Revolution Online, November 18, 2009

Raymond Lotta Campus Tour at University of Chicago:

"A glimmer of what it looks like when we begin to crack open the atmosphere on the universities..."

From a reader:

On Wednesday, November 11, the University of Chicago stop of the Raymond Lotta campus tour, "Everything You've Been Told about Communism is Wrong! Capitalism is a Failure, Revolution is the Solution," was about to begin. The 290 seat lecture hall was filled, with an additional 30 to 40 students on the floor and in the aisles. Seats of anyone who left early were quickly filled. The audience was overwhelmingly students from the University of Chicago, joined by a smattering of alumni, Hyde Park residents and those on Revolution Books email lists. It was even reported that students from a college campus in downtown had taken a cab to be there.

This was really a fantastic and sharply joined event. This gave a glimmer of what it looks like when we begin to crack open the atmosphere on the universities ... when the debate starts to rip around "you have been lied to about the real history of revolution and actual promise of communism...and we can prove it." One goal of this whole Tour has been to issue a provocative challenge—and at the University of Chicago a large number of students seemed both provoked and challenged!

A front page story in the campus newspaper, the Maroon, was headlined, "Lotta asks students to reconsider communism," and captured themes of the presentation: "Lotta said he wanted to 'clear away confusion' about socialism and communism. It's amazing what passes for intellectual rigor on communism." The article quoted moderator Sunsara Taylor that the tour is meant to "challenge the conventional wisdom that communism is a failed project" and quoted from Lotta's presentation, "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."

People got a substantive, hard to dismiss, and stirring-to-their-best-aspirations talk.

The Q&A was substantive, lively and at times heated. There was contesting of Lotta's presentation from students who strongly disagreed with the summation that the socialist experience thus far was mainly positive. One questioner alleged that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 30 million during the Great Leap Forward. At least one audience member held up a sign "citations" addressed to Lotta, while other students expressed their dismay at the failure of student questioners to back up their claims with citations. There were students arguing for a theoretical model of "pure capitalism" (i.e. one that has not been put in practice) while others were much more critical of capitalism but could not envision how socialist planning could possibly be responsive in a timely way to the constant changes and demands of complicated, modern societies.

Lotta lived up to the billing of taking on all comers. He worked out of the framework of the new synthesis of Bob Avakian and used that to frame the discussion of big questions like overcoming the historical division between mental and manual labor while fostering the role of intellectuals in socialist society; solid core with a lot of elasticity; the role of dissent and critical thinking; etc. He took the student's questions at their best, addressed not only the questions, but a lot of the premises and material reality underlying them. He left people with a lot they couldn't dismiss and will likely be buzzing about, investigating, and trying to either shore up or open up in their thinking. 

At the Revolution Books table afterwards, a student came up and his first question was, "If I am going to read one thing by Bob Avakian so I can learn more about his new synthesis, what would it be?" Since he didn't have any money, he took down the title of the Manifesto from the RCP,USA—Communism: The Beginning of A New Stageto read online.

On the way out of Lotta's speech, those who stopped to talk expressed appreciation for the presentation and conveyed in different ways that they were intrigued/provoked but still not convinced—not surprisingly. One Chinese student who said he grew up mainly in the U.S., explained that he visited China a couple of years ago and there was a lot of nostalgia for Mao, but he couldn't figure out why ... until he heard this presentation. A student from China noted the irony that she had to come to a lecture in the U.S. to learn about the Cultural Revolution.

The University of Chicago is an elite institution which gives weight to the transformative power of ideas. Students are trained to value theory, critical thinking, and the role of intellectual challenges and rigor. The campus has a 2 to 1 ratio of grad students to undergrads and academic life is all consuming, especially for the undergrads. This posed some short term obstacles in getting to know students, but overall the intellectual rigor was and is a strategic strength for the Communist project.

This IS a campus that takes ideas very seriously. When we told these students that they have been lied to, they both genuinely cared if that was indeed the case and they were indignant at the suggestion that they could be being had intellectually. What do you mean? All undergraduate students at the university study Marx and Engels as part of the core curriculum, so how could anyone say that what they knew about communism was wrong?

University of Chicago is also the home of the infamous Chicago School of economics, now institutionalized in the Milton Friedman Institute—so the macro questions of capitalism are very much in the air here and in conflict with a growing crisis of confidence in capitalism even among a few of its intellectual adherents. A professor said a year ago that students were not anxious to study Marx but now they are eager.

There are also a large number of Chinese students—from the U.S. as well as abroad, including from China—who are attending the university and who made up an important section of the audience. Judging from some of the discussions and their responses to Lotta's speech, the event tapped into some openness. The University of Chicago is opening a branch in Beijing in 2010.

The campus was saturated (flyering at class change, large classes) and with the new materials that were developed throughout the tour, itself an application of theory/practice/theory. The new leaflet developed after the NYU stop outlined the four points of the speech and the questions asked at NYU and was widely used. The students recognized the need to hear the best proponent for this position. Thousands of copies of Lotta's open letter to Tony Judt and Sunsara Taylor's letter to students ("The Furthest Thing From Your Minds") were distributed.  Students read these and periodically commented on what it provoked in their thinking to event organizers.

When students were asked "how did you hear about it?" more than a few replied "how could I NOT have heard about it?" There were secondary forms utilized in the run up to the event—like short pithy quotes posted up all over (including inside bathroom doors). There were full color posters lining the walks from the dorms and "table tents" on all the dining and study tables throughout the campus advertising the event, etc. One short quote with particular resonance came from the message and call of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA "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.

There were a number of people who told organizers that they watched Lotta on youtube, including some workers who were unloading trucks on campus said they had been discussing it too.

Revolution #177, September 27, 2009, "The Raymond Lotta Campus Tour: A Very Big Deal Indeed!" put it this way: "If on this foundation we can open up debate, if we can open up ferment, if we can spark thinking on those terms—and the sharper the debate, the better—then we can begin to fight for this. If we can engage students in really thinking about all this, then—but only then—we have a fighting chance."

This fighting chance was brought to life and must now be further seized.

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