If you asked me why I would waste a perfectly good Saturday to go see Bob Avakian speak in person, you would get no points for originality: almost everyone else asked me the same question, usually with some derisive adjectives thrown in for good measure.
Leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP) and in self-imposed exile in France for most of the past 35 years, “Chairman Bob” is revered by his small party and dismissed by many others on the left and elsewhere as the leader of either a fringe left party or an eccentric cult. He hasn’t spoken at a public venue in decades but you can read him regularly in the RCP’s Revolution newspaper and hear his lengthy presentations on audio recordings and DVD. The carefully cultivated aura of mystery around Avakian was heightened in the days before the November 15 event by a full-page ad in the New York Times promising a chance to witness history on Saturday afternoon.
The event was billed as a historic dialogue between Avakian and Black Christian scholar and activist Cornel West on the relationship between religion and revolution. I was curious about both what Chairman Bob had to say and who would show up.
Turns out, a lot of people showed up to see Avakian and West go at it in Riverside Church. The line went around the block, there was a bus or two outside, and the church’s largest space, the 1,900-capacity Nave, with two balconies, looked packed. The vibrant crowd was a diverse mix and appeared majority minority. Metal detectors were placed at all the entrances and everyone was instructed not to use recording devices inside (though the event was officially filmed and photographed and NYC’s WBAI-99.5 FM was a media sponsor).
As Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Felt to Be Free” got the people in the pews warmed up, someone in the audience called out “Hands Up!” The response to that call, “Don’t Shoot!” — famous from Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown — shook the hall. After a few introductory remarks from Annie Day of the Bob Avakian Institute (which inspired more than a few reactions of “The what institute?”), Avakian and Cornel West emerged from behind the stage and Avakian took the lectern.
Remembering a Friend
Avakian’s voice, neither soft nor stentorian, projected an informal chumminess, peppered with occasional asides of humor or outrage. Except for a little neck wattle, Avakian, 71, looked okay for his age — clean-shaven with slicked-back hair, and wearing a low-profile headset microphone and a cranberry-colored long sleeve shirt. He promised agreements of spirit and outrage with West, but respectful disagreements of strategy and practice. And then he started to talk.
Avakian began with a long dedication to his fallen friend Clyde Young, who recently died. Young was remembered as having emerged, apolitical, from the worst ghettos of America, and being dehumanized and then radicalized in prison. After he was released, he joined the RCP and went on to become a central figure in the party.
Avakian’s recollection of his friend delivered two points: The wretched of the earth still have senses of humor, pursuits and interests, a basic humanity common to us all that makes political transformation possible. Second, I am sure Avakian treasured his friendship with Young immensely, but there was an unmistakable sense that Young was being eulogized as an African-American revolutionary lumpen-proletariat who endorsed Avakian and the RCP now from beyond the grave. No clear lesson was attached to Young’s life, no crystallized quotation of revolutionary wisdom; the event was dedicated to his memory.
Avakian moved on to speak about the event’s theme: religion. Morality shouldn’t arise merely from faith, he insisted, noting that the Bible contains enough pro-slavery, anti-women, homophobic and dogmatic elements to disqualify it as a true revolutionary guide to morality. He characterized those who call the Bible the written word of God but then pick and choose what parts of their holy book they want to follow or ignore as engaging in “salad bar” Christianity.
“I like steak, I’ll have some steak, I don’t like broccoli, I’m not going to have broccoli,” Avakian joked.
Dr. West, sitting patiently in the middle of the stage, his microphone on, could be heard laughing at Chairman Bob’s punchlines and murmuring his occasional assent. Discussing Jesus’s ignorance of the symptoms of epilepsy, Avakian told a personal story about helping someone during a seizure but clarified that he wasn’t comparing himself to Jesus or anything like that. The closest he came to self-criticism was a brief acknowledgment that people think the RCP is a “cult.”
After about half an hour of this, Avakian shifted to more secular subjects such as police brutality and U.S. history. The problem, he explained, is not a few bad apples on the force, but a white supremacist system that needs to enforce its ruthless control over poor people of color. The American system was founded on the enslavement of Africans and genocide against the Native Americans, Avakian noted, before adding that what is needed today is not another vote for the Democrats but a fundamental revolution. Mao was quickly referenced, but not dwelled on.
For about a nice half hour, Riverside Church became a brief oasis from the ugliness of the outside world. We could have been listening to a barbershop rap session take an interesting political turn or perhaps a good sermon that flirted between indignation and humor, but channeled our outrage. Bob Avakian has a few good lines, a clear enough delivery and he makes revolutionary anger accessible and plain. He deserves some credit for that.
Not Finland Station
But as he talked about all the various problems in the world, Chairman Bob didn’t build to anything: there was no arc into theory or transformative analysis. As he moved on to other problems, it began to feel worn. His music examples were Bob Dylan, John Lennon and James Brown. He spoke about Ferguson and Mike Brown numerous times, but when called on to mention Ramarley Graham, the 18-year-old African-American youth who was shot dead in his grandmother’s apartment in 2012 by a NYPD officer who was never indicted, Avakian simply responded, “Ramarley Graham, Anthony Baez, I could use any number of examples.” Mike Brown will clearly be the example until he no longer is the most recent.
This was Avakian’s only spoken response to the floor, but the shouts from the audience began to grow. He kept speaking about the various plagues of the world but, not building to anything, began to lose the crowd.
Someone shouted to let West speak, but Avakian soldiered on, explaining that while we can’t just make the revolution happen, neither can we just sit around and wait. Suggesting Maoist principles, we were told to “hasten while waiting” and “prepare the ground, prepare the people, prepare the leadership” and to be “fighting the power and transforming the people.”
Avakian moved on to talk about violence and told a long story about Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver calling him as the police raided Cleaver’s home. Avakian told us he was ready to die, and that Cleaver told him to hang back and simply inform everyone that the raid was happening. This episode, we were told, inspired the Black Panthers to issue “executive mandate three,” which required all Black Panther Party members to arm themselves and defend their homes from police invasion. But Avakian explicitly did not make this call on Saturday. He defended Mao against revisionism, but only called to shut the country down if there is not an indictment against Ferguson police office Darren Wilson. The rhetoric promised fundamental overthrow, but the prescriptions settled for mobilizations against police brutality. It began to feel like Avakian was offering his own “salad bar” approach to revolutionary communism.
This was his big crescendo, but the hecklers continued to call for West and their numbers grew. Over two hours into Chairman Bob’s remarks, the biggest applause line of the last 20 minutes was a sentence beginning with “And in conclusion…”
I’ve seen Cornel West speak a few times, so I slipped out after Avakian concluded.
Architect of a New World?
To open up the most recent issue of Revolution is to read quotes extolling Bob Avakian as our best hope for humanity. (The press release for the event told us that Avakian is the “architect of a new framework for revolution in today’s world”). Yet, there’s simply no way to square the hyperbolic presentation of Avakian as revolutionary leader with Saturday’s talk. There are any number of progressive and left thinkers and activists who could have given a similar presentation with a week’s notice. Large parts of the speech felt like boilerplate left rhetoric that could have been offered up last year, or 15 years ago, or 40 years ago, with just a few updates for recent shocking events.
The same could be said for his few superficial mentions of revolutionary communism. Despite all the party’s rhetoric of Avakian’s “new synthesis,” none of that was on display while I was there. It may be worth a digression to recall Avakian’s own history.
Maoist thought had a significant influence on the U.S. left in a period when it spoke to a revolutionary politics centered in the Third World. Avakian himself rose to prominence in the West Coast left pushing the importance of both learning from Maoist China and steadfastly supporting the revolutionary work of the Black Panther Party, which was conducting armed cop watch patrols, educational and cultural classes, breakfast programs for hungry children and medical programs for the black community, all while under violent attack from the state (it was also selling Mao’s little red book near college campuses to fundraise). White leftist support for Third World liberation struggles and the Panthers is important, but the Panthers are gone and Avakian has been decrying the betrayal of Mao’s vision by Chinese bureaucrats for over three decades. The continued protest in Ferguson is important, but as far as I can tell there is nothing as ambitious, strategically or theoretically, as the Black Panther Party out there. So Avakian comes off sounding like a stagehand without a play.
On the night’s theme of religion, Avakian covered the same simplistic anti-religious ground already worn down by TV host Bill Maher and deceased polemicist Christopher Hitchens. Later, Avakian mentioned Martin Luther King, but failed to include “Reverend;” similarly, the Panthers, to whom Avakian was a longtime ally, were treated with due reverence, but no mention was made of the towering influence of the Muslim Malcolm X.
Afterwards I met a friend for drinks at the Time Warner Center near Columbus Circle. The mall there is a cathedral of capitalism, showcasing an $80,000 car in the lobby. My friend asked me if I was now drinking the Avakian Kool-Aid as we walked outside to a nearby restaurant.
Avakian’s presentation brought to mind Marx’s oft-quoted take on religion, that it is “the opiate of the masses.” While one might need some opiates to believe that Avakian is our best revolutionary hope, Marx’s preceding line, though less quoted, is just as important: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
Nothing Chairman Bob said Saturday struck me as particularly gifted or uniquely revolutionary, but he did speak to the obscenity of the world, the problems as they are and for a fundamental rejection of capitalist oppression. That should still count for something. Avakian got an easy laugh for explaining to his audience that comparing himself to Jesus in a Bible story doesn’t make him think he’s biblical. But given the way the event was promoted, the stage was set for a messianic return to the public eye. The figure at the pulpit in Riverside Church provided no salvation — no prescriptions for a real revolution. Like all second comings predicted by cults, Avakian’s day fell disappointingly flat.