Revolution #130 May 25, 2008

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Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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From A World to Win News Service:

The Nakba: Ethnic cleansing and the birth of Israel

May 12, 2008. A World to Win News Service. On the occasion of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, we are reprinting the following article from the AWTWNS news packet of December 10, 2007, the anniversary of the beginning of the Nakba.

Palestinians call what happened to them beginning in 1947 the Nakba—Arabic for catastrophe. It was perpetrated by Zionist leaders looking to form the state of Israel on Palestinian land without the Palestinians.

During the Nakba almost a million Palestinians (half the population at that time) were brutally forced from their land, villages and homes, fleeing with only the possessions they could carry. Many were raped, tortured and killed. To ensure that there would be nothing for the Palestinians to return to, their villages and even many olive and orange trees were so well razed that few visible remnants remain. When the Nakba ended, there had been 31 documented massacres and probably others. Some 531 villages and 11 urban neighborhoods were emptied of their inhabitants.

Former Arabic village and road names were Hebrewized. Ancient mosques and Christian churches were destroyed. Theme parks, pine forests (trees not native to the region) and Israeli settlements sit atop many of the old Palestinian villages. All this was to wipe out any physical evidence that the land belonged to Palestinians and give finality to the Nakba.

How many times have you had a discussion about the plight of the Palestinians with supporters of the existence of the Israeli state and met the argument that the problem arose from Palestinian intolerance of Jewish settlers? How many people know—or admit—that from the beginning Zionism had planned to permanently expel the Palestinian people from their land? In many Western countries, Nakba denial is as obligatory as Holocaust denial is condemned. How did this happen?

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Israeli historian and senior lecturer at Haifa University Ilan Pappe, explores the period of the Nakba (One World Publisher, Oxford, 2006). The premise is that the Nakba was nothing less than an act of ethnic cleansing, normally regarded by international law as a crime against humanity. To support this theory, the author outlines various definitions from different current sources, including "an ethnically mixed area being turned into a pure ethnic space." He shows how the slaughter and/or forced expulsion of the Armenians in Turkey, the Tutsis in Rwanda and the Croatians and Bosnians in former Yugoslavia is akin to what the Zionists did to the Palestinians on a massive scale in 1948 and are still doing today. Pappe also draws a connection between ethnic cleansing and colonialism as it occurred in North and South America as well as Africa and Australia.

His research is based on primary sources: newly released material (1990s) from the Israeli military archives, David Ben-Gurion’s diary where summaries of many of his meetings are recorded, the rereading of the older archival material through the prism of the ethnic cleansing paradigm and extensive use of Palestinian oral history archives.

Pappe provides a brief historical background leading up to the Nakba and a few chapters at the end of the book about the situation today for Palestinians. The following is a very sketchy timeline of events leading up to the Nakba.

The first Zionist settlements began in 1878, when Palestine, like much of the Middle East, was a part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1917, with the end of WWI and the defeat of the Ottomans, the British army marched into Palestine and took over. Later that same year, the British Lord Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised a "national home" for the Jews on Palestinian land even though by most accounts, Jews constituted at most only 8 percent of the population and even less according to some estimates. The League of Nations legalized the British occupation by giving it a mandate to run Palestine. In 1938 major fighting between Jews and Palestinians broke out. The bombs of the Zionist military organization Irgun killed 119 Palestinians; Palestinian bombs killed eight Jews. In 1947 Britain told the newly formed United Nations that it would withdraw from Palestine. In November the UN formulized the plan to divide Palestine into two states. By December 1947, the Zionists began mass expulsions of Palestinians. When the British pulled out in May 1948, the Zionists declared independence. The Nakba continued into the early months of 1949.

Pappe’s book reveals how meticulously the Zionist movement planned, executed, lied about, and then denied their takeover of Palestinian land and the removal (through force and terror) of its population. He presents Israeli policies against the Palestinian minority inside Israel as well as in the West Bank and Gaza in their proper historical framework, setting the record straight on truths that conceptualize the situation faced by Palestinians today. Pappe only briefly touches on the role of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement in the late 1800s, to show how deeply rooted the concept of "transfer" of the indigenous population was, how the "demographic problem" as viewed by most Israelis today is a continuation of the original Zionist exclusionist view. A map from 1919 clearly illustrates Zionist intentions to grab all of Palestine. The Herzl ideologues stated that "strangers" lived in their biblical land and by stranger they meant everyone who was not Jewish, although most of Palestine’s Jews had left after the Roman period. And even today, a recent poll indicated that 68 percent of Israeli Jews want Palestinian citizens of Israel to be "transferred."

Much of the book’s exposure concerns David Ben-Gurion, one of the masterminds and leading overseers of the Zionist project and the ethnic cleansing that implemented it. From the mid-1920s, Ben-Gurion functioned as the unofficial defense minister (or minister of war) of the not-yet officially formed state and later became its founding prime minister. He worked on an international level as well as locally organizing other Zionists around his methods and goals. It was in his home that ethnic cleansing was first discussed with a combination of security figures and "Arab affairs" specialists (Jews who grew up in the region and could speak Arabic) who would advise future governments of Israel (Pappe calls it the Consultancy). His view toward achieving a Zionist state was ambitious and strategic. He thought it could only be won by force, but that the Zionists had to wait for the opportune historical moment to be able to deal "militarily" (as Ben-Gurion put it) with the demographic reality on the ground: the presence of a non-Jewish native majority population. When in 1937 the British offered the Jewish community a future state (on a much smaller percentage of land than the UN was to give it in 1948), he accepted that as a good beginning in that it formalized the idea. He had far more ambitious plans. In 1942 Ben-Gurion publicly stated the Zionist claim for all of Palestine, but later came to believe that this was not realistic and that 80 percent would be sufficient for a viable Israeli state.

The book talks about one important strategic project guided by Ben-Gurion—the "village project" of mapping all of Palestine. Through the use of aerial photography, details of every Palestinian village were recorded: its access routes, quality of land, water springs, main sources of income, socio-political composition, religious affiliations, names of its mukhtars (traditional village heads), relationship with other villages, the age of individual men and an index of "hostility" toward the Zionist project measured by involvement in the 1938 revolt against the British policy of allowing increased immigration of Jews into Palestine (including those who may have killed Jews).

Those involved in the village mapping understood that this growing database was not a mere academic geography exercise. One person who went on one of these data collection operations in 1940 recalled many years later: "We had to study the basic structure of the Arab village. This means the structure and how best to attack it… how best to approach the village from above or enter it from below. We had to train our ‘Arabists’ (the Orientalists who operated a network of collaborators) how best to work with informants."

The book describes another preoccupation of Ben-Gurion and the Consultancy—the "demographic balance" between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Whenever there was a majority of Palestinians living in an area it was considered a disaster. The public policy that was adopted was to promote widespread Jewish immigration. But the Jews who were moving to Palestine since the 1920s preferred living in the more urban areas which were inhabited by Jews and Palestinians in equal number, whereas the countryside was overwhelmingly inhabited and cultivated by Palestinians. The Zionists understood that immigration would not counterbalance the Palestinian majority and use of other means would be necessary. Already in 1937 Ben-Gurion told his cabal that the "‘reality’ of a Palestinian majority would compel the Jewish settlers to use force to bring about the ‘dream’—a purely Jewish Palestine." "We have to face this new reality with all its severity and distinctness. Such a demographic balance questions our ability to maintain Jewish sovereignty." "They can either be mass arrested or expelled; it is better to expel them."

When the British decided to leave in 1947 the Palestine question was transferred to the UN, which, like the British, also accepted the Zionist claims on Palestine and that partition of Palestine was the best way to solve the issue. Even if you accepted the Zionist logic, a partition according to relative population would have allowed less than 10 percent of the land for a Jewish state. But after considerable negotiations, the UN Partition Resolution 181 of November 1947 allotted the Zionists 56 percent of Palestine. While Jerusalem, because of its religious significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was kept as an international city, much of the most fertile land was included in the Zionist portion. Although disappointed again, Ben-Gurion appreciated the international recognition of the Jewish state while ignoring the part which stipulated how much and which territory. He declared that Israel’s borders "will be determined by force and not by the partition resolution.” Ben-Gurion skilfully sidestepped what little there was of the worldwide opposition to their schemes. While the Zionists publicly proclaimed to uphold the Resolution, inside the country they began to implement their own plans. This ignoring of negotiations "before the ink is even dry” became characteristic of subsequent and current negotiations Israel engaged in.

Pappe relates how the Arab leaders opposed the partition of Palestine and boycotted these UN negotiations. They refused to participate on the grounds that the division of their land with a settler community (by then one third of the population, who owned only 6 percent of the land and had long proclaimed that they wanted to de-Arabize Palestine) was illegal and unjust. Resolution 181 created tremendous anxiety for the Palestinians. They sensed the impending showdown with the Zionists. The slaughter began in December 1947, even before the British left Palestine.

Pappe details the combination of meticulous planning as well as allowing "unauthorized" initiative to the more terrorist military groups, like the Irgun, Stern gang and the Palmach (special commando units who pioneered the building of Jewish settlements). With a group of military and civilian people, which included some well-known figures like Moshe Dayan (a military leader who was army chief during the 1956 Suez crisis and defense minister during the time of the Six Day War in 1967) and Yitzhak Rabin (a general and two-term prime minister, assassinated in 1995), Ben-Gurion established and supervised the different plans to prepare the military forces of the Jewish community for an offensive against the Palestinians. Plan C (a revised version of Plans A and B) spelled out the actions that would be taken: killing Palestinian political leadership and those who financially supported them, killing Palestinians who acted against Jews, killing officers and officials, attacking villages that seemed more militant and might resist future attacks by the Israeli army, and damaging Palestinian sources of livelihood. Then Plan Dalet (or Plan D) was drawn up, the blueprint for the systematic and total expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. Plan D described operations in the following way: "destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in their debris) and especially those population centres which are difficult to control in a constant manner; or by mounting combined control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the villages; conducting a search inside them. In case of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state."

In the course of carrying out Plan D the Zionist leaders were not so concerned with resistance on the part of the Palestinians or other Arabs who might come to their defense, as opposition from the Arab states was half hearted and their soldiers poorly trained and equipped. Publicly the Zionist leaders railed about the possibility of a "second Holocaust," this time at the hands of the Arabs, but privately they were fully aware that the war rhetoric of the Arab states was not matched by serious preparation on the ground. Often irresolute army leaders from the Arab states were ignored by some Arab soldiers who took initiative and fought valiantly to defend the Palestinians. The Zionist leadership’s main fear was the British army. But while it was still in Palestine, the British army rarely intervened against the massacres, even when beseeched to do so by the local Arab population.

Expulsions began by December 1947, in villages and larger towns. The following is a condensed description from Pappe’s book of what happened in Haifa under British eyes. The morning after the UN resolution, the Hagana (the main military group that would become the Israeli army) and the Irgun (an early split from the Hagana, led by future prime minister Menachem Begin, which also later became part of the army) unleashed a campaign of terror on the 75,000 Palestinian residents of Haifa. Jewish settlers who had come in the 1920s and lived in the hills around the city took part in these attacks alongside Zionist military units.

Various tactics were used. Frequent shelling and sniping was reined down on the Palestinian population, oil mixed with fuel was poured down the roads and ignited, barrels full of explosives were rolled down into the Palestinian areas. When panic-stricken Palestinians came out to put out the fires they were sprayed with machine-gun fire. Jews who passed as Palestinians brought cars stuffed with explosives to be repaired at Palestinian garages and the cars were detonated. In a refinery plant in Haifa, Jews and Arabs worked shoulder to shoulder and had a long history of solidarity in their fight for better labor conditions against their British employers. The Irgun, which specialized in bomb throwing into Arab crowds, did so at this refinery. Palestinian workers reacted by killing 39 Jewish workers, one of the worst and also one of the last retaliatory skirmishes in that period. Later the Hagana units went into one of Haifa’s Arab neighborhoods, Wadi Rushmiyya, expelled people and blew up their houses. The British army looked the other way while these atrocities were being committed. Two weeks later the Palmach went into the Hawassa neighborhood of Haifa, where around 5,000 of the poorest Arabs lived in dismal conditions. Huts and the local school were blown up, causing the people to flee. Pappe regards this as the official beginning of the ethnic cleansing operation in urban Palestine.

By March 1948, Ben-Gurion commented to the Jewish Agency Executive, "I believe the majority of the Palestinian masses accept the partition as a fait accompli and do not believe it is possible to overcome or reject it… The decisive majority of them do not want to fight us."

The armies of the Arab countries were no match for the well-equipped Zionist military clandestine units, which had received weapons from Britain, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Arab irregulars ambushed Israeli convoys but refrained from attacking the settlements. The Consultancy decided that ruthless retaliation was not sufficient and they needed to change to more drastic actions.

Ben-Gurion used the Arab world’s attempts to rescue the Palestinians to whip up a fear factor among the Jewish community that he carefully nourished to the extent that it overcame any opposition these tactics would engender. The "security" of the Jewish state (then as it is still today) became the overriding fear that allowed many Israelis as well as people outside the country to turn a blind eye to what the Zionist leadership was doing, what their plan constituted.

Until March 1948, the Zionist leadership still portrayed their activities as retaliation to hostile Arab actions. Then, two months before the British were to leave, they openly declared that they would take over the land and expel the indigenous population by force. When the British left in May, the Zionists declared their state. They were officially recognized by the U.S. and the USSR. Ruthless expulsion went into high gear and the word retaliation was no longer used to describe what the Israeli military forces were doing. Ben-Gurion said, "Every attack has to end with occupation, destruction and expulsion." There was no longer any need to distinguish between the "innocent" and the "guilty." Pre-emptive strikes and collateral damage became acceptable and necessary.

Deir Yassin

On a hill to the west of Jerusalem lay the town of Deir Yassin. The massacre there is well known throughout the world but bears mentioning here as it reflected the systematic nature of Plan D as applied to hundreds of villages throughout Palestine. Pappe describes how on April 9, 1948, Jewish soldiers burst into the village and sprayed the houses with machine-gun fire, killing many. "The remaining villagers were then gathered in one place and murdered in cold-bold, their bodies abused while a number of women were raped and then killed.

"Fahim Zaydan, who was twelve years old at the time, recalled how he saw his family murdered in front of his eyes: ‘They took us out one after the other; shot an old man and when one of his daughters cried, she was shot too. Then they called my brother Muhammad, and shot him in front of us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him—carrying my little sister Hudra in her hands, still breastfeeding her—they shot her too.’

"Zaydan himself was shot, too, while standing in a row of children the Jewish soldiers had lined up against a wall, which they had then sprayed with bullets ‘just for the fun of it’, before they left. He was lucky to survive his wounds."

When villages were entered, destroyed and the inhabitants rounded up, decisions were made about who would live and who would die. Intelligence officers on the ground aided the military officers in this decision. The intelligence officers with the help of local collaborators (hooded spies) would point out different people to the main intelligence officer.

Israel and the Palestinians Today

As a result of the Nakba, there are now almost 4.5 million Palestinians dispersed throughout the world, in addition to the 1.4 million under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and 1.3 million in Gaza, a formerly sparsely populated desert strip now full of crowded refugee camps and towns. About 1.5 million Palestinians continue to live in Israel itself as second-class citizens. The Jewish population of Israel numbers roughly 5.5 million. The Zionist state now comprises about 78 percent of historic Palestine, not counting the still-growing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It has no parallel in the world—a state consciously built, since its inception, for one people, one culture, on religious grounds and with no real permanent borders.

Pappe’s argument that the Nakba was an act of ethnic cleansing is convincing. The human and physical geography of Palestine was transformed by the Zionist consciously punitive plan to wipe out Palestine’s history and culture and thus deny any future claim Palestinians could make to their land. Through the years since the Nakba, the killing machine that is the Israeli army has continued its dirty work. Pappe lists the following: Kfar Qassim in October 1956, Israeli troops massacred 49 villagers returning from their fields. Qibya in the 1950s, Samoa in the 1960s, the villages of Galilee in 1976, the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, Kfar Qana in 1999, Wadi Ara in 2000 and the Jenin refugee camp in 2002. There has not been an end to Israel’s killing of Palestinians.

Pappe ends his book with the hope that Israelis will wake up from their distorted view of wanting retribution, shed racism and religious fanaticism, and wake up to the truth portrayed in this book. He thinks that not accepting the Palestinian right of return equals the continuing defense of the "white" apartheid-like enclave and upholding Fortress Israel. He says that Palestinians and Jews coexisted peacefully before the Nakba and even now many have strong social ties, which shows that the two peoples can live in harmony. He calls for the transformation of Israel into a secular and democratic state.

Pappe’s book does not concern itself with the central role that Israel has come to play as the bastion of American imperial interests in the Middle East. Without the military and political backing of the U.S. government and the unparalleled financial support that is central to Israeli society and its way of life ($3 billion a year in U.S. government aid, along with officially encouraged private funding), Israel would not be what it is today—if it even existed at all. Nonetheless, the book is well worth the read for its historical accuracy and as a vivid reminder of the tragedy that is the Nakba.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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From A World to Win News Service:

Israel at 60: from bad to worse

May 12, 2008. A World to Win News Service.  As Israel marks its sixtieth birthday, the mood among many Israelis is more sour than celebratory.

There is a great malaise, or some people say, a crisis, in Israel, although there’s no question of threatened collapse. The patriotism of a privileged society, the amoral self-seeking of its members and mystical, murderous religious fervor all contend and combine in one seething, cynical—and often unhappy—morass.

Writing in the May issue of the U.S. magazine The Atlantic, in an article reporting a somber mood in Israel that has been widely discussed there, Jeffrey Goldberg tries to lay out why Israelis should be rejoicing, even if they aren’t.

"Their country is, by almost any measure, an astonishing success. It has a large, sophisticated, and growing economy (its gross domestic product last year was $150 billion); the finest universities and medical centres in the Middle East; and a main city, Tel Aviv, that is a center of art, fashion, cuisine, and high culture spread along a beautiful Mediterranean beach. Israel has shown itself, with notable exceptions, to be adept at self-defence, and capable (albeit imperfectly) of protecting civil liberties during wartime. It has become a worldwide centre of Jewish learning and self-expression; its strength has straightened the spines of Jews around the world; and, most consequentially, it has absorbed and enfranchised millions of previously impoverished and dispossessed Jews. Zionism may actually be the most successful national liberation movement of the 20th century."

This attempted glowing description leaves out two basic questions: How the Zionists invented Israel, and how it became an "astonishing success."

To take the last sentence first, Zionism was never a national liberation movement. The world’s Jews had not been a single people for almost two thousand years. They didn’t even have a common language used in daily life. Hebrew was somewhat similar for Jews as Latin to Catholics and Arabic to non-Arab Moslems. It was the language of the scriptures and religion. The imposition of this dead language represented the triumph of a self-consciously "European" racist and colonialist culture over the far more lively and diverse Yiddish, Arabic and Ladino-speaking cultures of many of the Jews who came there. (Yiddish and Ladino are related to German and Spanish, respectively.)

To create Israel, the Zionists drove out most of the land’s actual inhabitants. To keep Israel a Jewish state, the Israeli army today holds millions of the original people and their descendents locked up in the open-air prison of Gaza, and, in the West Bank, penned in by Jewish settlements and rabidly racist, violent settlers; encircled by militarily strategic, Jewish-only roads; with 562 Israeli army humiliation-checkpoints separating Palestinian communities; columns of tanks and marauding commando teams entering at will; and 254 kilometers of an apartheid wall.

Where is the liberation in any of this?

The "national" component in this is the standpoint of "my nation" first (whether real or artificially constructed). That is an outlook that every revolution that has to pass through national liberation as part of the world revolution needs to overcome.

As for the Zionist movement’s success in making Israel what it is today, the Israeli people have little to do with that. If someone else had not stepped in, Israel might be a much smaller and poorer agricultural country today—if it existed at all.

The hand that made Israel rich and powerful belongs to Uncle Sam, the U.S.A.

"For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel… Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars). Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the [American] foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain.…

"Most recipients of aid given for military purposes are required to spend all of it in the U.S., but Israel is allowed to use roughly 25 per cent of its allocation to subsidise its own defence industry. It is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent.... Moreover, the U.S. has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems, and given it access to such top-drawer weaponry as Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the U.S. gives Israel access to intelligence it denies to its Nato allies and has turned a blind eye to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

"Washington also provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support. Since 1982, the U.S. has vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. It blocks the efforts of Arab states to put Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the IAEA’s agenda. The U.S. comes to the rescue in wartime and takes Israel’s side when negotiating peace… Finally, the Bush administration’s ambition to transform the Middle East is at least partly aimed at improving Israel’s strategic situation." (John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby," London Review of Books, March 2006— The academic authors, who say they support both Israel and the U.S.’s real interests, have been persecuted for bringing out the relationship between the two countries so sharply.)

Yet, while Israelis have achieved a comfortable economic existence, as The Atlantic article and many other accounts concur, "the mood in Israel is worse than the situation."

It’s not just the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces indictment for accepting bribes from an American businessman, the fourth set of such charges he has confronted. Top Israeli politicians have long been corrupt, as in the case of Olmert’s illustrious predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Last year Israel’s president was also forced out of office by criminal charges, in that instance for raping women subordinates. The case shed light on the degree to which rape and sexual abuse, including of female soldiers by their Israeli army superiors, has become a part of the fabric of life.

It is widely recognized in Israel that the Zionist project of attracting the Jews of the whole world has failed. The inward migration has all but stopped and the number of young people leaving is a serious concern. The "idealist" veneer of early secular and social-democratic (pseudo-"socialist") Zionism of Israel’s early days now seems as distant as the now-dead kibbutzim (cooperatives) where Jews could supposedly live in harmony among themselves in the stolen homes of a conquered people. A great many Israelis are uneasy with the problem of how to reconcile what they think of themselves (enlightened humanists, etc.) and what they really are (the privileged citizens of a criminal enterprise).

Other trends in Israel seek to resolve this contradiction by becoming more forthright. Many people, including the man once considered a paradigm of Israeli progressive intellectuals, the historian Benny Morris whose research helped uncover the mechanisms of the violent "transfer" of the Palestinians out of Palestine that accompanied Israel’s birth, now explicitly and loudly call for the forcible "transfer" of Israel’s remaining Arab minority, in Morris’s case to "something like a cage." (The New Yorker, May 5, 2008) Palestinians with Israeli citizenship make up 20 percent of the population but have lost almost all of their land. Lately rabbis—who increasingly shape public life, such as demanding separate buses for men and women—have taken to issuing religious edicts forbidding Jews to rent homes to Arabs. A majority of Israelis now advocate the "transfer" of all the remaining Arabs out of Israel, a view considered extreme a decade ago. (International Herald Tribune, April 28, 2008)

There is also a growing genocidal mood among those Israelis most open-eyed about what it will take to save Zionism. This includes the extensive "national religious" masses and the settler movement (those eager to "settle" in the West Bank and shove out the Palestinians there). The equivalent of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards and Basijj religious fanatic militia, they now constitute a quarter of the Israeli officer corps, a big change from the days when the army was considered a bulwark of secularism. A high government official’s recent threat of "a bigger holocaust" (BBC, February 29, 2008) against Palestinians is one notorious indicator of this mood, especially given the profoundly religious subtext the word "holocaust" (shoah) carries in Hebrew—a burnt offering from the chosen people to their god.

The great debate in Israeli politics and public life today is "the demographic problem." With few Jews coming to Israel from abroad, the fear is that at some point, if Arabs are allowed to stay in Israel, Zionism may no longer be able to claim that it operates by majority rule, even within its present borders. The same argument is often made about all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, where Palestinians are already a big majority.

Prime Minister Olmert is quite honest about it: only a "two-state solution"—putting Palestinians somewhere other than Israel, and keeping them there—can save "Israeli democracy." This is the South African solution, an apartheid state reserved for Jews towering over crippled, carved up Palestinian "homelands." It is no solution at all for the Palestinians, as can be seen more clearly now than ever in the big prison that is Gaza, after Israel pulled out its settlers and army without giving up an inch of its domination.

The foundational rule in Israeli democracy is that Israel must be Jewish. Like any basic rule about the character of a society, this is an issue to be settled by force, not ballots. That is the parameter that has defined what is considered acceptable in Israeli society. Several decades ago, the historian Morris was denied a job in Israel until, when publicly put to the question, he stated that despite his critical research he supported Israel’s existence. Now, due as much to self-censorship as censorship, even that ability to entertain critical ideas and that narrow circle of tolerance is shrinking in the face of what is seen as an uncertain future.

Many observers have noted that the triumphalism that marked Israel’s fiftieth anniversary only a decade ago is gone today. The media debates the factors involved: the continuing inability of the Israeli army to make Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do what they’re told, Israel’s 2006 failed invasion of Lebanon, the prospect that Israel may no longer be able to wage war with other Middle Eastern countries at little cost in Israeli lives—and the erosion of Israel’s claims to the high moral ground, even among its own people.

As distant as it may seem in today’s circumstances, what solution other than a single, secular multinational state—the end of Israel—could represent the interests of the vast majority of people? One thing that can be said for sure is that the present situation is not sustainable.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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Re-envisioning Revolution and Communism: WHAT IS BOB AVAKIAN’S NEW SYNTHESIS?

Part II: A Philosophy to Understand—and Change—The World

The following is Part 2 of the text of a speech given in various locations around the country this spring. The text has been slightly edited for publication. Revolution is publishing this speech in five installments. The complete speech is available online at

Part II: A Philosophy to Understand—and Change—The World

Now by philosophy I mean a more-or-less worked-out way of understanding the world that guides, or influences, how people see their place in it and what they think can be or should be done about it. If you think that people are “hard-wired to be selfish because of their genetic inheritance”—that’s a philosophy. It’s a way of understanding all of nature and society, and it’s going to guide what you think can and should be done.

If you say that you don’t have a philosophy, you just go with what works—sorry, that’s a philosophy too, the made-in-USA philosophy of pragmatism. If you take up that philosophy, you don’t think too much about the underlying causes of things, the larger dynamics that shape the world—you just accept the world as it is and limit yourself to tinkering around the edges.

And if you say that all philosophies are just “social constructs” which are all equally valid—or invalid—for getting at the truth; and if you even question the existence of such a thing as truth; well, that too is a philosophy—relativism—a very current one. Unfortunately, if predictably, it’s gone along with a lack of conviction in firmly enough opposing and actually fighting the all too real crimes of the powers-that-be.

Philosophy matters, in other words, to what you DO.

Well, communism also encompasses a philosophy. And at the very heart of the new synthesis has been Bob Avakian’s work to critically interrogate, or analyze, the philosophical foundations of communism—and to put those foundations on a more fully scientific basis.

To understand how this is so, we’re going to have to touch on a few very complex concepts. Some of these concepts at the beginning are going to be complicated and perhaps unfamiliar—but stay with me—all this has extremely important implications for the “real world”—and I hope things become clear.

Marx’s Breakthrough

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had been students of the dialectical method developed by the German philosopher Hegel. Hegel had grasped that everything in the world constantly changes and develops. This development is driven forward by the conflicting forces that both coexist and struggle within every phenomenon and process. Even when something appears to be relatively stable...struggle, change and development are not only going on within it, but giving it its very character. And Hegel put forward that through this struggle of opposites, one aspect eventually becomes dominant, resulting in a leap to something fundamentally new.

To take one example—which Hegel by the way could not have known—the sun looks like a solid red-hot ball; in reality, it is a mass of continuous thermonuclear explosions which transform the hydrogen at the sun’s core into helium, which radiates heat and light. And our sun will go through stages of development, changing its composition and its size and the amount of heat and light that it gives out, until eventually it dies—and becomes the food for new stars. It is a case of the unity, struggle and mutual transformation of opposites—giving rise to something new.

But Hegel located the source of all this development in a pre-existing realm of ideas, which then played out in the material world. In this sense, Hegel was philosophically idealist. Now, idealism in the realm of philosophy has a different meaning than it does in everyday life. In everyday life, idealism usually means that someone cares about more than just themselves. But in philosophy, idealism refers to the notion that ideas came before the material world, or exist in a higher realm independent of that world.

Take religion. “In the beginning was the word”; or “everything is controlled and created by a god who exists in a different, non-material realm”; or “all my suffering is really just part of God’s purpose for me”—these are all just forms of philosophical idealism. Or take that book The Secret, which says that you create your world by the thoughts you think. Again, idealism—because in reality, your thinking develops in relation to and in the context of the particular society you were born into and your place in that society, and the “choices” it presents you with.

Opposed to idealism is materialism. And again, the everyday and philosophical uses of that word differ. Today when most people speak of materialism they mean something like of bling. But in the realm of philosophy, materialism stands for the outlook that seeks the causes of phenomena, including our thoughts, in the actual dynamics of the material world. Consciousness is the property of a particular form of matter that thinks—that is, humans.

During the time of Marx, materialism was predominantly mechanical—that means that the materialists of the day grasped that the laws of the physical world could be known, but tended to see these laws as somewhat static and machine-like, a kind of clockwork universe. They had been able to see how the earth revolved around the sun, and the gravitational laws that accounted for that, and the ways in which it could keep going; but they didn’t know about the way that the sun itself had arisen, gone through development, and would die out—so their views were constricted, and their philosophy reflected that. They could not quite account for how qualitative change—the coming into being of totally new things, or “leaps”—could arise from material causes.

Marx, and Engels, took Hegel’s great insight of dialectics—that everything changes on account of the struggle of opposed forces—and they stripped it of its idealism; and they took the materialist understanding that reality exists independently of and prior to all thought and stripped that of its mechanical character. The synthesis was dialectical materialism: the understanding that everything in the world goes through constant change and development through the contradictory forces within it, and that human thought itself arises from and reflects this process—and reacts back on it.

Putting the Study of Society on a Scientific Foundation

They applied that to putting the study of human society on a scientific foundation, and they developed historical materialism. They analyzed that, first of all, people must produce the necessities of life, and that they must enter into relations with each other to carry out that production—that is, production relations.

These production relations in turn roughly correspond to a certain level of development of the productive forces—that is, the technology, resources, and knowledge of the people in any given society at any given time. In slavery, the production is carried out through relations between people in which one class literally owns another. These production relations of the slave system generally correspond to large-scale agriculture in which the tools are very primitive.

In capitalism, production is carried out through relations between people where one class—the capitalists—owns the factories, warehouses, and so on and where the other principal class—the workers, or proletarians—owns nothing but their ability to work, and must sell that ability in order to survive. The capitalists don’t own the workers outright, but instead pay them wages when they can profit off them and fire them when they can’t—as we can see around us right now, by the way. And these production relations correspond to the existence of large-scale means of production requiring a collectivity of people to work them; when people go into a factory to make steel or tractors, they have to work together to do that.

Both capitalism and slavery are exploitative, but the relations of production are different. So different types of societies have different production relations. Further, different kinds of production relations gave rise to different kinds of governments, different conceptions of human nature, different forms of the family, different kinds of art, different understandings of rights and duties, and different moralities.

For example, the Bible—including the New Testament—was written during an era when an important part of production was carried out through slave relations. That’s why there is no sense anywhere in the Bible that slavery is a horrible crime against humanity—unless it happens to be done to the Israelites in the Old Testament by non-Jewish people. And the Bible was thus easily used by the slave masters of the Old South to justify slavery.

Today, when slavery no longer corresponds to the interests of the dominant class, the political and cultural consensus finds it to be horrible. But the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists, and the casting off of these workers when they can no longer be profitably exploited, is just seen as “the way things are, and human nature”—just like slavery used to be. Like the abolitionists before the U.S. Civil War, but on a much more scientific basis, we need to bring forward that this is NOT human nature any more than slavery was, but is just the result of capitalist relations—and we need to bring forward our different and opposed morality, based on a whole different set of production and social relations.

Let’s take a scientific, historical materialist approach to the case with which I began this talk. What led to Biko Edwards and all the other students getting brutalized? Was it “unruly behavior” for no good reason? Well, you have to look at the whole social context and the whole larger history of what led to that incident. You have to ask: how do the underlying production relations of society—and the differing ways that Black people have been forced to find their relation to that, over history—shed light on this? You have to scientifically analyze what has driven the transformation of African-Americans first from slaves, kidnaped and ripped from their homes and brought here in chains to build up the great wealth of this country; and then to sharecroppers confined on plantations after the Civil War; and then driven and drawn to the cities as mainly industrial workers in the most exploited and oppressive jobs...and now to a situation where the majority of African-Americans are either wage-slaves or treated as surplus people—and in the case of Black youth like Biko Edwards, treated as criminals. (And to again quote the New York Times, one of nine young Black men are in prison—the highest incarceration rate in the world.1)

You have to analyze the institutions and ideas that arose and were established and promoted in each of these periods. You have to analyze how white supremacy went through changes, but still remained very powerful in all the institutions in society. You have to look at all this in relation to every other significant phenomenon in society. And then on the basis of all that you can begin to scientifically analyze where all this oppression came from and comes from—and what has to be done to get rid of it. So that’s an example of a historical materialist approach.

Overcoming Limitations

It is hard to overstate the importance of this discovery and of Marx’s contributions generally to human thought—and human emancipation. He, along with Engels, set the theoretical foundation—they lit the way.

But there were, not surprisingly, limitations in the way that Marx and Engels went at this, and these problems got compounded by serious methodological shortcomings on the part of Stalin, who led the Soviet Union and the international communist movement for nearly 30 years following Lenin’s death. What’s worse, these errors came at the very time an advance in understanding was urgently called for. Mao—the leader of the Chinese Revolution—fought against some of these problems, but Mao himself was straining against an inherited framework and was not free from its influences. And these shortcomings had consequences.

Now, Bob Avakian has identified and deeply criticized weaknesses along four different dimensions of communist philosophy. These concern: one, a fuller break with idealist, even quasi-religious, forms of thought that had found their way into the foundation of Marxism and had not been ruptured with; two, a further and qualitatively deeper grasp of the ways in which matter and consciousness mutually interpenetrate with and transform each other; three, a critique of a host of problems associated with pragmatism and related philosophical tendencies; and four, a radically different epistemology, or way of getting at the truth. In doing all this, he has put Marxism on a more fully scientific basis.

To begin with, Avakian has excavated, criticized, and broken with certain secondary but still significant religious-type tendencies that have previously existed within the communist movement and communist theory—tendencies to see the achievement of communism as an "historical inevitability" and the related view of communism as almost like a heaven, some kind of "kingdom of great harmony," without contradictions and struggles among people.

But communism is not inevitable. There is no "god-like" History with a “Capital H” pushing things to communism. And while communism will bring about an end to antagonistic and violent conflicts among human beings, it will still be marked by contradictions, debates, and struggles—which will be carried out without violent conflict, and which will in fact be a very good thing, since this will continually contribute to the achievement of further understanding and further advances in transforming reality in accordance with the overall interests of humanity.

The view that the triumph of communism is "inevitable" and driven forward by History (with a "Capital H") and the tendency to see communism as some kind of utopia, without contradiction and struggle, was rather pronounced in Stalin, but has existed in Marxism to some degree more generally. In some significant aspects and to a significant degree, Mao broke with these kinds of views and methods; but the point is that there was still, even in Mao, an aspect of "inevitablism" and related tendencies, and Avakian has carried further the rupture with these ways of thinking, which are suggestive of an element of religiosity within Marxism, even while that element has never been principal or defining in terms of Marxist theory itself. In this regard (as well as in an overall sense) Avakian has not only upheld Mao and synthesized Mao's contributions to revolution and communist theory, but he has carried forward the rupture that Mao represented from Stalin, and on that basis Avakian has now made some ruptures with some of Mao's understanding too.

To say that communism is not inevitable is NOT to say that history is just a jumble. Indeed, there IS a coherence to history, as Marx put it, based on the fact that the productive forces (again, the land, technology, resources and people with their knowledge) are handed down from one generation to another and are constantly developing; and that when the relations that people enter into to carry out production become a fetter on the further development of those forces, big change ensues. Southern slave relations, which for decades coexisted with and fed northern capitalism, eventually became a fetter on the expansion of northern capitalism—and you got a civil war.

Like I said—big change.

Today, the fundamental contradiction of this society is between socialized production (the fact that people have to work collectively to produce things these days) and the fact that the means to produce that wealth and the product of those means is still owned, controlled and appropriated by individuals. This contradiction finds expression in all the different forms of the class struggle, on the one hand, and in the fact that development can only proceed through the headlong, expand-or-die clash of different blocs of capital on the other. This contradiction will continually pose and re-pose itself for resolution, in different ways.

Now whether that gets resolved favorably—whether we advance to the communist way of life that is now possible—this is not “guaranteed.” It depends upon us and whether we carry out the hard work to develop both our scientific understanding of society and nature, and our ability to wrench freedom out of the challenges we face. 

Like religious belief, the “inevitability guarantee” may console or sustain you, but it is not true and it cuts against facing reality as it is. It actually fetters your thinking in regard to the different possible pathways of human development—pathways which are subject to very real constraints and are “determined” in that sense, but which do not run in a predetermined direction.

And communism will not be a heaven, or kingdom of great harmony; as I said, like everything else, it will change and develop through the working out of contradictions by struggle—with the (rather huge) difference being that this struggle will no longer take place violently, through antagonistic social groups, and people themselves will have transcended the narrow and often vicious thinking conditioned by capitalism, as well as patriarchy and national oppression, that we now see as human nature.

The Role, and Potential Power, of Consciousness

Second, and related to this, Avakian has developed a far deeper understanding of the potential role and power of consciousness. Put it this way: to the extent that you do scientifically and deeply grasp the complex and multi-level contradictory character of society, with all its different constraints and its many possible that extent, your freedom to act on and to affect that situation is immeasurably magnified.

Previously, the importance of the economic base (that is, the production relations) was not just recognized—but over-emphasized. This was a tendency toward reductionism—that is, reducing complex phenomena to a single over-riding cause, flattening out processes that have different levels to them in a way that doesn’t correspond to and actually distorts reality. Yes, the political institutions, the ideas, the morality of society—in other words, the superstructure of society—all ultimately grow out of its economic relations; this is a foundational insight of Marx.

But these institutions and ideas of the superstructure have a relative life of their own; plus they operate, and affect each other, on a lot of different and interpenetrating levels. They can’t just be flatly reduced to linear outgrowths of the production relations or class relations. Let’s take an example. White racism—the notion that there are different “races” of people, and that Black people are an inferior race—is a pseudo-scientific canard, or empty lie, that arose in the early 19th century. It grew out of and was reinforced by slave relations and in particular the slave-holding class. But its influence stretched far beyond that, becoming bred into the bone of the very notion of what it means to be an American and what democracy is all about—a point gone into in great depth in Avakian’s talk on Jeffersonian Democracy.2  And that idea has taken on a life of its own, affecting the thinking of everybody, and will have to be struggled against in its own right in socialist society, even as its material roots are being dug up.

While both Lenin and especially Mao made very important contributions toward a more correct and dialectical understanding of how this relation between the base and superstructure “works,” neither quite grasped the scope and fluidity of this relative independence deeply enough, or in a layered enough way.

Rupturing with Pragmatic Tendencies

Third, there have been other negative philosophical tendencies and problems in method, many of which relate to pragmatism—a philosophy, as I said earlier, that opposes the investigation of the deeper underlying reality in the name of “what works” and which also will maintain that ideas are true insofar as they are useful. This latter point begs the question of “useful for what?” and, more important, actually denies the real criterion of truth—whether an idea corresponds to reality. The idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was useful to Bush—but that didn’t make it true.

These erroneous philosophical tendencies, particularly with Stalin, infected and even permeated the communist movement. Here I will ask you to bear with me as I try to explain—because remember, these had serious consequences. They included instrumentalism, which refers to the use of theory more as an instrument to justify some short-term goal than as a means to dig for the truth; empiricism, in which the evaluation of truth is based on direct and immediately observable experience, in a narrow framework; apriorism, which means imposing categories on the world, rather than drawing these concepts from the world itself, in a complex interplay between practice and theory; and positivism, a method which tends to limit and confine science to the description and codifying of observations, focusing on criteria of quantitative measurement and prediction.

To focus on positivism for a minute, this view denies or deems meaningless the analysis of deeper levels of dynamics and direction. Because of that, it tends to wall off phenomena from larger contexts and different levels and also attempts to reduce things and processes to a single, simple cause. And it consequently tends to negate, or deny, the ways in which theory can and must “run ahead” of practice—the ways, that is, in which deep analysis of experience (broadly conceived) can provide deeper insights into the underlying dynamics and tendencies inherent (or potential) within reality and open up new pathways to the transformation of that reality. Without theory “running ahead,” people would be unable to conceive of anything qualitatively different than what is already known; without theory running ahead, how could Marx and Engels have written the Communist Manifesto?

Let me give a somewhat notorious example to give a sense of the consequences of these wrong methodological approaches. This concerns a geneticist named Trofim Lysenko in the Soviet Union during the early ’30s. Lysenko insisted that acquired characteristics could be inherited: in other words, if you were real skinny but you bulked up through lifting weights and steroids, your kids would inherit that kind of physique. Well, that view actually is wrong. But because Lysenko had a whole program on how to grow a lot of wheat very quickly in a country that was subject to famine, and because he achieved some short-term success in this by doing some plant grafts, this was declared to be true.

Let’s take this apart. There’s pragmatism—judging the truth of an idea based on “if it works” for one or another short-term goal. And there’s empiricism—judging truth solely by a narrow set of empirical experiences. Instead, you have to put what you are doing and what you are learning in the context of what we know at any given point to be true—our fullest and most accurate possible picture, or model, of objective reality. Then you have to also relate it to the available relevant evidence from other sources. How did Lysenko’s theory relate to what we knew to be true, including Darwin’s theory, and some of the different work done to prove it? If there were contradictions between Lysenko’s results and what might be predicted by Darwin’s theory, how should we understand those contradictions?

But that was not how they proceeded. And the results were disastrous—not only for those geneticists who were denied the right to work and repressed even more harshly in some cases because they disagreed, and not only for the Soviet sciences more generally—but for the ways in which it taught people to approach and evaluate ideas in every sphere.

Or let’s take an example of apriorism, as well as positivism. Stalin had an a priori assumption that once agriculture had been mechanized and once production, in the main, had been put under socialized ownership in the ’30s, there would then no longer be antagonistic classes in Soviet society. But struggle nonetheless continued. Since Stalin’s a priori “model” of a socialist society without class antagonisms couldn’t account for this, he was led to conclude that all opposition must be the work of agents for imperialism. The results were grievous, from numerous angles.

Now this was, importantly, later criticized and opposed by Mao, one of whose great contributions concerned the continuation of class struggle under socialism—and who, as part of that, also did quite a bit of criticism of Stalin’s philosophical tendencies to downplay and not recognize contradiction. But these tendencies of positivism, instrumentalism, and so on did great damage, and they had not been fully identified as such and systematically ruptured with prior to Avakian.

Avakian’s Radical Advance in Epistemology

Finally, and extremely important, Bob Avakian has criticized and ruptured with long-standing epistemological views in the communist movement. Epistemology refers to the theory of knowledge—how we come to understand the truth. These wrong epistemological views include the idea that “truth has a class character.” Actually, truth is just truth and bullshit is just bullshit—regardless of who says it. Now materialism and dialectics as an overall method should enable you to better get at the truth, if you are thoroughgoing in their application to reality—but whatever idea you come up with has to be judged true or not based on whether it fundamentally corresponds to reality, not how you went about getting it.

In fact, people who do not use that method—indeed, people who detest that method—can, as it turns out, discover important truths. There are NOT separate realities for different classes and there are not separate “truths” for different classes—it’s not, “it’s a proletarian wouldn’t understand.” There is one reality. Because the proletariat as a class has no need to cover up the fundamental character of human society, dialectical and historical materialism corresponds to its fundamental interests; but to reduce this rather sweeping point to “truth has a class character” can lead to refusing to learn anything from bourgeois thinkers, or even thinkers who are neither bourgeois nor in the Marxist framework. It can even lead to thinking that just because someone is from the proletariat they have some sort of special purchase on the truth.

Here too we have to learn from the negative experience of Lysenko. The view took hold that because Lysenko hailed from the working masses and because he supported Soviet power...and because those who opposed him in large measure came from what had been privileged classes in the old society and did not support Soviet power...well, this was just further proof of the rightness of Lysenko’s theories. But class origin has nothing to do with—or should have nothing to do with—evaluating whether your ideas are right or wrong.

Nor is it the case that the truthfulness of ideas is determined by whether they are “useful” in some immediate sense. This pragmatist approach has led to, to be blunt, “spinning” or even twisting reality—in the case of Lysenko, again, his theory was deemed true because it seemed immediately useful.

Now, it’s not a question of "going for the truth" divorced from the struggle to change the world. And it’s not that the “truth will set you free.” It won’t, without struggle. But if you don’t more or less correctly understand the world—if you don’t know what’s true—you won’t get free either. You’ll do things that don’t correspond to the actual dynamics and contradictions of reality and you won’t be able to transform that reality—at least not in a direction that’s going to get you closer to revolution and communism.

There’s a tremendous richness involved in this process. The insights of non-Marxists or even anti-communists can neither be dismissed nor just adopted whole; they have to be critically sifted and synthesized and often recast. But if you cut yourself off from this—which became the “tradition” in the communist movement—how can you hope to have a sense of this world we live in, which is constantly changing and generating new and unprecedented things? You actually need the clash of ideas, you need debate and contention and ferment and people pursuing paths that may not apparently “contribute to things” and which may turn out to be dead ends...but which may, on the other hand, yield new insights into reality. The view that “truth has a class character” short-circuits and distorts this vitally necessary process.

And let’s be honest here. There are truths that, in a short-term and more linear sense, run counter to the struggle for communism but which, when taken up in a larger context, and with the method and approach that Avakian is bringing forward, actually contribute to that struggle. This includes the “truths that make us cringe”—truths about the negative aspects of the experience of the international communist movement, and of socialist societies led by communists—but also, more generally, truths that are discovered that reveal reality to be, in certain aspects, different than previously understood by communists, or people more generally.

In relation to the importance of “truths that make us cringe,” it’s worth returning to Lysenko one last time. Anti-communists traditionally point to the Lysenko saga as proof that communism is bound to distort the truth...and to suppress intellectuals. Some communists dissociate themselves from the Lysenko incident in a facile way, and some just ignore it, but in the main they really don’t want to “go there”—from the standpoint of how communists do correctly apply Marxism to lead every sphere of a new society. Avakian, to the contrary, insists on fully confronting this experience, having returned to it in several different works, and drawing the deeper lessons—what were the misconceptions in method and outlook that led to this...what was the setting that generated pulls to do this...and what do communists have to do to rupture with this sort of outlook and, on a deep level, this sort of practice, so that they really can take the world to a better place.

Because, again, the question here is not only “going for the truth,” but doing so on the basis of a thoroughly scientific, dialectical materialist, outlook and method, and correctly grasping the link between this and the struggle for revolution and ultimately communism—and getting the full richness of what is involved in this. Recognizing the importance of and insisting on pursuing truth in this way—unfettered by narrow, pragmatic, and instrumentalist considerations of what seems most convenient at the time or what appears to be more in line with particular and immediate objectives of communists...pursuing the truth by applying the scientific outlook and method of dialectical materialism in the most sweeping, comprehensive, and consistent way in order to confront reality as it actually is and, on that basis, transform it in a revolutionary way toward the goal of communism: this is radically new and represents a key part of the richness of the new synthesis being brought forward by Bob Avakian. This is the full meaning of what is concentrated in his statement that: “Everything that is actually true is good for the proletariat, all truths can help us get to communism.”

You can contrast this statement with “Everything that is in the interests of the proletariat and will help us get to communism is true.” This latter viewpoint—with its pragmatic and instrumentalist content and approach—has, to far too great a degree, held sway in the history of the international communist movement—and, in fact, it is the opposite of what is concentrated in the above statement by Avakian. And this is a key part of the radical rupture that his method and approach embodies and of the richness of the epistemology he has been bringing forward and fighting for communists to take up.

Again, in the last half hour I have been able to only barely touch on this critical philosophical and methodological foundation of the new synthesis. To get more deeply into this, I would refer you to the books Observations and Marxism and the Call of the Future.3 But now I want to move on to the political implications of all this.

Next: “Part III: The New Synthesis: Political Implications—The International Dimension


1. “U.S. Imprisons One in 100 Adults Report Finds,” Adam Liptak, New York Times, 2/29/2008 [back]

2. Audio of the talk Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy is available online at and [back]

3. Bob Avakian, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy (Chicago: Insight Press, 2005) and Bob Avakian and Bill Martin, Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics (Chicago: Open Court Publishing/Carus Publishing, 2005) [back]

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Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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Response to Obama’s “Speech on Race”

Part 3: The Sixties, the System, and the Real Solution

The emergence of Barack Obama as the likely Democratic candidate for the presidency is an unprecedented event, and attracting—on different levels—many people who see it as a vehicle of positive change. But the Obama campaign is, by his own repeated acknowledgements, thoroughly rooted in promoting and preserving this system. As such, we have argued that it cannot bring about any substantial change for the better. For those who do want such change, supporting and buying into the logic of the Barack Obama candidacy is harmful.

To get to the bottom of what the Obama phenomenon is all about, we are examining his March 18th “Speech on Race.” This was an extremely significant speech, a defining speech from Obama on one of the foundational questions of U.S. society—the history and present-day situation of Black people. In this third and final installment of our response to that speech, we’ll examine Obama’s core theme of “getting beyond” the “divisions” of the 1960s. But first, let us briefly review the underlying theme of Obama’s speech—the invocation of the U.S. Constitution, and its promise of “a more perfect union” for “we the people” as the path to equality.

The U.S. Constitution—
A Flexible Framework for Exploitation and Inequality

Obama framed his “Speech on Race,” literally and figuratively, in the American flag and the U.S. Constitution. He spoke in Philadelphia, across from the hall where the U.S. Constitution was written. He opened his speech with the famous words, “We the People…” and repeatedly invoked the U.S. Constitution as “a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”

In Part I of our response, we focused on Obama’s claim that “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.” As we went into in some depth in Part I of our response, in fact the U.S. Constitution upheld and institutionalized slavery. It represented a compromise between the capitalist wage-slave exploiters in the North, and the slave-owning class in the South; a compromise that only fractured decades later when the conflicts between the two systems led to a Civil War. Only after the Civil War was the U.S. Constitution rewritten to outlaw slavery and supposedly mandate “equality” for Black people.

In Part II of our response to Obama, we focused on a foundational period of U.S. history almost completely ignored in Obama’s “Speech on Race,” the era of sharecropping, Jim Crow (that is, the system of legally segregating Black people into inferior schools and housing, and stigmatizing them as a people), and lynching. Even with the amended U.S. Constitution, a pivotal Supreme Court ruling (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) enshrined the law of “separate but [so-called] equal,” stamping the approval of the U.S. Constitution on all this.

In short, from the foundation of this country up through and beyond the Second World War, the Constitution of the United States—to which Obama adheres his whole project—served as a flexible framework for exploiters to rule over the majority of the people. And central to that, to enforce inequality and the all-round oppression of Black people.

Obama and The Sixties

As people were pulled into protest and rebellion in the Sixties, they were also coming into contact with revolutionary politics, both globally and within the U.S.  In that context, unprecedented unity was built among the people. Counterintuitive as this might seem to those who were not part of it all (or who might have forgotten what they knew back then), and completely in contradiction to Obama’s branding of this era and its legacy as “divisive,” the reality was that the more radical and revolutionary the struggle, the more it was aimed at the system, the greater the “division” in society between the ruling class and the people—the greater the unity that was built among the people.

In his “Speech on Race,” Obama radically distorts the role of the Constitution in upholding slavery. He “skips” a whole era of U.S. history where the Constitution upheld overt segregation in the name of “separate but equal.” But he “tunes back in” to the status of African-Americans in this country with the period of the 1960s:

In the context of media attacks on his (now completely disowned) relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama used Wright as a vehicle to make his case for this system as a source of “hope”: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen —is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

And Obama’s “punchline,” so to speak, is that now everyone needs to rally around this system, get beyond the legacy of the Sixties, that is—to quote from this same speech, “divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems....”

As with his characterization of earlier periods in U.S. history, Obama’s version of the Sixties is profoundly distorted. Yes, America did change in the 1960s. But here we will make the case that:

  1. Openings for those changes came about in the context of economic changes in U.S. society and international pressures facing U.S. imperialism.
  2. The concessions that were made were mainly the product of heroic struggles of the masses of people that were in the main viciously and violently opposed by the system.
  3. Even as the rulers of this country made concessions to the struggle against the oppression of Black people during this period, they did so in ways that were part of maneuvering to smother the struggle against the subjugation of African-Americans.
  4. Today, as a result of the “natural” workings of capitalism and conscious government policies, the situation is, for many Black people, in many ways worse than it was at the beginning of the 1960s.

And finally, that rather than being a vehicle through which the struggle against exploitation and oppression can be advanced, the real “true genius” of the U.S. Constitution, and the electoral process, and Obama’s role in particular today, is to cover over, while facilitating exploitation and, in that context, the subjugation of Black people and others.

Concessions Wrenched Through Struggle

Up to, through, and then in the aftermath of World War 2, momentous and unprecedented changes took place in U.S. society. The country underwent massive industrialization, and as a result, between 1910 and 1970, between five and six million Black people were driven from the poverty and vicious repression in the South into the factories and cities of the North and West.

This migration of Black people to the cities created new conditions for Black people’s struggle, and strengthened a mood of rebellion. After World War 2, a million African-Americans returned from segregated units of the U.S military with new experiences, new expectations, and new demands. In factories, in the streets, in the schools, in culture, sports and other realms, different forms of struggle erupted.

At this same time, the condition of Black people was an international embarrassment to U.S. imperialism, an impediment to the U.S. grabbing up spheres of exploitation from earlier colonial powers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In doing so, the U.S. was trying to pose as the “champion of democracy” as it contended with old-style colonial powers Britain and France.

Under these conditions the rulers of this country made some initial concessions to the struggle of Black people against discrimination and segregation. In a series of court rulings and official policies that pivoted on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case (where the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal standard” that had been in effect for over fifty years), official segregation was outlawed.

The struggle of Black people had been developing through the 1930s (including the sharecroppers union movement in the South and the battle to free the Scottsboro Boys), and this picked up in intensity after World War 2. While the overturning of legal segregation barely scratched the surface of U.S. society, it did open cracks through which an era of tremendous struggle erupted. Black students courageously fought to integrate schools in the face of racist mobs and governors who blocked their path. Black people in the South fought poll taxes, “literacy tests,” death threats, and murder to register to vote. Freedom Riders—groups of courageous Black and white activists—integrated public transportation facilities, refusing to back down in spite of vicious beatings by local police and KKK thugs—beatings that were often orchestrated by the FBI. Marches in the North and South demanded that Black people have the right to live in what were segregated neighborhoods, and these marches too had to go up against vicious attacks.

As this civil rights movement spread, it also came up against the fact that the system was unwilling to grant the kind of changes that would really transform the situation of Black people in the U.S. As this happened, people began to see that discrimination and oppression of Black people was systemic. In part inspired and influenced by socialist China and Mao, along with revolutionary upsurges in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, sections of the movement took up more radical and revolutionary politics, especially students and youth. By the mid- and late Sixties, a Black Liberation struggle emerged with a revolutionary edge.

This Black Liberation struggle was met with vicious repression. Malcolm X was assassinated under circumstances that bore the fingerprints of a government operation. Hundreds of members of the Black Panther Party were arrested, including top leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. Many of their members and leaders, including Fred Hampton, were killed by police or government operatives.

It was through great sacrifice and struggle that significant concessions to the fight for equality were won in this period. In the mid- and late Sixties rebellions swept the major cities of the U.S. In Detroit, where the largest and most sustained and determined rebellion broke out in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in National Guard and U.S. Army troops, and 43 people gave their lives in that uprising.

In this atmosphere, jobs, including union factory jobs and jobs in government, opened up to Black people. Welfare programs provided some relief from poverty. Head Start programs allowed kids to get breakfast and have a place to go after school. Community organizing programs were funded. And significant numbers of Black people were admitted to colleges and universities. Some positions in the middle class that had been denied to Black people opened up, and even in high places in government, Black faces appeared.

Affirmative action programs were important. They broke down some barriers in society that had prevented all but a few African Americans from admission to law school and medical school, for example. And in the face of societal upheaval, with millions of people of all nationalities feeling strongly that white supremacy was systemic, affirmative action programs represented—for a time—something of an official acknowledgement that inequality was a social problem, not simply a matter of declaring equality for individuals out of the context of the whole history of the oppression of Black people. In 1965, for example, the same President Lyndon Johnson who sent the army into Detroit to kill people was compelled to say that “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

These concessions were not some kind of product of “the path of a more perfect union” charted in the U.S. Constitution, as Obama claims, but were wrenched from this system in this period.

In this period of U.S. history, people were being pulled into political life. In the inner cities and the suburbs, in barber shops and on college campuses, they watched TV coverage of dogs and firehoses being unleashed on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, “shoot to kill” orders against those participating in urban uprisings, and napalm being dropped onto the Vietnamese people. And as people were pulled into protest and rebellion, they were also coming into contact with revolutionary politics, both globally and within the U.S.

In that context, unprecedented unity was built among the people. Counter-intuitive as this might seem to those who were not part of it all (or who might have forgotten what they knew back then), and completely in contradiction to Obama’s branding of this era and its legacy as “divisive,” the reality was that the more radical and revolutionary the struggle, the more it was aimed at the system, the greater the “division” in society between the ruling class and the people—the greater the unity that was built among the people. The Black Panther Party, for example, was admired and supported by millions of white people, from high school youth to prominent literary and cultural figures, and many people of all nationalities rallied to its defense when it was under assault from the government, including prominent people in the arts like Leonard Bernstein and Marlon Brando.

Concessions, Maneuvers, and Betrayal

In the Sixties, it appeared that there was a possibility of real equality for Black people under this system. But that did not happen and could not have happened. It could not have happened because the superexploitation of Black people was (and is) critical to the functioning of U.S. capitalism and its place in the world; and because the social glue of white supremacy is essential to the stability of U.S. society in the form of imbuing white people who are not part of the ruling class with a sense of entitlement, superiority, and identification of their interests with those of the system.

Concessions made in the face of fierce struggle did not come close to bringing full equality for Black people. And those concessions that were made, were made in ways that set the stage for reversing some of them. Plus, the “normal” workings of capitalism—like the deindustrialization of the cities (with jobs moving to sweatshops around the world)—also undercut advances made by African-Americans.

Part of what emerged from the Sixties was much greater polarization among African-Americans. Today, the existence of a more substantial Black middle class, and the presence of Black people in the ruling class—on the Supreme Court, in the military, in the cabinet—contribute to obscuring the nature of this system. Obama himself serves as centerpiece of this, invoking the fact that he can “run for the highest office in the land.”

The fact that some space has been opened in the middle class for Black people has a certain conservatizing impact. But the position of the Black middle class was always tenuous. Many of the economic sectors they have been admitted to (like civil service jobs in local, state, and federal governments, for example) have been hit hardest by economic changes in the U.S. over the past several decades. And African-Americans have also been among those hardest hit by the current credit crisis. Each week it seems a different Black athlete or performer is pilloried in the media and hit with criminal charges for activities that, if not completely fabricated, are often business-as-usual for wealthy white people. Affirmative action programs, and the rationale behind them, are under vicious attack. Even the historic Supreme Court ruling that officially outlawed school segregation has been severely gutted by recent court rulings (see “U.S. Supreme Court Fortifies the Savage Inequalities,” Revolution, 7/15/07, available at

Most Black people have remained chained to the lowest rungs in the economy. In the factories, they were last hired, first fired, and stuck in the worst paying, most dangerous jobs. Even concessions like welfare and Head Start programs operated to keep Black people in segregated neighborhoods, or to prepare them—in most cases—for minimum-wage jobs. And the masses of Black people continued to be subject to segregation in housing and education; systematically ridiculed or demonized by white supremacist culture; and subject to ever-present police brutality and murder to keep them “in their place.” The explosion of the prison population, which began with the “war on drugs” in the early 1970s, consciously designed by President Nixon as a war on Black people, was carried forward by all his successors including Carter and Clinton, and is not opposed by Obama.

For large sections of Black people, conditions are desperate and extreme. As early as the 1950s, the inner-city factories began moving to Asia and Latin America in search of fresh blood to exploit under even more brutal and repressive conditions. In other cases, immigrants have been brought in to work on the killing floors and construction sites for less money and under more dangerous conditions (and through this process, Blacks and Latinos have been pitted against each other by the workings of the system, and by conscious efforts to whip up antagonisms between them—even while the masses of Black and Latino people face a common enemy).

Between 1980, when the inner cities were being systematically emptied of jobs and social services, and 1997, Black people in the millions were criminalized by the system. Under conditions where for many, the drug trade was the only option for survival, the number of people imprisoned in the U.S. for drug offenses increased elevenfold, and this was concentrated in the extreme for Black people, who are eight times as likely to be in jail as whites. “A black male resident of the state of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college.” (“Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Race and the Transformation of Criminal Justice,” Boston Review, July/August 2007.)

What is demonstrated by all this is that capitalism cannot end inequality and the subjugation of Black people and other oppressed peoples. But revolution, and communism, can and will. Communist revolution is aimed at bringing to an end all forms of oppression and exploitation, and uprooting, through a process, all ideas and relations between people that serve or reinforce exploitation and oppression. Instead of feeding on inequality—as capitalism does—a lifeblood of socialism, as a transition to communism, will be the unleashing of struggle against all oppressive social relations.

What Kind of Unity Do We Need?

In his “Speech on Race,” Obama proclaims—in the course of attacking the “divisive” legacy of the Sixties—that, “I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people—that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

First, it must be said that faith in “god” and faith in the people are two fundamentally different things. There is no god, and the “god” of the Bible is a god who, including through his supposed “son,” takes slavery for granted, from Genesis to Revelation.

Further, there are no common interests of the “American people.” Central to Obama’s role and mission is confounding—mixing together as if they were the same thing—two fundamentally different kinds of contradictions: contradictions among the people (like between ordinary white people on the one hand, and Blacks and Latinos on the other; or between Blacks and Latinos), with contradictions between the people and the system. With his calls to “move beyond our old wounds,” Obama appeals to the desire of many people of all races to overcome racism and divisions among the people. But in doing so, he perverts that desire into channeling people to support the system that is the cause of racism and the oppression of Black people, Latinos, and others who are oppressed as peoples in this country; and to ignoring the real scars and open, running wounds of racism today—which will only get worse until they are confronted and uprooted.

Obama’s message is being delivered, and he is being brought forward, at a time when this system faces tremendous stresses and strains. Obama himself situates his mission in a context of a need for unity (with the unspoken but central point that this is unity behind the ruling class) “at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems — two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy” and other challenges to this system (which he mixes in with a list of challenges to the ability of people to survive).

This is a time of great challenges for this system and this ruling class. But the unity the people need, to bring about fundamental change through revolution, and even short of that to resist the whole direction of society, is not unity with the class of global oppressors and exploiters who rule this society.

Throughout this series, we have shown how the subjugation of Black people is embedded in the economic, political, and ideological operation of this system. Black people have historically been viciously superexploited, in the fields and in the sweatshops of America. And their subjugation as a people has been justified by a whole racist culture. The whole “genius” of “we the people” is the illusion of a society that can serve the interests of “everyone,” built on the appearance of including whites in the system, contrasted with the exclusion of Black people, Latinos, and Native Americans. In short, the subjugation of Black people is a product of this capitalist system, serves this capitalist system, and this system could not go on without it.

That is why the Constitution of the United States that Obama wraps himself in is, and has always been, a framework for exploitation, and an enforcer of profound inequality. The U.S. Constitution may promise formal, surface equality (a promise rarely kept), but it can never be a vehicle for ending exploitation and the real inequality that produces.  

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Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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Food for Thought on “Appeasement”

This week President George W. Bush, speaking from the Israeli parliament, accused the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama of “appeasement.” He implied that because Obama has at times called for negotiation with Iran, that Obama would therefore not wage war in the Middle East with the same viciousness and aggression that Bush has. Given where he was speaking—in the parliament of Israel, the extremely aggressive tool of the U.S. in the Middle East; and when—at a time of both the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel and of increasing U.S. war threats against Iran; these were very heavy words. “Appeasement” refers to a policy pursued by Britain, France and the U.S. before World War 2. They made concessions to Hitler’s Germany as part of a strategy of encouraging the Nazi regime to attack the socialist Soviet Union. When this policy outlived its usefulness, the western imperialists then blamed it for allowing Hitler to get going. For Bush to invoke this charge of “appeasement” is, by implication, to threaten war.

But Obama then came right back to say that the Bush policy had led to Iran making strategic gains in the region, and that because of Bush it now “poses the greatest threat to America and Israel and the Middle East in a generation.” This comes on top of Obama going to the Israeli embassy to restate his support for Israel, and his earlier argument with Hillary Clinton where he said that “Iranians can be confident that I will respond forcefully…if they attacked Israel.” And he generally argued that mixing in negotiations with threats of war would be more effective in countering this “greatest threat…in a generation.”

In effect, Obama is attacked for appeasement and his reply is: “Appeasement? No way. I can be just as effective a commander-in-chief, just as hard-line in defending Israel (and using its military might to further advance American interests), just as war-like in threatening, or even attacking Iran, and much more effective in waging ‘the war on terror.’”

If you, reading this, are someone who both reads our paper but also supports Obama, think about it:

Yet you are also supporting someone who does not even claim to be against that whole package of imperialist interests and the strategic aims that flow from it, but who instead argues that he could more effectively carry out those interests and aims.

Where is this leading you? Will you then support Obama when he actually acts on these interests—including acting on his remarks that “all options are on the table”? Will you then find yourself silent when he commits the same crimes that you rightly find to be outrageous when done by a Bush, or threatened by a McCain? And if you do try to speak up, what will you say when his defenders argue back that “after all, this is what he said he would do…and, after all, you knew this then and you still supported him”?

Supporting Obama is not harmless. It is insidious and poisonous. And it drives home once again the point made by Bob Avakian:

      “If you try to make the Democrats be what they are not and never will be, you will end up being more like what the Democrats actually are.”

If you don’t want to defend imperialism…if you don’t want to be complicit in war crimes…if you don’t want to help usher in an even worse war…

Then don’t throw your support, your resources and your hopes to someone who does not share those essential core beliefs but in fact subscribes to and acts on assumptions that you find—for now—to be abhorrent.

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Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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We Are ALL Sean Bell

We are all Sean Bell…out with friends the night before your wedding, suddenly set upon by armed men who fire 50 shots at you as you sit in your car, unarmed, frantically trying to get out of this sudden-death hell…still handcuffed to the hospital gurney as your parents come to identify your lifeless form six hours after you were killed…your uniformed killers acquitted because they say they “thought” you had a gun…we are all Sean Bell, living in a system that treats every young Black man as a potential criminal, as “fair game” for murder…

We are all Sean Bell…we who get harassed and sweated for walking down the street with a backpack or even nothing at all (50,000 times a month in NYC this year so far!)…we who must assume the position or kiss the pavement, making sure our eyes are looking down, saying “yes sir”…and sometimes even then murdered for a cellphone, a candy bar, a turn of the head, or just getting into a car at 4 in the morning on a street in Queens…we are all Sean Bell, living in a system where you get harassed, imprisoned and murdered for being “the wrong color,” or speaking “the wrong language,” or coming from “the wrong country”…

Dehumanization and criminalization are hardly reserved for only the rebellious—on May 2, the highest ranking Black officer in the NYPD, Chief Douglas Zeigler, was pulled out of his department-issued SUV by two undercover cops with guns drawn who refused to believe he was who he said he was, even when he presented his ID. And the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a suit this month against the NYPD on behalf of Leo Blair, who was stopped, frisked and arrested in the Bronx. Police told him they were “surprised” that he was not from “the projects.” Blair has a masters degree from Columbia University and is a reporter for the New York Post newspaper.

We are all Sean Bell…where the Black and Latino male youth in NYC hold back from protesting because nearly all of them have arrest records for bullshit in this “free country,” in this “greatest country of the world…” …where one in nine young Black men is in prison…where ICE carries out Gestapo-style raids and detention on people whose “crime” is being driven here in a desperate search for work…where torture is now legal…yes, we are all Sean Bell, living in a system where fancy talk of freedom hides a brutal reality of repression…

We are all Sean Bell…we who have inherited the legacy of the slaveship and the lynching tree, translated today into the constant shadow of the 50 shots at some friends in a car, the 41 shots in a doorway, the plunger in the stationhouse bathroom, the deadly chokehold for tossing a football in the street, the 13-year-old dead for playing with a toy gun… We are all Sean Bell, living in that system where the more they tell us things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same—or gotten worse…

We are all Sean Bell…going to high schools where they numb our minds and treat us like prisoners and where the military recruiters prowl the grounds, trying to sign us up to kill other people in other countries…other people held down by the same damn system that holds us down…

We are all Sean Bell…told to “choose” between the thug life or looking for work in a world of dead-end jobs or no jobs at all…sent to church, where we learn to blame ourselves for the situation that millions of us have been put in…put in by that system where “choice” and “personal responsibility” means learning to bow down and live with whatever hell the system chooses to dish out…

We are all Sean Bell…where those who see the wrongs and try to change them—as teachers, as doctors, as artists, as lawyers or just everyday people who don’t want to turn their heads in the face of injustice—find ourselves thwarted at every turn…where we who want to give cannot give and we who want to live cannot live, like humans…living in a system where we can only wish we knew how it would feel to be free…

We are all Sean Bell…all needing to get out of this system and all its ways…all needing, badly, to get into REVOLUTION…


Is this a society and system that is fit for human beings? NOBODY should want to live in a society where this verdict is acceptable. It cannot be allowed to go down without way more powerful mass resistance coming from all sections of society and from people from all walks of life.

Some now suggest that we “wait and see” whether the Justice Department files civil rights charges against the police. Many people already “waited” for the trial for over a year, thinking that this time, with 50 shots; when the young man killed was going to be married and there was no gun; maybe this time there would be some scrap of justice from the judge. But “waiting and seeing” did not, and will not bring justice. And waiting on the federal Justice Department will only lead away from what is needed to draw a line for this to STOP—now. This is the Justice Department that writes legal opinions justifying torture done in our name. This is the Justice Department that declared that everything was “regular” when they reviewed the case of the Jena 6, young people arrested for protesting a noose hung in front of their school. This is the Justice Department that collaborated with KKK informers in suppressing the Civil Rights movement and murdering Civil Rights activists in the South in the 1960s. This Justice Department is entirely intertwined in, and part of enforcing, the oppression and exploitation at the heart of this system.

Others wonder whether protest will do any good after seeing so many of our young people shot down, over and over, year after year. But the one reason the cops who killed Sean Bell were charged and brought to trial in the first place is not because a criminal system suddenly began to listen to reason, but because the outrage of thousands poured into the streets in the days and weeks after Sean was murdered.

All this must stop—a line must be drawn right here, right now. The verdict in the Sean Bell case cannot be considered acceptable by anyone, and it cannot be allowed to go down without being met with powerful mass resistance. Already hundreds have been arrested in civil disobedience, determined that business as usual should not continue. And hundreds of Black youth have repeatedly taken to the streets in Queens in militant protest. Much more of this is needed, and many more people of all ages, backgrounds, and races and nationalities must join the youth. It matters what we do in the face of this outrage. Powerful resistance can change the equation in a society where too many accept the unacceptable. It can give heart to those put under a constant death sentence by this verdict and it can call forth many more people to join in taking this on.

It’s way past time for a line to be drawn. This must stop. WE ARE ALL SEAN BELL! THE WHOLE DAMN SYSTEM IS GUILTY!

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Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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Revolution Interview - Neil Shubin:

The Quest to Uncover the History of Life on Earth

A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.


    Neil Shubin is one of the world’s leading paleontologists—scientists who study fossils to learn about the evolution of life on our planet. He is also a professor and associate dean of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and provost at the Field Museum. In 2004, Shubin and his team discovered a fossil in the Canadian Arctic that made headlines around the world when it was publicly announced two years later. This was Tiktaalik roseae—a 375-million-year-old fossil of a creature that was an intermediate between fish and land-living animals.
    Earlier this year, Neil Shubin came out with his book Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon Books)—a lively and accessible work that is full of fascinating science…and downright fun!
    Revolution interviewed Neil Shubin at his lab at the University of Chicago, where his research involves the study of genes and the development of embryos along with fossils.

Revolution: Would you give a brief general overview for our readers of the significance of the Tiktaalik fossil you discovered, and what your book, Your Inner Fish, is about?

Neil Shubin: Tiktaalik, along with other fossils of lobe-finned fish and amphibians, reveals a critical time in evolution. What we see is how the descendants of fish with fins evolved to inhabit land. This is a big event in the history of the earth and also is a big event in our own history. Many of the features that originally evolved in fish like Tiktaalik are parts of our own bodies and our own history. The neck that is first seen in Tiktaalik is something that became our own neck. The functional wrist in Tiktaalik is something that became our own wrist. This is the general theme of Your Inner Fish. Each of us carries over 3.5 billion years of history inside of us. In every organ, cell, and gene in our bodies is a deep connection to the rest of life on our planet. And the story of our bodies is written in the fossils, bodies, and DNA in creatures as different as worms, fish, and sponges. That is the story of the book.

Revolution: You’re preparing for this summer’s field season in the Canadian Arctic. Are you going to the same area where the Tiktaalik fossil was found? And are there specific types of fossils that you are looking for?

Neil Shubin: We have two goals this summer. The first goal is to return to the Tiktaalik site, which is a site about 20 feet long that we've opened up a bit, with fish skeletons one on top of another. So we know there are more Tiktaalik to find at that site. So we're going to go there for about two weeks. The whole field season is about five weeks long. So for the remainder of the time—there will be six of us going—we'll divide into two camps of three. Small camps, very mobile, like sort of reconnaissance teams. And our goal will be to identify new sites.

Revolution: You said you hope to find more Tiktaalik. What other kinds of fossils do you expect to find?

Neil Shubin: What is really great about the Tiktaalik site itself is that there are all kinds of fish there, it's not just Tiktaalik. So we have a chance by working the Tiktaalik site in more detail, and by studying the geology of that site in more detail, as well as the rocks above and below it, we'll have a sense of what the environment that the Tiktaalik lived in was like. Was it swampy? What other fish lived with it? What was the ecosystem like? Really what we want to do, in several years' time, is to be able to state with a degree of confidence, what the ecosystem that Tiktaalik lived in looked like. And the only way we're going to do that is by really working the site in some great detail, bringing in people who have different expertise than mine, which might be more geological, things like that. So we'll spend a few weeks there.

And then, we're always itching for new things. So the idea will be, we'll divide up into these two camps, two teams of three, very mobile—and we'll go up in time, into younger rocks. Tiktaalik is about 375 million years old. The rocks we're going to go into are about 370 to 365, five million years younger, more recent. The idea is to find something that was more tetrapod-like than Tiktaalik. [Editors' note: Tetrapods are animals with four limbs.] So it's a never-ending quest to some extent. Each time we find answers we get new questions. And that's what makes it fun. And there's so much to still discover up in the Arctic. To some extent, we've been victims of our own success. When you find a place, that's the one place you work, the Tiktaalik site. But there's this vast Arctic that we still haven't looked at, much of it, in great detail. And so we're going to get back to that a bit this summer.

Revolution: In Your Inner Fish, you point out that our world is so “highly ordered” that it’s possible to predict the kind of fossils that lie in different layers of rock around the world, and that those predictions can bring about discoveries that tell us about ancient events in the history of life. At the same time, you talk about the role of chance and serendipity in your work. How did those two aspects relate to the discovery of the fossil of Tiktaalik?

Neil Shubin: It took us all kinds of planning to get to Tiktaalik sites. First of all, we needed to figure out that we wanted to work in the Arctic. Then where in the Arctic we wanted to work. Finding a fossil in the Arctic is like finding a needle in a haystack. The Arctic is a pretty big place, and fossils are pretty small. So how do you do that? It took a lot of planning. It took learning about the geology of the area. There are two essentials, obviously. Learning from the work that preceded us, the geologists who worked there in the '70s, Ashton Embry and his teams from Canada, did a great job mapping those sites. But there's no getting around the experience of actually seeing the rocks for yourself. And so it took us a long time actually of learning the local geology, from our own viewpoints, that we were able to narrow down the particular patch of the Arctic that would be the most productive for us. We knew that because the best places up there are places that were in ancient streams. And so we were basically looking for rocks that had the characteristics of ancient streams. So that was planning. We planned like crazy to get there. And it takes a lot of planning in terms of permits, working with local governments, trying to raise money—these expeditions are not cheap, and we live in a time where funding for science, particularly basic science, is very challenged. So it took a lot of planning.

But then the actual moment of discovery is usually some dumb, bizarre luck-chance thing that happens, it really is. You're walking one day, and you see a little glimmer of something that doesn't look like it should be there on the ground. You pick it up and there's a bone. Well, what if that day was cloudy instead of sunny? What if the light was coming at a different angle? Or what if your head wasn't in it, and you're thinking about home or something, you know what I mean? There's all this serendipity that happens at that final moment. For us, in fact, the moment when the site for Tiktaalik was discovered, there was a degree of serendipity. Jason Downs was the one who discovered it. Jason was a college undergraduate who joined us. He happened on the site, and golly-gee, had he walked 10 feet in another direction, he wouldn't have seen the site. So you plan like crazy to get to some place. But then usually the act of discovery, that moment, is usually kind of random [laughs]. And funny—sometimes they're hilarious.

Revolution: How so?

Neil Shubin: For instance, when I was a graduate, back in the ’80s, I was working in Nova Scotia. And we had planned like crazy. At that time I was really interested in the origin of mammals—an evolutionary event that happened around 200 million years ago. So we had made all kinds of plans to go to the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. And it was great for fossils, but we weren't finding exactly what we were after. It turns out this place has super-high tides. If you didn't plan your trip to the beach right, you would get stuck. It wouldn't be terribly life-threatening, but you'd be sitting on a pinnacle of rock for a couple of hours, skipping stones or whatever. So one night we were called to judge a local beauty contest for this town we were staying in. And we stayed up way too late and woke up the next morning too late because of that, and missed the tide. So we got stuck on this one pinnacle. And here, all this planning it had taken to get us to this site which was on the other end of this pinnacle of rock, but here we're stuck on this place for two hours. So we got bored and started looking at the rocks there. And the rocks there are not the kind that you'd ever look for fossils in, they look like they're volcanic. But it turned out there were fossils in them. And boom—if we'd never judged that beauty contest, we'd never have been stuck, we would never have found these really cool fossils that came out of that pinnacle of rock.

Revolution: You write in Your Inner Fish of a biological "law of everything"—"that every living thing on the planet had parents"—and how this law is "so profound that most of us take it completely for granted." Why is the fact that every living thing had parents so important?

Neil Shubin: What it means is that each of us as individuals can trace a biological lineage. We have biological families. And you can make a biological family tree. Now my children are adopted. They're part of my family, but they have a biological lineage that's separate from their social one. Regardless, we have a biological lineage that we can trace, from my parents to grandparents, my biological great-grandparents, all the way on. And that's true because I'm a modified descendant of my father and mother. My parents are modified descendants of their parents. Well, it turns out we can use the same techniques that we use as biologists to decipher our own family trees—like the DNA mapping projects that you read about, or the forensics that put people in jail, things like that. We can use them to find a broader family tree, the family tree that's the family tree of our species, to show that we as a species are modified descendants of another species, and so forth. So this tree of life concept, which we're so familiar with in our own personal lives, actually has a deeper meaning for us, because it means there's a deeper tree of life that relates us to everything from apes that are walking the earth today to jellyfish to squid…you name it. And it's interesting that oftentimes the techniques that do these things are very identical. The beauty of this is that we're intimately connected to the rest of life. Not only that, we're part of a family tree with the rest of life. We're relatives. That family tree is knowable—that's the fun thing. We can decipher it. We can do it by looking at molecules, the DNA. Or we can look at bones or fossils.

Revolution: Some animals have only one parent instead of two.

Neil Shubin: Yeah, some are clones. But you can still trace their genetic history. So let's remove the parent concept for a second and think genetic lineage, that you can trace the genetic continuity. And you can even do that to things that are not living, all the way back in time. That is, the DNA molecules, the RNA molecules—the molecules themselves have a lineage from a simpler molecule. So lineage is the very important thing, genetic lineage if you will. That doesn't mean that nurture, the way we're raised, is not important. But we have an internal lineage inside of us, a family tree.

Revolution: In the 1800s, the anatomist Richard Owen made, as you describe it, a "remarkable discovery"—that the limbs of creatures as different as frogs and humans are very similar, essentially "variations of a theme." To Owen, these similarities showed the plan of a Creator. Then came Darwin a short while later with an "elegant explanation" for these similarities. What was the leap in understanding that Darwin brought forward? Why do you describe it as “elegant”?

Neil Shubin: The leap is, essentially, that Owen's plan—one bone, two bones, little bones, and limbs, which is the arm of a bat, wing of a bird, arm of a human—that pattern to Darwin was evidence of common descent. That the reason why creatures had that similar pattern is not because of a highly organized creator, but it's material evidence of the fact that these creatures share a common ancestor in the distant past, that they're related. Now the reason why that's elegant is because it not only explained Owen's pattern, but it made predictions, which then you can go out and test. That's the beauty of it. With Owen's plan, it's just there. Oh, the Creator made it, good, let's move on, find the next plan. This one's different. This one says: here's the material reason. And now knowing that, well, you know what—you should be able to find how that plan was assembled in fish, or before that, in creatures that we call worms today, and so forth. It should have a history. And that history you should be able to find. That's what led to Tiktaalik.

Revolution: Your book goes into many fascinating examples of how various structures of the human body can be traced back through evolutionary history in often unexpected ways. For instance, you point out that one might think that our skeletons began with features like the backbones or body armor of earlier creatures, but that is not actually the case. Can you go into how the skeleton actually evolved?

Neil Shubin: Our skeleton is hard, right? I knock on this table, and it's really hard. And it's good, because if we didn't have a skeleton that was hard, we'd be just like a mass of goo, and we wouldn't be able to live on land, it'd be lots of blobs moving around. There are a lot of theories about why hard parts developed. Did they evolve to protect animals—like bony armor? Did they evolve to support the skeleton, or for mineral balance? But it turns out that the first things we find that are hard in our lineage (there are other things that are hard—clams are hard, and things like that), but our kind of hardness, which is brought by a particular kind of molecule which we have called hydroxyapatite, that kind of hardness originally appeared in a toothlike structure. So the first things that were hard were not there to protect creatures—they were there to chew them up [laughs]. Teeth are really important.

Revolution: Related to the tooth question, there were these common fossils in ancient oceans, called conodonts, that, for a long while, were a mystery to scientists.

Neil Shubin: Yeah, they didn't know what they were. If you go to certain places in the world and you crack rocks, say over 250 millions years old, like go to the era of oceans when Tiktaalik was around, you'll find places where there are these conodonts. You crack the rocks, you'll find these really tiny…put them under the microscope and they look like tiny little teeth for all the world. For a long time people didn't know what they were, because they never found an animal that had these things. Turns out that what we call conodonts are actually the teeth of a larger creature which we now call the conodont animal. The mystery was solved when people discovered whole animals, and it turns out they're teeth, the earliest known.

Revolution: You note that "One of the joys of being a scientist is that the natural world has the power to amaze and surprise." Would you give us a particular example of this—what has really amazed and surprised you?

Neil Shubin: When I was in graduate school in the early '80s, people were beginning to work on flies. People were looking at development—embryology—by looking at frogs, flies, and mice. I remember at the time thinking, what is the development of a fly going to teach us about how our own bodies are made? Well, here's the power of surprises. Many of the versions of the same genes that build our bodies from front to back, that define the body axis, are present in flies, doing versions of the same thing. So what surprised me, as well as a lot of other people, was the discovery in the mid- to late-'80s of the common genetic tool kit to build bodies—bodies as different as flies, humans, and worms. I would not have predicted that. And there's a beauty to that when it's more elegant than just the surprise—it's the order of it. Our world is not put together piece-meal. When you start to learn more and more, we start to discover that the more we know of the history, the more things become ordered to some extent—you can make sense of stuff. Just like you can make sense of your own pre-disposition to diseases if you know your genetic lineage, or the environments you were raised in. It tells a lot about yourself.

Revolution: As a part of the title of your book notes, the human body has a 3.5 billion year history. Now, three and a half billions years ago, the only living things on earth were microbes with just a single cell. By contrast, there are trillions of cells that compose the human body. In what sense can we speak of our "inner microbe"?

Neil Shubin: Oh yeah, the choice of the title was completely arbitrary. Well, not arbitrary. As a scientist, I could have called it "Your Inner Worm," "Your Inner Microbe," a lot of things. But I work with fish. Fish are a wonderful way to think of our own bodies. That's why I called it "Your Inner Fish." But I could have chosen many different points of our evolutionary past and given the title there. It's just for me, personally, the entry point has been fish. So that's my fishy bias. But the thing is, if you want to understand yourselves, you have to understand different parts of our tree to explain different parts of ourselves. If you want to understand what makes us unique relative to other primates, well then you have to understand our humanity. If you want to understand why our head is shaped the way it is, well you have to understand the history we share with primates, but you also have to understand the history we share with other mammals, with reptiles, with fish. So it's these deep layers upon layers of history that make us.

Revolution: But how can we trace our history back to single-cell microbes?

Neil Shubin: It's beautiful because if you look at the structure of our DNA, if you look at how our DNA works, if you look at how our cells work, how we metabolize oxygen, if you look at the molecular machinery that guides the workings of our cells, and how our cells interact with one another, that's the microbe bit. So again it's layers after layers of our history buried inside of us. So the fish-like bits of us, you see in our skeletons. You see in our nerves, and so forth. But the microbial bit, you actually find in the machinery of our cells, of our genes. So that's an example of our three and a half billion year history. Well, there's stuff from a billion years ago. How our cells make energy—we breathe oxygen and eat food, we work our muscles, we're using energy. Well the whole machinery to do that is a microbial feature. In fact my ability to talk to you right now, and your ability to hear me, and our ability to move—thank you, microbes [laughs].

Revolution: You write that life in your research lab can be very "schizophrenic," because it is split directly into two, half devoted to fossils and the other to embryos and DNA. You've talked about this some, but how are these different areas of study linked?

Neil Shubin: To decipher a family tree, what you need are many different lines of evidence. Think of solving a mystery. There's a murder. How does a good detective solve a murder mystery? Well, they're going to pull in as many lines of evidence as possible. Hopefully they have some eyewitnesses. But short of that, they're going to need a ton of independent lines of evidence. Well, it's the same thing with us. We pull in as many lines of evidence to understand our history as possible. Fossils are one line of evidence. The DNA records are another line of evidence. But the fact of the matter is that it's strongest when both those lines of evidence point to the same thing. When the DNA inside the cells of living creatures gives us the same story as the fossils that we find up in the Arctic, then we know that we're on to something very powerful. That's the idea.

Revolution: There is a very poetic passage in your book: “If you know how to look, our body becomes a time capsule that, when opened, tells of critical moments in the history of our planet and of a distant past in ancient oceans, streams, and forests. Changes in the ancient atmosphere are reflected in the molecules that allow our cells to cooperate to make bodies. The environment of ancient streams shaped the basic anatomy of our limbs. Our color vision and sense of smell has been molded by life in ancient forests and plains. And the list goes on. This history is our inheritance, one that affects our lives today and will do so in the future.” How does this inheritance affect our lives now and in the future?

Neil Shubin: I was born with a hernia which had to be corrected [laughs]—that's a good example. We evolved in many different environments. Our common ancestors that we share with the rest of life on the planet lived in starkly different environments than today, which sometimes leads to problems. Fish don't walk on two legs, we do. Yet we use some of the same structures that originally evolved in fish. So what you have is a body that can be seen as sort of a jerry-rigged device. Every piece of us has been modified or re-purposed in different ways through evolutionary time. And what that means, when you re-purpose things, it's not the ideal solution. We're not very intelligently designed. We're very unintelligently designed in a lot of different ways—we're historically designed. Our bodies are a testament to the power of history. Nowhere is it more clear than in the bizarre loops and turns some of the vessels and nerves in our bodies take. And one of those loops is in males, unfortunately, the spermatic cord, which gives males, as compared to females, a greater tendency to develop a certain kind of hernia in the lower part of the abdominal wall. So that history is our inheritance, and oftentimes that inheritance causes us a little bit of grief [laughs], because we live in a different world. I'm sitting in a very soft chair for eight hours a day. I can guarantee you the common ancestor we share with other mammals did not sit in a soft chair for eight hours a day [laughs].

Revolution: What about your point about that inheritance affecting the future?

Neil Shubin: Think of what we humans are as creatures. We're so different in some ways with our cognitive abilities. We're able to devise gizmos and technologies to sort of overcome our inheritance, to some extent. I had that hernia I was born with. OK, that was my past, but guess what, our technological present led to technologies that fixed that hernia. I have nearsightedness, pretty severe nearsightedness. Which would mean if left to my own devices, natural selection would have weeded me out. But we have this wonderful technology [pointing to his glasses] which has helped us—that kind of thing.

And so what that means is, if you think about our future, it's increasingly going to be driven by the choices we make with our social structures, our technologies, how we're going to deploy them, how we're going to use them, what they are. Frankly, the more we understand about our bodies, the more we can change them. It's not inconceivable that in the future we can have technologies which affect our ability to think, to recall things, to run, to jump, to leap, to hit home runs [laughs]. We're already seeing that—human performance can change based on our technology. So frankly, our own evolution, to some extent, in terms of our performance, is going to be very much affected in the future by our ability to change ourselves—consciously. And those decisions are going to have all kinds of ramifications. We're going to have to make choices in how to deploy those, or whether we want to deploy them. More likely than not, they're just going to happen, and then we'll look back and think, we should have done something about that. Come back in 150 years and I guarantee you, humans will be running faster, thinking more—like, you want to learn French, here's a chip, put it right here in your brain, that kind of thing.

Revolution: At the end of your book you speak to “the power of science to explain and make our universe knowable,” and that “the unknown should not be a source of suspicion, fear, or retreat to superstition, but motivation to continue asking questions and seeking answers.” Could you expand on this?

Neil Shubin: For me, I was always raised in a tradition that the unknown should become known. A dark room is scary for a kid, but when you turn on the light it's not scary. And that's how knowledge is. It's like turning on a light in a room. You think about how the moon was thought to be, for years—there was all kinds of mythology about the moon. But once humankind made the trip to the moon and back, it became part of our world. You can go on the Internet and see pictures of the moon. You can see people walking on the moon. You can see moon rocks in the Museum of Science and Industry. The same thing is true with all branches of science. The more we learn about the DNA, the more we learn about how our bodies are built, our evolutionary history, we remove the chance for myth and superstition. The more we do that, the more we gain power over our own lives. Now, that means we face choices with things. But those shouldn't be scary—those should be informed choices. I see science as a light in a dark room. When my son is scared at night in a dark room, I'll turn on a little night light. Well, that light is knowledge in my own world.

Revolution: At the same time, there will always be more mysteries—a question is answered, then there'll be more questions.

Neil Shubin: Exactly. My world is full of questions. How do you think I'm approaching Tiktaalik? We answered some questions with Tiktaalik, but there are more questions that are opened up. Science is never-ending questions. We humans are never going to understand 100 percent of everything, obviously. It's always a battle to learn the truth. And scientific truth is different from most other kinds of truth in that it's a truth that we strive for. We never actually claim we have it entirely, because it sometimes slips out of our grasp. What we have is a method which can get us there. Scientific truth is important because it's truth that you and I can share. I can put it on the table, and I can tell you why that is a truth. And we can agree on principles to falsify it or confirm it, right? That's something that's important about science. Other forms of truths, you either accept it, based on your own background or belief system. In scientific truths, there is a right and a wrong. And that's what attracts me to it.

Revolution: You’re a provost at the Field Museum in Chicago, which has a very popular exhibit called "Our Evolving Planet," among other things. You’ve written a best-selling book. You’ve taken the Tiktaalik fossil to schoolrooms. How do you see the importance of people broadly in society understanding science and the scientific method?

Neil Shubin: We have to do that, scientists have to get in the role of communicating what we do. It's important in several ways. Not only communicating the fact of evolution, the facts of the fossil record and of DNA. There's something else there—two other things. One is, science is a process. How do we scientists do it? It's not that we just open a book and say, aha, there's the fact. My book is in the Arctic, and we have to work really hard to find that stuff. We have to take some risks. So the books of science are in the test tubes and in the field and so forth. But the other piece of it is conveying also why it's fun. I love nothing more than receiving a letter from teachers or kids who want to learn more. If they're lucky to live in an area that has a great museum, that's fine. But the Internet is a great tool, and that's been a great equalizer in a lot of ways in giving people from remote areas the chance to see museums or encounter fossils and so forth. It's ever more important in our society. Look, we live in a society, United States, I don't know the current statistics, but over 60 percent believe in the story of the Genesis over the science of evolution. I think there's a gap there. Here we are in an increasingly technological society—look at what I just said about technology and our future. Yet we as a society are completely unequipped to evaluate that. So we owe it to our children and to our population, not just children—to people who might be scared of science because of experiences they had in school and so forth, to communicate its power and what we do. That was the spirit of my book. And that's also why I think museums are very important places.

Revolution: What do you see as some of the key questions and controversies in paleontology and evolutionary science today?

Neil Shubin: There's a lot of good stuff. Cutting-edge issues include, I think, understanding the dynamics of extinction—how species go extinct, and why. There is an ongoing question about why are certain areas of the world or certain time periods more diverse in species than others? Why is there more diversity of species in the tropics than there are in other places? Why do we see that pattern of diversity—what explains that, what's the mechanisms? Those kinds of questions are very important. And paleontology is actually making strides on those as we speak, but those are very important questions. And the other really big one, in terms of my own patch of the world, is understanding bodies. How bodies came about in the first place. We know a lot more than we did five years ago, and we're going to know a lot more five years from now. And that's going to be exciting to watch as we learn more about how cells came together to make bodies and other big questions.

Revolution: That goes back to the point about microbes—single-celled microbes were the only form of life for billions of years on earth, before multi-cellular creatures came about.

Neil Shubin: They had been coming together for a long time. But they hadn't been coming together in bodies. They had been coming together as mats or sheets of cells. What's a body, and what's really important about a body, is those cells had to have a mechanism where they could interact with one another. Bodies have an integrity to them that other kinds of organization don't. The way that happens is that these cells, these microbes, actually evolved over time ways to interact with one another. And it's interesting, microbes do that. Microbes interact. Microbes sense the outside world. And really what we have—the tool kit that makes bodies—is actually a modified version of that, which helps microbes interact with each other and the outside world. So that's why the continuity is still there. For me as a scientist, there's no doubt that that happened. The interesting puzzle comes down to how that happened, over what time frame, and so forth.

Revolution: Why did you decide to become a scientist, and how did you come to pursue your particular areas of research? Were you interested in science from an early age?

Neil Shubin: I was this kid—still the same way—I would have a hobby of the month. It would drive my parents nuts. They bought me a telescope—"I'm really into astronomy." So I subscribed to Sky and Telescope and I learned a lot about astronomy. Four months later I got bored of it. So I got a stamp collection, got really into it. So I would go from hobby to hobby to hobby to hobby. I would eventually loop back to old hobbies—the telescope never got thrown away; in fact, I still have it somewhere. So I was always curious, and science has always been an outlet for my curiosity. But the actual paleontology end of things–it combines a lot of cool stuff for me that I like to do. It combines strengths—it's important to find a career where you can use your strengths, not your weaknesses [laughs]. I enjoy going out in the field. I enjoy finding fossils—my strength is the ability to find fossils, I've always been good at that. It's nice to have a career where I can put that to good use. But the important thing is, you have to really enjoy it. Because most of the time I'm not finding anything. It's the hunt. It's the exhilaration. I like starting a new expedition, having the expectation and the risk. That's kind of fun. But for paleontology, one of the immediate appeals is the "eureka" moment—there is a moment in paleontology, if you're successful, you find something. And that's something you can hold and say, "aha"—like Tiktaalik. That's what you look for. Now I'm looking for the next one.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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Controversy Over Berkeley Law School’s Refusal to Fire Bush’s “Enabler”:

Professor John Yoo Has Blood On His Hands!

By Reggie Dylan

The April 1 release of former Justice Department General Counsel John Yoo’s infamous March 2003 “torture memo” has led the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and a growing number of organizations and individuals such as World Can’t Wait to demand that Yoo be fired from his teaching position at UC Berkeley’s prestigious Boalt Hall Law School. The call to dismiss Yoo (and for him to be disbarred and prosecuted for war crimes) has triggered controversy and opposition from some legal scholars and academics who are viewing this whole matter as an attempt to fire Yoo solely for his politically reactionary opinions, and therefore an attack on “academic freedom.”

But the demand to fire John Yoo is not based on his scholarship. John Yoo is a war criminal. He is a chief architect of the U.S. policy of open, legal torture.

Yoo’s March ’03 “torture memo” advised the Pentagon that laws and treaties forbidding torture and other forms of abuse did not apply to U.S. interrogators because of the President’s supposed wartime powers. And it advised the Bush regime that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) would not enforce U.S. criminal laws, including federal statutes against torture, assault, maiming and stalking, in the detention and interrogation of “unlawful” enemy combatants.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than a hundred people have died in U.S. detention in the so-called war on terror. It has found 11 cases where the deaths resulted from torture, and others where torture was connected. The award-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side reveals the extent of these gruesome, chilling practices by the U.S. that some have described as “torture on an industrial scale.” The story is told through the account of an innocent taxi driver who was tortured and killed in 2002 by U.S. interrogators at Bagram prison in Afghanistan.1 Many other films and books have been bringing these war crimes to light.

John Yoo played an active, deliberate, and leading role in making all of this possible. As Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s OLC, Yoo wrote key memos and issued key opinions that advised top administration officials on OLC’s interpretation of what was, and wasn’t, legal.

Bush’s “War Council” of Lawyers

Yoo is not the only one—and specifically, not the only lawyer—in the Bush regime guilty of war crimes. The most important legal-policy decisions in the “war on terror” were made by a select, self-styled “War Council.” The War Council was made up of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales; Yoo; David Addington, Cheney’s General Counsel; and Jim Haynes, Rumsfeld’s General Counsel. This group of senior lawyers believed that the biggest obstacle to freeing the Bush regime’s hands in the wake of 911was the set of U.S. and international laws that arose in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. And they set out to create the legal theories, and “interpretations,” to circumvent them.

John Yoo and the other lawyers advised the Bush regime that it could ignore not only U.S. law but international law as well. For instance, on August 1, 2002, an opinion authored by Yoo stated the techniques used to interrogate members of al-Qaeda did not violate the UN Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. had ratified in 1994. And another opinion released the same day and co-authored by Yoo contained his infamous “re-interpretation” of what constituted torture. According to Yoo, torture could now be narrowly defined as only “the pain associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure or permanent damage resulting in loss of significant body functions will likely result.” In a public exchange with Notre Dame Professor Douglass Cassel in 2006, Yoo told the audience there was no law preventing the President from authorizing the crushing of the testicles of a child in front of his father to extract information.

Yoo’s memo was typical of a method used by Bush’s legal advisors: reinterpreting laws to eliminate their effect or to make them serve the needs of the Bush regime, without actually overturning them. In this case, torture was not being approved—it was simply being “redefined.” This enabled Bush and others to torture enemy combatants while continuing to maintain that “We don’t torture.”

One example of the way the War Council played its leading role: an opinion co-authored by Yoo and issued on January 9, 2002 concluded that the Geneva Convention (Geneva) didn’t apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Two weeks later, Alberto Gonzales signed a memo to Bush that described the “war on terror” as a “new kind of war” and a “new paradigm” that showed Geneva’s “strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners” to be “obsolete” and even “quaint.” These lawyers understood that without Geneva, the threat of domestic criminal proceedings under the U.S. War Crimes Act would be greatly reduced.

With the legal rationale in place, Bush announced, on February 7, 2002, that none of the detainees at Guantánamo, whether or not they were alleged to be Taliban or al-Qaeda, could rely on any of the protections granted by the Geneva Convention, not even what’s known as Common Article 3.2 Again employing their typical, duplicitous M.O., senior legal advisors and various officials continued to declare that they thoroughly upheld Geneva and the Torture Convention. They simply concluded that “unlawful” enemy combatants, acting outside the auspices of a state, are not covered by these Conventions’ protections.

In testimony given this May 6 before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, law professor and National Lawyers Guild President Marjorie Cohn showed clearly what Bush’s legal advisors were fully aware of: that torture is banned under all circumstances and any violation of that ban constitutes a war crime. Professor Cohn testified that torture—just like genocide, slavery, and wars of aggression—comes under the international legal principle of jus cogens, Latin for “higher law” or “compelling law.” As she explained, “this means that no country can ever pass a law that allows torture. There can be no immunity from criminal liability for violation of a jus cogens prohibition.” She quoted the UN Convention Against Torture: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.”

Yet this is exactly what Yoo and the other members of the War Council advised could be done, and what the Bush regime in turn did. Referring to his memo of March ’03 and an earlier one in August 2002, Professor Cohn said Yoo and other lawyers from the Office of Legal Counsel “wrote memos at the request of high-ranking government officials in order to insulate them from future prosecution for subjecting detainees to torture.” These torture memos opened the way for Abu Ghraib and other crimes, and also provided legal justification for torture that had already been going on.

In fact, there is a “smoking gun”—an “Action Memo” dated December 2, 2002 titled “Counter-Resistance Techniques,” drafted by the War Council’s Jim Haynes for Rumsfeld’s approval. Author and law professor Philippe Sands, in an interview for Democracy Now!, pointed out that Haynes relied on Yoo’s August 2002 memo in writing this Action Memo (Democracy Now!, 5/8/08). Attached to the Action Memo were 18 new, specific techniques of interrogation that violated Geneva’s Common Article 3, including waterboarding. All but three were okayed on the spot, and none, not even waterboarding, was ruled out. This memo contains Rumsfeld’s handwritten margin note: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” In fact, forcing prisoners to stand for long periods of time is a part of CIA-developed torture techniques.

Official logs later made public reveal that 10 days before these methods were approved, one prisoner at Guantánamo had started undergoing what would become 57 days of these newly “enhanced” interrogation procedures. Many of the new procedures were already being used systematically on “detainee 063”—otherwise known as Mohammed al-Qahtani, alleged to be the “20th hijacker.” In a May 13, 2008 press release, the CCR, who represented al-Qahtani, said the “approved” torture techniques included beatings; severe sleep deprivation combined with 20-hour interrogations for months at a time; threats against him and his family; strip searches and body searches; sexual humiliation; attacks by dogs; acute stress positions for hours at a time; exposure to low temperatures and loud music for long periods of time; and more. This means that the December 2, 2002 memo constitutes providing after-the-fact legal cover for violations of the War Crimes Act.

And many of these torture techniques are identical to those used at Abu Ghraib that shocked the world when they came to light, but which U.S. officials swore were completely unauthorized acts by “rogue elements.” 

A War Criminal, Not Controversial Academic

The demand that John Yoo be fired, disbarred, and tried as a war criminal (along with other Bush administration lawyers and officials) has provoked fierce controversy among some legal academics, who are unfortunately viewing this case far too narrowly and seeing it as a threat to tenure and academic freedom—an attempt to punish a faculty member for his ideas, however repugnant they may be viewed. Some opposing it have made comparisons to the unjust firing last July of tenured Professor Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado.

But there is no basis to compare the right-wing witch hunt that targeted Churchill solely for his controversial statements written after 9/11 and used them to get him fired, with the call for Yoo’s ouster and prosecution.3 The firing of Churchill is part of an intense assault on academic freedom and critical thinking spearheaded by reactionary forces, like David Horowitz, who are closely connected to high-level ruling class forces. As CCR President Michael Ratner wrote in the forthcoming book The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, these memos authored by Yoo were not just academic exercises. “They were written by high-level attorneys in a context where the opinions represented the governing law and were to be employed by the President in setting detainee policy. This was more than bad lawyering; this was aiding and abetting their clients’ violation of the law by justifying the commission of a crime using false legal rhetoric.”

It would be wrong to call for Yoo’s firing if he were simply a right-wing academic who had written and voiced very reactionary and repugnant views (in the course of academic work, or in other settings), even endorsing torture. Someone like that should be challenged in debates, but firing a professor for their views should be opposed. But Yoo is not just an academic with controversial ideas. As a key member of the Bush regime’s legal team, he was someone who was actively involved in legalizing torture and other horrors.

Another argument that has support is one made by Boalt Hall Dean Christopher Edley, Jr. in his statement opposing the demand to dismiss Yoo. Dean Edley, himself having been in and out of White House positions twice in the past, asserts that there exists a “complex, ineffable boundary between policymaking and law-declaring.” He argues that Yoo’s conduct in giving legal advice was not morally equivalent to the actions of Rumsfeld, or of the Guantánamo interrogators. Yes, says Edley, “it does matter that Yoo was an adviser, but President Bush and his national security appointees were the deciders.”

But there is precedent for prosecuting lawyers who have played this kind of advisory role in laying the legal groundwork for subsequent crimes. As a part of the Nuremberg trials, which prosecuted Nazi leaders, officers, and functionaries at the end of World War 2, the U.S. tried 16 German Justice Ministry lawyers for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and membership in criminal organizations. The fact they didn’t run the gas chambers themselves but only created the legal framework protecting those who did could not exonerate them. (The case, known as U.S. v. Josef Altstötter and others, better known as the “Justice Cases,” was made famous by the 1961 film Judgement at Nuremberg, a fictionalized account of the proceedings.)

Philippe Sands, in his new book Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, writes, “The charge [in the “Justice Cases”]… was that men who had been leaders of the German legal system had ‘consciously and deliberately suppressed the law’ and contributed to crimes, including torture, that ‘were committed in the guise of legal process.’” The prosecutor in the case had argued that “Men of law can no more escape responsibility by virtue of their judicial robes than the general by his uniform.”

Yet as it stands today in this country both the “generals in their uniforms” and the “men in their judicial robes” continue to escape responsibility for their crimes—past, present, and in the planning. The fact they have not yet been held accountable has nothing to do with their culpability. The Bush regime, with its “war on terror,” has set the U.S. on a course for greater empire which is overall setting a framework the ruling class as a whole is locked into. Within that, there is infighting among the rulers over how to best accomplish their aims, and the issue of torture is a part of that.

This current ugly reality must be urgently transformed—and, as part of this, the efforts of those who have taken up this campaign to oust Yoo and hold the war criminals accountable must be supported and joined. To refuse to do so—or worse, to defend or protect criminal perpetrators and enablers like Yoo today, in the face of their towering crimes—becomes a form of complicity. That there isn’t already a society-wide uproar against torture is ominous—it signals the degree to which torture has openly become legitimized and normalized—as part of the overall move to fascist norms. The hour is very late. This really is a time for heroes; for people in their millions to confront reality as it is, so that it can be radically changed.



Chronicle of Higher Education blog, “Should John Yoo Be Fired?” April 17, 2008

Cohn, Marjorie, Testimony before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties House Judiciary Committee, May 6, 2008

Cohn, Marjorie, “Center for Constitutional Rights Supports NLG Call for Dismissal and Prosecution of John Yoo,” Common Dreams News Center, April 17, 2008

Horton, Scott, “Which came first: memos or torture?L.A. Times, April 21, 2008

Jaschik, Scott, “Torture or Tenure,”

Leiter, Brian, “‘American Freedom Campaign’ Organizing E-Mail-Campaign to Fire John Yoo,”

Rosen, Jeffrey, “Conscience of a Conservative,”The New York Times, September 9, 2007

Sands, Philippe, Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)

Sands, Philippe, “The Green Light,” Vanity Fair, May 2008

Sands, Philippe, Interviewed by Scott Horton,The New Republic, April 22, 2008

Van Bergen, Jennifer, “John Yoo: The President’s Executioner,”,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/


1. The term “dark side” refers to Vice President Dick Cheney’s statement a week after 911 that “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will…it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” [back]

2. Article 3 requires that prisoners taken during armed conflict be “treated humanely” and prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” [back]

3. Many who followed and studied the Churchill case closely found that the investigation into Churchill’s scholarship, the pretense for his firing, was a complete sham. See articles in Revolution #92 and #98, available online at, for more. [back]

Send us your comments.

Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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Letters from Prisoners

The following letters were forwarded to Revolution from the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund.

Just Finished Reading Away With All Gods!

I just finished reading “Away with All Gods!” by Bob Avakian. To say that it is a provocative analysis of religion is nearly an understatement!  His analysis rings so true that it can be nothing else aside from a definite indictment of religionists and the ruling class that pushes it like a bunch of dope dealers.

Chairman Avakian correctly implies that relativism (subjectivism) which is so favored by the religious, is dangerous. An individual or a class is capable of self-determination only to the degree that they are willing and able to deal with factual reality. It’s a fact: no gods exist.  So now we know this, now that we know that there is absolutely no “Supreme Being,” we must take this beyond rational knowledge and move it into the realm of practice.

Religions flourish inside prison because people are unwilling to accept the depths to which they have fallen. They are coddled by various religious groups, as well as pseudo-psychological Twelve Steps groups; “You can’t help yourself” they are told “it’s just in your nature.” This is obviously incorrect – sin doesn’t exist; no matter what mask you try to hide it under.

This is what Bob Avakian understands, and this is what Bob Avakian is saying. Humans must develop their positive characteristics and struggle with their negative ones, because no amount of prayer to an imaginary friend will do it for them. We must forge the present into a better future if we wish to live in a world where relationships aren’t based on mutual exploitation.

Thank you for sending me this new book. I will donate it to the prison library and encourage people I know to read it.



South Dakota

P.S. Would you please send me a copy of the article “God the Original Fascist” by A. Brooks?


Without Revolution, This Concrete Tomb Would Be a Hopeless Place Indeed

Greetings from the gulag! I’ve received the back copies to Revolution newspaper you sent (#117-123), and I’d like to address a couple of those topics later. As you can see by the yellow publication denial slip, the prison confiscated #122 because “it contains the photograph of a nude child” on page 10. I suspect it was a copy of the photo of the little Vietnamese girl running from the U.S. napalm attack on her village (as on p. 4 of #105); I don’t know who or what they think they are protecting with their censorship but, what’re  you gonna do?  The photo surely did move me, but not in the way they’re afraid of….

Before I forget: comrades, please renew my subscription to Revolution newspaper. My cousin, my last family link with the outside world, is quickly passing away with cancer (it’s inoperable because of its location  and extensive progress) and my being in a super seg. cell 24/7, you’re my only active connection with the outside world. Needless to say, I’m not financially able to purchase your critically necessary communications, but must wholly rely on the charitable generosity of my kind communist friends and comrades. Without you, this concrete tomb would be a hopeless place indeed!

Over the past year or so, from reading your publications, I find I am truly seeing the world through communist eyes more and more… I recently checked out a book from the prison library, The Establishment vs. the People, by Richard Viguerie. The title promised to be interesting and, I’m always open to learning and gathering different perspectives. Mr. Viguerie presents himself as a populist angry at Big Government for subverting the will of the people. He’s a proponent of the so-called Moral Majority. What he in fact is, is a right-wing Christian Fascist (is that redundant?) who wants to turn the country into a mindless theocracy (where he’ll feel more comfortable!). The point is, and my purpose in bringing this up: Two years ago I would not have been able to see through his bullshit and lies; he would have been able to hand feed me his half-truths and distortions and bald-faced lies, and I’d’ve been unable to discern the difference between that and strawberry ice cream. Perhaps, he’d’ve been able to con me into seeing the world through his eyes. And this is why I wrote earlier “your critically necessary communications.” Unfortunately, homo sapiens has not evolved to the point in which his or her bullshit meter is fully operative – if it were otherwise, we’d already live in one communist world. This is why your newspaper is so critical: it’s like a dialysis organ that helps the masses filter out the impurities that we’re inundated with on a daily basis, it’s the instrument which valiantly struggles against George Orwell’s dark prediction for the future characterized in 1984. A prediction coming more and more to pass every day.

Another case in point are the outstanding articles “Bamboozling You into the Empire,” and, “…A New Face on the Same Set-up?” On the progressive radio programs a consistent subject is the unreliability of the present voting machines, near “smoking-gun” evidence of voting fraud in several states and the “critical need” for comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation. It’s very easy to get caught up in these verbal sleight-of-hand arguments if one’s bullshit meter isn’t turned on. The argument being, of course, the system works if we can just vote out the few bugs in it. This is the BIG LIE that we’re conditioned to believe. The ideological prestidigitators job is to get everyone’s attention focused in one direction, while in another direction, out of vision and consciousness, the actual machinations of the illusions are performed. The aforementioned articles address the heart of the matter: the capitalist-imperialist system, in the personification of Uncle Sam, has his hand shoved up the backsides of all the candidates and is using them for finger puppets! You want Black? We got Black. You want female? We got female. That’s right folks, come one, come all; whatever you want we got. (Just don’t direct your attention toward the system and the fact that, like my cousin’s cancer, it’s inoperable.)

Concerning the issue of “supporting our troops,” Revolution newspaper, to my knowledge, is the only publication in the entire country with the clear insight and courage to come right out and say We Must Not Support Our Troops, and gives a clear and irrefutable argument why this is so… 

Lastly, if I’m not taking up too much of your valuable time, I wanted to address the issue of anarchy: I have always held the concept of anarchy – a society of freely associating individuals devoid of government coercion – as an ideal. I still do and always will. Not on a space-of- the-moment whim did I get “Enemy of the State” quite boldly tattooed across my breastbone, and I’ll hold this ideal as permanently as the tattoo. How then, can I declare in a letter to you, which I wrote on October 26, of last year, (it’s my communist birthday!) that I’m a lifetime [communist]? Anarchists hate communists, don’t they? After all (so the reasoning goes), communists want to control every facet of the individual’s life – they’re anathema to emancipation. I have a rather large collection of books, some written by college professors and political scientists, and every single one of them depict communism as totalitarian dictatorship – total subjugation of the people to the State; they couldn’t all be lying, could they?

It’s in the capitalist-imperialist interest to lump together failed and failing bastardized systems that falsely depicted, and continue to depict themselves as being communist. Chairman Avakian addressed this in Phony Communism Is Dead…, and this issue cannot be overaddressed.  Unfortunately, people have short memories and they’re easily led astray; their bullshit meters frequently malfunction!

The article: “Some Points on the Question of Revolutionary Leadership and Individual Leaders” [#120 pp. 6] addresses these conflicting viewpoints fairly and accurately. Journeying from where we are now to our ideal destination without intelligent guidance is likened to trying to negotiate a minefield, or travel through uncharted territory, alone: it’s foolhardy and almost sure to end in disaster. A thoughtful individual or group should be compelled to select the most intelligent and trustworthy guide and trailblazer available and trust to his guidance and direction. In my mind, there is no shadow of doubt Chairman Avakian and the vanguards of the Revolutionary Communist Party are the people with the intelligence and the expertise to lead us to where we’d like to get, a world of true emancipation of the individual; one communist world.

With much respect and warm regards,


P.S. I hear the three murderers of Sean Bell have been acquitted of all charges – surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Another blow struck for justice and democracy… Not!


We Would Like to Have a Better Understanding of the RCP

A group and I have been reading the Revolution newspaper here in a Texas prison for a while now and we all enjoy it. Now we would like to have a better understanding of the Revolutionary Communist Party, its ideologies, principles, its vision, and its accomplishments. We are all indigent and you know how Texas prisons are. Inmates don’t get paid for work. Slavery! Anyways, I’m side tracking. B/2 subject, We will greatly appreciate it if you can send us some literature on Marxism, Maoism, Leninism, one on Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and any other book or pamphlet that will give us a better understanding on how [Revolutionary] Communist Party, USA can emancipate humanity and stop imperialism.  I almost forgot we’ve all been seeing Bob Avakian’s new book called “Away with All Gods.”  I know it cost, but if its possible send it also (smile image).  We ask for too much?  I hope not.  Thank you so much.

Latino prisoner in TX

Send us your comments.

Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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The Cyclone Disaster in Myanmar...and the Human Tragedy of Global Capitalism

By Li Onesto

On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis swept through the country of Myanmar, leaving in its wake a catastrophic human disaster. Deaths are estimated as high as 100,000 people, and at least one million are now homeless. Entire towns and villages have been washed away. 10,000 people died in one coastal town alone.

The densely populated Irawaddy Delta of 6 million people, with many fishing communities, was hit hard. Yangon (the former capital) on the edge of the Delta, where another 6.5 million people lived, was completely flooded. Flimsy houses in the poor shantytowns around cities were demolished. Some 24 million people in the five disaster-hit states—almost half of Myanmar’s population of 57 million—were affected by the cyclone with its 120 mph winds and 12-foot waves that surged up to seven miles inland.

Even areas not hit as hard are now running out of food and water. Crops, livestock, and fish have been ruined, along with irrigation systems, rice mills, and storage barns. The areas hit by the cyclone make up half of the irrigated farmland in Myanmar—which had produced 65 percent of Myanmar's rice. Millions of people who survived are now facing hunger, disease and lack of shelter.


People around the world are witnessing the terrible plight of the Myanmar people unfold before their eyes. In the face of such immense human tragedy, there is hope that everything possible will be done to provide aid and relieve the terrible suffering.

There is tremendous wealth, resources, and technology in the world that could be used to respond to this disaster. There is no shortage of people with skills and compassion that could be mobilized to help. But clearly, this is not happening.

The Western mainstream media says this is because: The U.S. and other countries are trying to help but a despotic regime in Myanmar is refusing to cooperate and is therefore to blame for the high death toll and continuing suffering.

This article will break down this storyline, look at what’s behind it and compare it to reality.

To understand the situation in Myanmar today you have to examine two interpenetrating contradictions. One is the relations between the world imperialist system and Myanmar as a poor country oppressed and dominated by global capitalism. The other dynamic is the geostrategic importance of Myanmar to imperialism and the rivalry between different capitalist countries in the region. These larger factors have deeply influenced the extent and character of the destruction caused by the cyclone, as well as the rescue and relief efforts.

Natural Disasters and Man-Made Conditions

The official storyline argues: In the face of natural disasters like Cyclone Nargis, humanitarian aid trumps everything. Condoleezza Rice says: “What remains is for the Burmese government to allow the international community to help its people. It should be a simple matter. It is not a matter of politics.”

The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism. What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.”

Bob Avakian

In reality: There are terrible natural disasters human beings have little control over. But what happens in the face of such catastrophes is profoundly affected by the organization of human society. So, to answer Condoleezza Rice: It is NOT a “simple matter” of relief efforts. It IS very much a matter of politics, economic relations, and power relations, from beginning to end.

Disaster relief and aid—both within a particular country, and between particular countries—doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

We live on a planet where human life is susceptible to tornados, tsunamis, cyclones, and earthquakes. Scientific understanding exists to predict and prepare, to a certain degree, for such acts of nature. But whether and how this works and what happens in the wake of such disasters is profoundly imprinted with and goes through the workings of the world capitalist system.

Look what did and did not happen before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone saw how power relations in society, poverty, and the oppression of Black people affected who got out and who didn’t; who died and who survived. Everyone saw how all the inequalities that already existed affected what happened as the floodwaters rose.

Natural disasters do not “discriminate”—people all over the world are hit by tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes. But different people and different countries are not affected equally.

We live in a hugely lopsided world where a handful of rich, imperialist countries dominates the rest of the planet. The U.S. sits at the top of a global capitalist system driven and shaped by the maximization of profit. The majority of people live in poor countries oppressed and dominated by imperialism and by social-economic structures that reflect and reinforce the interests of local elites who are subordinate to imperialism. Development of these countries has been stunted and distorted by imperialism. And all this profoundly affects the capacity and ability of governments and people to respond to a natural disaster.

Myanmar already faced rising costs for basic foods, commodities, and especially fuel. 10 percent of the population did not receive enough food to meet its basic daily needs. In many rural areas 70 percent lived under the absolute poverty line. Shantytowns surrounded the cities.

What we see now is a vivid example of how the poverty and distorted development that comes from being dominated and oppressed by foreign powers can turn a natural disaster into catastrophic human tragedy. As Debarati Guha-Sapir, Director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, said: “The villages are in such levels of desperation — housing quality, nutritional status, roads, bridges, dams — that losses were more determined by their condition rather than the force of the cyclone.”

It is also the case that international political relations—where Western imperial powers are generally hostile to the military regime in Myanmar—are behind the contentiousness over aid getting into Myanmar. China’s economic interests and political relationship with Myanmar have factored into international relief efforts. And Myanmar’s economic and political relationships with other countries in South Asia have also figured into what aid has been offered.

“Isolated” from the World?

The official storyline says: Myanmar is run by a bunch of dictators who chose to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.

Reality: Myanmar society is repressive and relatively closed off from the outside world. The reactionary military regime seeks to maintain power and control society through brutal force and by limiting contact with the rest of the world. But this is not why the U.S. criticizes Myanmar.

What the U.S. really means when it says Myanmar has “isolated” itself is that Myanmar has not fully opened its doors to U.S. imperialism. The military regime has not been completely pliable, compliant, and subservient to the United States. And now it has refused to accept aid from the U.S. that has all kinds of conditions and potential “strings attached”—such as Bush’s insistence that Myanmar open its borders to U.S. officials, aid workers and military personnel.

It is not surprising that Myanmar hesitated to accept U.S. help, given there is open speculation and discussion about the use of U.S. military aircraft, troops, and warships to deliver aid. A Time magazine headline read: “Is It Time to Invade Burma?” And France is pushing to invoke a UN “responsibility to protect” doctrine to deliver aid without Myanmar’s permission.

U.S. sanctions on Myanmar (that began in 1997 and have since been extended) ban new investments in the country and prohibit imports into the U.S. from Myanmar. The U.S. says it maintains these sanctions because of human rights abuses. But in fact, this U.S. “isolation” of Myanmar is aimed at undermining and destabilizing the government and creating conditions to bring to power a regime more subservient to the United States.

Reality: In fact, Myanmar is not “isolated” and cut off from the rest of the world. Historically and up to today, Myanmar’s development has been conditioned by its integration into and subordination tothe global system of imperialism.

Burma (which changed its name to Myanmar in 1989) was a colony of British imperialism for over 60 years. In fact the commercial production of oil in Myanmar dates back to 1871 when British colonialists set up the Rangoon Oil Company.

Since formal independence in 1948, different imperialist powers have exploited the country’s people and plundered its resources. It is beyond the scope of this article to review this history. But an example of imperialist control and development of Myanmar’s energy resources provides a picture of the country’s relationship to the world capitalist system.

Myanmar has the world's tenth largest gas reserves. It has been producing natural gas since the 1970s. Today, gas exports are Myanmar's most important source of national income.

In the 1990s Myanmar granted gas concessions to foreign companies from France and Great Britain. Later Texaco and Unocal (now absorbed into ChevronTexaco) gained rights to Myanmar’s gas as well.

In 2005 other countries in the region, including China, Thailand, and South Korea invested in Myanmar’s oil and gas industry.

What did this mean for the masses of people in Myanmar?

In 1996 a human rights suit was filed against the American-based Unocal Corp. A group of villagers accused Unocal of using forced labor conscripted by Myanmar soldiers. Villagers were raped, murdered, and brutally relocated during the construction of a $1.2 billion gas pipeline to Thailand, started in 1990.

The suit, which Unocal settled in 2004, brought to light the kind of horrible crimes that were being committed by a consortium of foreign companies, including Unocal, all of which were receiving support and protection from the military regime.

One woman testified how soldiers came to her home, shot her husband, and killed her baby. Other villagers recounted how their neighbors were executed because they refused to leave the area Unocal wanted. Two girls said soldiers raped them at knifepoint (The Nation, June 30, 2003). Human Rights Watch interviewed hundreds of villagers who were driven from their homes and farms, many forced to work at gunpoint and beaten by guards.

The UN issued warnings of serious human rights abuses in 1995. After such embarrassing evidence came out, Texaco left the country in 1997. But Unocal retained 28 percent interest in the pipeline.

The U.S. State Department even acknowledged forced labor was being used. But still the U.S. government openly defended Unocal in this suit. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft filed a brief denouncing the villagers' attempt to sue Unocal, arguing that the suit (and similar suits) should be dismissed because they interfere with U.S. foreign policy and undermine the U.S. “war on terrorism.”

Today, on the blood and bones of the Myanmar people, the Unocal pipeline transports some 700 million cubic feet of gas per day.

This story provides a window into Myanmar’s relationship to world imperialism – how the development of Myanmar has been conditioned by its integration into and subordination tothe global system of imperialism.


Beyond the interest of imperialism in profiting off the resources and people in Myanmar there is the geostrategic importance of this in the world. And this is a big factor in how the U.S. and various international forces look at their relationship with Myanmar and how they have responded to the current disaster.

U.S. Geostrategic Interests in Myanmar

The official storyline: Laura Bush joined the chorus of U.S. critics calling the Myanmar government “inept” for failing to alert people about the cyclone and standing in the way of getting humanitarian aid to people.

Reality: It is shameless and utter hypocrisy for the U.S. to be criticizing any government for not helping people in the face of a natural disaster. The U.S. has more money and resources than any other country in the world—many, many times those of a poor country like Myanmar. But when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Bush regime was responsible for horrible humanitarian crimes. It failed to evacuate people to safety, abandoned thousands to die in the rising floodwaters and then subjected tens of thousands, overwhelmingly African-Americans, to the most inhuman and degrading treatment.

The inadequacies and failures of the Myanmar government in responding to the cyclone disaster have everything to do with two defining facts: its reactionary nature, and larger geo-political dynamics.

The military regime in Myanmar is an oppressive and corrupt force that has ruled the country since 1962. It has not hesitated to use the most brutal methods to crush any popular resistance and is widely hated by the people.

The military dominates and administers major aspects of the country’s economy. Only military personnel are allowed to own shares in the military-run corporations that form a significant part of the economy. Military officials occupy top positions in almost every government agency. It oversees a society and economy of great inequality and savage capitalist and semi-feudal exploitation.

In the last 15 years, the economy has in fact become more integrated with the world capitalist economy, especially through the development of the country’s oil and natural gas industries. The military has entered into various kinds of joint ventures with foreign energy companies—and, as in the case of Unocal [[see Part 1]], even provided these companies with brutally conscripted forced labor.

The reality is: The US criticism of the Myanmar government has nothing to do with concern for the victims of the cyclone. It has everything to do with cold calculations about how to use this disaster to further U.S. interests—to pry open the country, to weaken the military regime, and to create more favorable conditions for a full-out regime change. The U.S. wants to bring to power a government in Myanmar that more fully serves U.S. economic and political interests, including in relationship to U.S. contention with other capitalist powers. To understand this, we need to first of all look at the geostrategic interests the U.S. is pursuing in Myanmar.

Three great regions of Asia come together where Myanmar sits on the planet—China in the north, Southeast Asia in the south, and India in the west. Looking at a map, it becomes clear how Myanmar is key to establishing land-links between Central Asia in the west, Japan in the east and Russia in the north.

Off the coast of Myanmar is the Strait of Malacca. This waterway between Malaysia and Indonesia is one of the world’s most strategic water passages. It links the Indian and Pacific Oceans and is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and China. Each and every day, supertankers carrying more than 12 million barrels of oil pass through this strait. More than 80% of all China's oil imports are shipped through this waterway.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has been trying to strengthen its military influence in this region—arguing that this is part of the “war on terror.” The U.S. has set out to further and deepen its empire in the world. The focus of the U.S. right now is dominating and controlling the Middle East. At the same time there is a whole complex of world contradictions in which control in Southeast Asia is highly important.

The U.S. has been virulently critical of the military government in Myanmar—not because of the regime’s reactionary nature. The real reason for U.S. hostility towards Myanmar is because its government is not the kind of pliant pro-U.S. neo-colonial state the United States wants and needs in the region.

It is no secret that the U.S. wants a “regime change” in Myanmar. It plays the “human rights card,” backs pro-U.S. anti-government movements, and aims to demonize and strangle the regime through sanctions and other measures. The military regime in turn has responded by seeking closer ties with China and other countries in the region. And part of the reason the U.S. wants greater influence and control in Southeast Asia (including in Myanmar) is that it wants to counter China’s growing regional strength.

Capitalist China has invested heavily in countries in Southeast Asia and has looked to profit off of Myanmar’s timber, minerals and natural gas. Myanmar provides an overland route for Chinese goods to the Indian Ocean. Trade between the two countries has grown. Since 1989 China has given the Myanmar regime some $1.5 billion worth of military hardware.

For the U.S., Myanmar is a strategically important choke point in relationship to economic and geo-strategic interests. And now the U.S. is looking for ways to exploit the devastating tragedy in Myanmar to step up its maneuverings for a “regime change” in Myanmar. Bush stated: “We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country.”

Economist and author F. William Engdahl has written about U.S. efforts to bring about “regime change” in Myanmar and the particular role of the National Endowment for Democracy, an entity funded by the U.S. government and designed to support U.S. foreign policy objectives. Engdahl says:

“The U.S. State Department has recruited and trained key opposition leaders from numerous anti-government organizations in Myanmar. Since 2003, the U.S. has provided the NED with more than $2.5 million a year for activities that promote a regime change in Myanmar. The NED funds key opposition media including the New Era Journal, Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio... In reality the U.S. State Department has recruited and trained key opposition leaders from numerous anti-government organizations in Myanmar. It has poured the relatively huge sum (for Myanmar) of more than $2.5 million annually into NED activities in promoting regime change in Myanmar since at least 2003.”

All this is behind the scenes and clearly at play now as the U.S. offers assistance and aid to Myanmar in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Such “humanitarian help” comes with political strings and a whole imperialist agenda. The Bush administration says a condition for aid is that U.S. officials, aid workers and military personnel be allowed to come into Myanmar and directly handle emergency relief operations—rather than let the authorities in Myanmar administer and deliver the aid.

In 1997 the U.S. imposed sanctions against Myanmar, which prohibited new investments in the country. In 2003 the U.S. banned Myanmar imports into the U.S. and restricted financial transactions with named government officials. In 2007 Bush imposed new financial sanctions against Myanmar, freezing U.S. assets of additional members of the military government. One week before the cyclone hit Myanmar, the U.S. ban on trade and investment and the freezing of assets for the country was strengthened even further. Then on May 17, two weeks after the cyclone, Bush ordered the sanctions to remain in effect. This has only further exacerbated the economic plight of the people in Myanmar. Meanwhile ChevronTexaco continues to operate its gas pipeline project in Myanmar, which is the single largest foreign investment project in the country and the single largest source of income for the military regime.


When a terrible natural disaster strikes a country like Myanmar, millions of people are affected; many lives hang in the balance. Humanity’s knowledge and resources need to be brought together. People need to be mobilized to save lives, provide medical care and deliver food. But in the world today—dominated by the global system of capitalism—the driving interests of profit, not the needs of the people, are put first and foremost.

Today in such human catastrophes, the outmoded economic, political and social relations of imperialism stand out in stark relief. The world needs revolution, and things could be a different way. In a whole new socialist society power would be in the hands of the people. Society’s resources and knowledge and, most especially, the compassion, creativity, and political consciousness of the masses, could and would be fully mobilized to build a whole new emancipating society that will be able to figure out and solve all kinds of problems, including how to deal with natural disasters.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #130, May 25, 2008

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Hook Up With the Revolution: Coming Events at Revolution Books

New York

146 W. 26th Street, between 6th + 7th Ave

May 20, Tuesday, 7pm

Tuesday Evening Discussion on Bob Avakian’s talk: “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity”
@ Think Coffee, 248 Mercer, between 3rd + 4th St., NYU campus. Please join us for these regular Tuesday discussions, always lively.

Watch for the opening THIS WEEK!

of the new Revolution Books in New York City at 146 W. 26th Street, between 6th + 7th Ave. Volunteers needed to help finish the renovation and put the books on the shelves.
Call 212-691-3345.

May 27, Tuesday, 7pm

Tuesday Evening Discussion on Bob Avakian’s talk: “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” @ Revolution Books, 146 W. 26th Street.


1103 N. Ashland Avenue

Wednesdays, 7 pm
Ongoing discussion of “Making Revolution, Emancipating Humanity”—Part 2: Everything We're Doing is About Revolution, by Bob Avakian.

This week, May 21, 7 pm
Conflict in the Ruling Class...The Interests of the People...and Elections. Is the Obama campaign an opportunity for positive change, or a way to paralyze people and legitimize the system? Presentation and discussion with Alan Goodman, contributor to Revolution newspaper.

Next week, May 28, 7 pm
Revolution: stereotypes, stage managers and the living process.  Revolution arises out of a complex interplay of contradictions, within a particular country and internationally, and the interpenetration between those levels or dimensions. How do we understand this in the real and not with formulas or stereotypes?


Los Angeles

Libros Revolución
312 West 8th Street  213-488-1303

May 20, Tuesday, 7 pm
Spanish-language screening and discussion of two sections from the DVD of a speech by Bob Avakian, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About - “Police: Enforcers of oppression and madness” and “Democracy and dictatorship during socialism.”  What is the role of the police under capitalism?  Why do they get away with murder?  What is a radically different vision of the state, one serving to uproot rather than entrench oppression, and as a vehicle to overcome the need for any state—in a communist world?

May 22, Thursday, 7 pm
Bilingual discussion of the current issue of Revolution/Revolución newspaper.  Check our blog for recommended articles.  Bring your questions and suggestions for articles you want to discuss.

May 25, Sunday, 3 pm
“Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” by Bob Avakian.  Discussion: Hastening while awaiting – not bowing down to necessity.  We’re not in a revolutionary situation.  So what do we do?  Wait for things to get really bad and for people to get really desperate?  Or are we “hastening while awaiting” – actually working to accelerate things and preparing the ground for when it would be possible to rise up?  Bob Avakian says, “Everything we’re doing is about revolution.”  Can that really apply to today?

May 27, Tuesday, 7 pm
Spanish-language discussion of “The Science of Evolution, The Myth of Creationism - Knowing What’s Real and Why It Matters” – first in a series of discussions of this amazing work by Ardea Skybreak.  Why is evolution important for everyone to know?  What did Darwin figure out?



2425 Channing Way near Telegraph Ave

May 20, Tuesday, 7 pm

Presentation & discussion based on “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” by Bob Avakian: “We need a revolution. Anything else, in the final analysis, is bullshit.” What is meaningful revolutionary work today when there is not yet a revolutionary situation? Is spreading revolution and communism a part of that meaningful revolutionary work?

May 27, Tuesday, 7 pm

“Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” by Bob Avakian: “Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution.”

June 5, Thursday, 7 pm

Khalil Bendib, author of Mission Accomplished: Wicked Cartoons by America’s Most Wanted Political Cartoonist


2626 South King Street

Every Monday, 6:15 pm
Revolution newspaper reading and discussion group



2804 Mayfield Rd (at Coventry)
Cleveland Heights  216-932-2543
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 3-8 pm 

Every Wednesday, 7 pm

Discussions of “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” by Bob Avakian. We will focus on Part 2: Everything We’re Doing Is About Revolution: “Enriched What Is To Be Done-ism”; The Pivotal Revolutionary Role of the Communist Newspaper; Combating “the spontaneous striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie”; Boldly spreading revolution and communism; and more…

Starting Sunday, June 15

Revolution Books will host 5 focused discussions on the new book: Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian. For those of you who are reading this important new work by Bob Avakian, these discussions will offer a way to engage more deeply into the current discourse about god, atheism and morality, the need to fully rupture with all forms of superstition, and to take up instead a truly scientific approach to understanding and transforming reality. The first session will focus on part 1 of the book. Questions to consider might include: Why this title?; Why the focus on the actual content of what is in the Bible?; Response to the section “Seeing Jesus in a True Light”; Why the insistent linking of the New and Old Testaments?; How do you perceive the relation between religion and the dominant social relations?


1833 Nagle Place

Announcing a New Revolution Books in Seattle!

Join us in making plans for a major revitalization and expansion in our new location. Contact us to get involved.

May 24, Saturday, 7 pm

Revolution Books Book Group discusses Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian. This week: Religion—A Heavy, Heavy Chain: How and why are all three of the world’s major monotheistic religions patriarchal religions? Why is the U.S. “Bible Belt” also the “Lynching Belt”? Is it right for Avakian to say “All this ‘thank you Jesus!’ is a slave mentality” when others point out that religion is an essential part of the Black experience?

May 25, Sunday, 3 pm

Reading & discussion of this week’s Revolution newspaper

June 1, Sunday, 3 pm

Reading & discussion of this week’s Revolution newspaper

June 7, Saturday, 7 pm

Revolution Books Book Group discusses Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian. This week: God Does Not Exist—We Need Liberation Without Gods: Does the world need a more compassionate, progressive Christianity? Does religious myth play a positive role in society, regardless of whether it’s true? Does science have anything to say about gods and religion? How does preaching about the notion of sin affect the masses of people? Is the problem human nature or the system? What would it really feel like and mean to be free?

June 8, Sunday, 3 pm

Reading & discussion of this week’s Revolution newspaper.


406 W.Willis
(between Cass &2nd, south of Forest)

May 28, Wednesday, 6:30 pm

Discussion of Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian. Part II: Christianity, Judaism & Islam – Rooted in the Past, Standing in the Way of the Future (second part, starting with “Religious Fundamentalism, Imperialism, and the ‘War on Terror’”). Taqueria Arandas Restaurant, 1807 Livernois Ave (south of Vernor), 313-297-7533, Detroit.

Upcoming movies at RBO, date and time to be announced

Galapagos (an exploration of the fascinating world that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution). Jesus Camp (riveting Oscar-nominated documentary offers an unfiltered look at a revivalist subculture where devout Christian youngsters are being primed to deliver the fundamentalist community’s religious and political messages). Marjoe (Oscar-winning documentary explores the life of one-time child evangelist and faith healer Marjoe Gortner).



1158 Mass Ave, 2nd Floor, Cambridge  

Discussion series on Away With All Gods!

Revolution Books hosts weekly focused discussions on the new book Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World. For those of you who are reading this important new work by Bob Avakian, these discussions will offer a way to engage more deeply in the current discourse about god, atheism and morality, the need to fully rupture with all forms of superstition, and to take up instead a truly scientific approach to understanding and transforming reality.

May 27, Tuesday 6:30 pm


June 2, Monday 6:30 pm


May 31, Saturday, 6:30 pm

Discussion of the article “The Subprime and Credit Crisis: Financial Meltdown and the Madness of Imperialism,” by Raymond Lotta from Revolution No. 127, online at



4 Corners Market of the Earth
Little 5 Points, 1087 Euclid Avenue
404-577-4656 & 770-861-3339

Open Wednesdays & Fridays 4 pm - 7 pm,
Saturdays 2 pm - 7 pm 

Sundays, 4-6 pm

Discussion of “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” by Bob Avakian. Check blog or call for location. 

Send us your comments.