Revolution#120, February 17, 2008

Debate and Controversy Heat Up

Boston Globe Attacks Statement Calling for Engagement with Bob Avakian

The November 22, 2007 issue of The New York Review of Books (NYRB) featured a full-page ad from Engage! Committee to Project and Protect the Voice of Bob Avakian. The ad features a statement entitled “Dangerous Times Demand Courageous Voices. Bob Avakian is Such a Voice.” The statement calls on people to engage with the writings of Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and puts the U.S. government on notice that the signatories stand against any attempt to silence or suppress Avakian’s voice. Over 250 intellectuals, artists, people from social movements, and others of diverse viewpoints have signed this statement.

One might expect the publication of this ad to cause some stir. Here we are in 2007 and 2008; radical ideas and the notion of revolutionary change are officially declared passé; and yet some rather notable and critical-thinking people are declaring that the work of Bob Avakian, a communist theorist and leader, is thought-provoking, timely and relevant, even as they are not all advocating for Bob Avakian’s views.

While the statement has aroused interest and controversy in some intellectual quarters and beyond, it provoked consternation and distress in others. This is clearly in evidence in a highly distorted account of the Engage! effort by Mark Oppenheimer published in The Boston Globe (see “Free Bob Avakian!,” January 27, 2008) and in a round of other commentary, articles, and postings on the net which followed in the article’s wake.

Oppenheimer’s account, and others like his, have in common a refusal to reckon with the substance of Bob Avakian’s views and an insulting attitude towards the signers of the statement. Willfully ignoring the history and lessons of McCarthyism and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, these journalists cast a blind eye to the real-world effects and future implications of moves like the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act and the dangers this poses to a revolutionary leader like Avakian.

Remarkably, for an article appearing in The Boston Globe ’s “Ideas” section, Mark Oppenheimer has precious little to say about Bob Avakian’s ideas. Despite having ready access to the work of Bob Avakian, Oppenheimer said nothing about Avakian’s critical investigation into and summation of the “first wave” of socialist revolutions in the Soviet Union and China—their great accomplishments as well as their shortcomings; nothing about his vision of a socialism in which dissent, broad contestation over the character and direction of society, and protest, even in opposition to the socialist state, are part of the very fabric of society; nothing about how Avakian sees the challenges of exercising revolutionary leadership; nothing about his analysis of U.S. society or the possibilities for revolution. Oppenheimer did not go there because it cuts against his preconceived notion that Bob Avakian and his work are really of little consequence, a throwback to another era.

Oppenheimer derisively labels many of the signers of the Engage! statement as the “petition-signing left,” who, in his view, have lent their names without knowing or caring much about Avakian. But in a letter to the editor published in the Globe, members of the Engage! Committee exposed some of these distortions. In fact, Oppenheimer did conduct extensive interviews with signers of the ad who spoke about what they find compelling about Avakian’s work, as well as articulating their differences with his views. In addition, many of the signers have written up comments on why they signed the statement and these can easily be found on the Engage! Committee’s website. None of this made it into his article because it didn’t fit his narrative.

Oppenheimer then wants to know where Avakian is. But this is irrelevant—since when does a person’s zip code determine the validity of his ideas? And Oppenheimer’s insistence that a prominent revolutionary leader should somehow be accessible to him—why can’t I have coffee with Avakian?—is as absurd as it is obnoxious. Does he think Toni Morrison, Brad Pitt, Stephen Hawking, or any person of public accomplishment or notoriety, has some special obligation to meet with him or any journalist who so wishes?

With his sarcastic wonderings about why so many prominent figures would sign a statement sponsored by a committee to project and protect the voice of Bob Avakian, along with his dismissal of the very real dangers that a leader like Bob Avakian faces in today’s world, he distorts the main purpose of the Engage! Committee’s publication of the statement—which is in fact to encourage people to discover and dig into Bob Avakian’s work.

Answering Misrepresentations, Spreading and Debating Bob Avakian’s Ideas

This article in the Globe was as vicious as it was vacuous. In response, people have taken the approach of jumping into the controversy and turning a bad thing into a good thing—going out boldly to counter the article and to give people a truthful and substantive picture of what Bob Avakian is actually all about. In addition to the above-mentioned letter from the Engage! Committee, the Globe printed a letter from Maoist political economist and Engage! signer, Raymond Lotta. (Both letters can be read in full on the website,

In the days following the appearance of the Globe article, people from Revolution Books and others posted copies of the NYRB ad around Harvard Square and elsewhere in Cambridge and talked with people in the streets. They went to Harvard, MIT, and Tufts with a leaflet answering the misrepresentations of the Globe article. Discussions took place in offices, dorms, and cafes, and touched on such things as whether revolution was possible or even desirable in this society, how a socialist society would function in today’s globalized world, the Obama phenomenon and how this generation of students sees its role in social change.

Revolution Books also hosted a talk and discussion led by Raymond Lotta on the topic “Is Communism Dead…Or is it Alive and Developing?—Bob Avakian’s Vision of a Liberating New World.” A diverse audience engaged in lively discussion about how a revolution could happen in the U.S., what it would take to wake people up, and what Avakian is saying about the kind of revolutionary movement needed in society. While Oppenheimer’s intention in part may have been to belittle the significance of Bob Avakian’s voice, by countering this attack, more people were in fact introduced to him and became interested in seriously checking out his work.

The Lie about a “Religious Cult”

One of the themes of Oppenheimer’s article and his piece on is his false claim that the Revolutionary Communist Party is creating a religious-like “cult of personality.” This does a disservice to the signers of the statement who, from their own perspectives, recognize the need for Avakian’s ideas to be part of the ferment and discourse required in this dark time and who also recognize the real dangers to Avakian in the current and increasingly repressive political climate.

As for what Avakian thinks about leadership: he points out that revolution and socialism require dedicated and far-seeing leaders but must at the same time work to break down the distinction between leaders and led, and empower the formerly oppressed to take hold of, and with the great majority of society, take ever-greater responsibility for the direction of society. He is totally opposed to notions of the infallibility of and blind, uncritical adherence to leaders. On the contrary, a particular hallmark of Bob Avakian’s work is his understanding that a key role of leadership is to unleash and empower the masses of people, from now forward, to increasingly tackle and solve the real problems of making revolution and of keeping the revolutionary transformation of society going forward. While building on Lenin and Mao, Avakian has gone beyond them on a number of questions—and one of those critical arenas is his work on more deeply excavating both the roots of the contradictions in society which make the division between leaders and led necessary, and the ways and methods for seizing freedom out of that unevenness to develop a dynamic relationship between leaders and led, working toward eventually moving beyond all such divisions in society.

New Openings, Important Questions

It is a measure of the potential reach and impact of the works of Bob Avakian—against a backdrop of questioning, concern, and anxiety among sections of intellectuals over the state of affairs in this country and the world—that there would be these attempts, including in a major newspaper like The Boston Globe, to belittle and discredit both Avakian and the Engage! project.

The NYRB ad, the interest and controversy it has fueled, and the attacks it has occasioned, provide openings to reach out broadly and widen an important conversation: about Bob Avakian’s work, and the growing repressive circumstances many progressive thinkers find themselves in as well as the particular dangers posed to Avakian—who is not only a theorist but the leader of a revolutionary party which is taking responsibility for making revolution in this society.

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