Thirty-five years ago, the US left was involved in a transformation that ultimately resulted in its “balkanization” and (some would argue) disintegration. The phenomenon known as the New Left began this process during the years of 1968 and 1969. To this day, the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) national convention in Chicago stands not only as a metaphor for the Left’s disintegration, it also marks a seminal event in the process. For those not familiar with the history of that meeting in Chicago, let me summarize. SDS met in June 1969 in Chicago. By this time, SDS had more than a hundred thousand members, making it the largest leftist organization in the United States. Its politics were anti-imperialist and somewhat Marxist, although anarchist currents existed in the organization, as well. During the convention, three ideological groupings became clear. One was led by the Progressive Labor faction and espoused a somewhat garbled Maoist philosophy, another was the Weatherman faction, also vaguely Maoist, but mostly a follower of third-world revolutionary nationalism, and the third dominant grouping was Marxist-Leninist. This latter grouping was originally known as Revolutionary Youth Movement 2 (RYM 2). As time progressed, RYM 2 splintered into smaller formations, with one of the largest organizations calling itself the Revolutionary Union (RU).
RU began in the San Francisco Bay Area under the leadership of Jane and Bruce Franklin and Bob Avakian. Of course, there were many other individuals who played important roles in the organization’s founding and growth, but it was these three individuals who were arguably the most important. As Max Elbaum describes in his well-documented study of this period in the US Left, Revolution In the Air, there were a myriad of other groups involved in this new communist movement besides the RU and all of them were struggling with the problems associated with moving the revolutionary struggle forward in the United States. As we know, this struggle not only stumbled, it stumbled badly. To this day, there is no truly revolutionary organization (or combination of organizations) in any of the popular movements that could claim the numbers or the influence that the new communist movement exercised in the period from 1969 to 1977. In order to understand why this is so, interested folks need to examine the past.
So, into this breach comes an autobiography of Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party of the USA (RCP-USA). Yes, that RCP. The ones who show up at protests in most major US cities to sell their paper, The Revolutionary Worker, and make a hell of a lot of noise despite their small numbers. That RCP. The party organization that came out of the RU back in 1975, when its members finalized their original program and constitution after months of debate, arguments, individual departures, and group realignments. The RCP that anarchists satirize, Trotskyites stay away from, and liberals just don’t comprehend.
Avakian’s book, From Ike to Mao, is part autobiography, part left history, and part political dogma. Like the title suggests, Bob Avakian was just another US kid who came of age in the 1950s and turned to radical politics as he grew older and more appalled at the differences between what he had been told about his country as a child and its actual practices that he learned of as he grew older. Like Ron Kovics’ story of radicalization, Born on the Fourth of July, Avakian’s tale is about lies and murder, awareness and reaction, and ultimately commitment. Like Kovics, Avakian’s first love as a kid was sports. Indeed, he muses that he probably would have become a basketball coach if the world had not called him to revolution. Like Kovics, Avakian came from an immigrant family trying desperately to become “American.” Unlike Kovics (who grew up on Long Island), Avakian grew up in a geographical hotbed of radical activity and ferment. Is this why he came to a realization about the true nature of US policy before he was twenty-one? One reads his book and can see Avakian’s tendencies towards revolutionary thought in his youthful desire to get to the root of things. One can also see his sense of certitude (that at times borders on self-righteousness)-a sense that is arguably necessary for a revolutionary to possess, yet also added to the sectarianism that helped splinter the left as the 1970s progressed.
I was an ally and eventual member of RU’s youth organization from late 1973 through the fall of 1975. This group originally called the Attica Brigades and then known as the Revolutionary Student Brigades (RSB), was a leftist anti-imperialist organization. We worked for an NLF victory in Vietnam and against the Shah of Iran. Our numbers were probably never more than a couple thousand nationwide, but we made a hell of a lot of noise. Politically, we were a mixed bag of Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, anarchists, and others who leaned towards revolution but away from labels. In other words, we were a lot like the rest of the US Left at the time. RU was but one of many groups vying for our allegiance. We read their Red Papers publications and discussed them in meetings, study groups and bars. In addition, we discussed other groups’ theoretical works like the Weather Underground’s Prairie Fire statement, and the works of Mao, Lenin, Marx, and Stalin. Some of us went to national meetings and protests; others organized locally, and some did both. In between meetings called to organize against the war or faculty and staff cutbacks at state universities we also met to discuss the RU project that evolved into the RCP. These discussions seemed endless at times and quite purposeful at other times. I never joined the RCP for a couple of reasons, but continue to follow their thoughts and actions.
One of the most difficult decisions of the RU for me centered around the issue of busing in the city of Boston in 1974 and 1975. The newspapers showed pictures of racist attacks on Black kids who just wanted to go to school weekly. RU was opposed to school busing in Boston. This decision resulted in the RU aligning itself with some of the most racist individuals in Boston. Although RU’s reasoning for their decision was quite different than the reasoning used by the racists, the result was that RU often found itself on the same side of the lines drawn in that city as the racist elements. Avakian addresses the decision, discusses his difficulty with it at the time, and calls it wrong. Like many radicals who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, opposing white supremacy was fundamental to Avakian’s political development. The decision to oppose the Boston attempt to desegregate the city’s schools failed to take into account the specific nature of US white supremacy and this made the decision flawed at its core. Like other early stances of the RCP, their stance on busing stemmed from the RU/RCP’s perception of the US working class as white and male and acknowledges the mistakes made as a result of that perception. Some of those mistakes included their stance on homosexuality, youth culture, and unmarried couples living together-all of which they opposed as being ultimately bourgeois. The arguments made by Avakian throughout the book indicate the logic of following ideological doctrine. Acts can be rationalized that would otherwise appall the person doing the rationalization and, likewise, mistakes are made when the doctrine itself is based on an incorrect understanding of the situation.
From Ike to Mao takes the reader inside the RU and the RCP. Even if one has no love at all for the RCP and other vanguardist groupings, this book is an insider’s view of what life is like inside a revolutionary organization in the world’s most imperial nation. It is a fast-paced yet detailed description of radical organizing during one of the US’s most rebellious periods. Sure, it is one man’s view and remembrances that appear on these pages, but it is his story, after all. To Avakian’s credit, this is not just a history book, nor is it mere rhetoric. It is a learning document that makes for a fascinating read. If you like political biography like me, it even makes for an enjoyable one. Rarely egotistical, Avakian’s story is alternately fascinating and commonplace. In other words, it is a reasonably honest and plainspoken story of Bob Avakian’s life and the organizations with which he is most closely identified.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org