundamental “identity” is as a human being, and human beings should care about other human beings who are suffering unnecessarily. He talked about what women are going through already in the states where abortion is illegal, and the responsibility of EVERYONE to fight this, rather than using identity as an excuse to do nothing. The other of us (the woman the question was addressed to) vividly described a story she’d read about a mother and her child in Madagascar who worked in a mine producing minerals that go into makeup, a child who didn’t know what it meant to go to school, to interact with other children and play. She talked about her own process of coming to understand these are “my people,” recognizing this system of capitalism-imperialism as the source of the horrors they are being put through, and not bickering over identity. And she connected this to the ugly racism we’ve seen in the LA city council, and the ways people get pitted against each other rather than uniting in a struggle to emancipate all of humanity.
At the end of the class the professor expressed his appreciation for both of us who led the discussion and how we held our ground. He said that he has defended BA and is firmly convinced this is not a cult. He said he often agrees with BA’s analyses, but not always with his conclusions.
Overall, we reflected on how exciting it was to be doing this kind of rapid-fire ideological struggle throughout the whole class. This is exactly the kind of debate we need to be stirring up everywhere, and especially on the college campuses. We need to recognize that there is no repolarization for revolution without polarization, without making some people uncomfortable and pissed off, because we are disrupting their comfort zones and “woke” ways of accommodating to the world as it is. A couple students in the class were more antagonistic to this revolution, and several others were trying to poke holes in our arguments. While we didn’t answer every question perfectly, and are still learning how to do this better, we felt that through the course of the debate we were able to sharpen up and clarify for people some key dividing lines around reform vs. revolution, the new socialist state power, experience of oppression vs. a scientific understanding of problem/solution, the real-world harm of this “woke” stuff, and the difference between proceeding from identity vs. the emancipation of humanity.
In doing this, we got a deeper appreciation for the importance of bringing people back to what Bob Avakian is actually saying in these articles, and to keep resetting terms with the larger reality he’s shining a light on, and the real choices we face. After the class was over, one of us commented on the back and forth about BA’s article on “Pronouns and Starving Children”:
I felt some of the pulls of tailing some of this shit or letting that set the terms. At first, I was kind of quiet, but I was looking at the piece and trying to think about what is BA doing here? Why is he going at this question, what is he trying to get people to understand? We started walking through the piece with people, and I came in and just read out loud the last paragraph, that gets to the point! As I was reading it out loud it brought me back to the harm of the attacks on Rise Up and BA, what was this woke shit and battle over pronouns, why was this harmful in the face of the Supreme Court taking away abortion rights.
While many students nodded in agreement with what we were saying, no one signed up on the spot. So we are still thinking about how we can do better at drawing forward the better side of people, realigning and recruiting. But we thought that we definitely provoked people and that these ideas will be circulating in their heads. We challenged students to learn more about Bob Avakian and the revolution he leads in the new interview with him on The RNL Show, and we really hope they’re tuning in! All in all, we felt that this is the kind of thing we need to be doing much more of—going right up against these “woke” distractions and obstructions, lifting people’s sights, bringing people Bob Avakian straight up, and challenging them to get with this revolution and its leadership.
Lastly, to all the professors out there: Invite us into your classrooms, we’re ready to do this any time!