Raymond Lotta, a Maoist economist and author, gave a talk about the history of the communist revolutions in China and Russia July 28. The event was sponsored by Revolution Books, a radical bookstore affiliated with the Revolutionary Communist Party, and was held at the LGBT Community Center in Chelsea.
About a hundred people gathered for the lecture, titled “Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Communism is Wrong, or Why the Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions Were Breakthroughs in Human Emancipation.”
His lecture turned out to be a disappointing exercise in historical revisionism, extolling the virtues of Leninist/Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. Lotta surrendered conscience and credibility by repeating the blunder that many Old Left intellectuals committed in the 1930s and 1940s: downplaying the senseless authoritarianism and the staggering cost in human lives wrought in the Soviet Union and China.
Expounding on the role of dissent, Lotta clung to a thoroughly regressive understanding of academic, artistic, and intellectual freedom.
While Lotta insisted that elections and differences of opinion should be permitted in an ideal communist state, he also argued that political viewpoints should be separated into two categories – legitimate and “counter-revolutionary.” Counter-revolutionaries, he explained, deserved to be “suppressed” by the state, violently if necessary. Drawing a superficial line dividing the very gray area between what is and is not acceptable effectively perverts, rather than champions, the right to free speech.
A key element of Lotta’s talk, which occupied much of the lecture, was China’s Cultural Revolution. Despite widespread violence throughout the Cultural Revolution, Lotta referred to this period in China’s history as Mao Zedong’s “greatest achievement.”
During the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing, began to purge the Communist Party and civil society of individuals considered too “bourgeois.” The Red Guards, radical students loyal to Mao and Jiang, dispensed vigilante justice to former landowners or their relatives who had long been blacklisted as “rightists,” intellectuals, and ideologically impure party members. Such individuals had their dignity violated with public humiliation: they were paraded through the streets, their hair was haphazardly shaved, and they were forced to denounce themselves.
An entire generation of students was sent to the countryside to work alongside peasants. Destruction of culture deemed too traditionalist, as evidenced by the ransacking of Buddhist temples, was rampant. People merely suspected of harboring “counter-revolutionary” beliefs were detained. Thousands died, and many committed suicide.
These were the defining characteristics of the Cultural Revolution. And yet, Lotta claims it “was the furthest thing from a fanatical purge.”
Besides deriding those who were victimized by this era, Lotta urged the audience to think about the constructive aspects of the Cultural Revolution, such as a “barefoot doctor” campaign to deploy medical personnel to rural areas and workers taking over factories run by party technocrats in Shanghai. Whatever egalitarian progress was made during those years, helpful as it might have been, these changes could have taken place without the chaotic carnage of the Cultural Revolution.
Ultimately, one of the most egregious claims that Lotta made was that “millions of people were not killed or exterminated” in either China or the Soviet Union.
Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were each responsible for killing tens of millions of people through executions, famines, and other horrors. Lotta shamelessly brushed off these well-documented atrocities as “errors in policy” and “weaknesses in understanding.”
Lotta further sanitized these crimes by describing the executions as “administrative measures.” This Orwellian term is a haunting twin of today’s substitution of “enhanced interrogation techniques” for torture in mainstream political discourse.
The presentation did have its momentary illuminations, delving into the Soviet Union’s attempts at empowering minority nationalities by promoting indigenous languages and practices, as well as China’s abolition of arranged marriages and introduction of radical redistribution during the Maoist era. Substantial improvements in gender relations and the living conditions of peasants and workers did occur in both countries.
However, for the most part, Lotta’s speech was offensive and riddled with falsehoods. One cannot convincingly subject capitalism to a rigorous critique and then blithely shy away from confronting the demons that communist rule has produced.
While a debate about modifying or finding alternatives to unregulated free-market capitalism, whose legitimacy has been corroded by the global financial crisis, is both much needed and appropriate, disseminating propaganda will do little to advance these aims.
If Raymond Lotta operates – and will likely remain – on the political fringes, is he worth engaging? For the sake of setting the factual record straight regardless of the venue, and challenging dogma irrespective of ideological orientation, he most certainly is.