Revolution Online, April 12, 2012

Debate at Brown University: "Socialism vs. Capitalism: The Way Forward in the 21st Century"

Revolution received the following correspondence:

I was part of a team of revolutionaries who traveled to Brown University in Providence, RI, to help get the word out about the debate between Raymond Lotta and Professor Glenn Loury, "Socialism vs. Capitalism: The Way Forward in the 21st Century." This was a really significant and exciting program—especially as it applies to academia and college students and the particular role that the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) can and needs to play in the campaign to get out BA Everywhere.

And the days leading up to the event were also a lot of fun!

While Brown, a small Ivy League school, has a reputation for being more open to critical challenges of accepted doctrine than most schools, I don’t think the students had ever experienced quite the scene that took place around this debate.

The day before the debate, students coming onto campus were presented with large billboards and placards announcing the debate and also the publication of the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). They were greeted by revolutionaries at a book table, with copies of BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, Revolution newspaper, and Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the RCP, USA, encouraging them to come to the debate, to bring their big questions and to spread the word.

We crisscrossed the campus, going to student unions, classes, professors’ offices and campus rallies to meet with people. We learned that, because the debate was under the auspices of the Janus Forum, which is part of the Brown University Political Theory Project, every student and faculty had received an email alert about the program. On top of this, there was a quarter-page ad placed in the Brown student paper announcing the debate.

As we talked to students, a number also mentioned that professors had announced the program in their classes. The diversity of the classes—anthropology, African-American studies, history, political sciences, sociology and history—a class on media and its portrayal of violence, another, a seminar on the historical precedents for the Occupy Movement—indicated the debate had touched a chord with a number of professors as well as students.

When we joined with an anti-sweatshop rally being held on the campus, one urban studies student said that she had heard about the debate and was planning on coming because "this is a very hot-button item" for her.

So even while there were only a couple of days of organizing involved, by the time the debate rolled around, most students had heard about it, often from multiple sources.

At the same time, we were struck by some real contradictions among the students. For example, while there was a very high degree of social awareness on the campus—the general level of understanding of students around the issues of revolution, socialism and communism was quite low and often confused—including around the fact that socialism and capitalism actually represent two radically different roads.

Some students who had a more worked-out understanding thought that socialism essentially meant a more equitable distribution of wealth, and could be achieved through the struggle to reform the government and by instituting laws that were in the interest of the people.

It was also the case that many students had been indoctrinated to the point they don’t even think that socialist revolution and communism were relevant points of reference in trying to figure out how to address their big social concerns. One of the most common responses to the call for the debate was that we needed to find some "third road" that could take elements of both sides but would be something different altogether.

To all these students, our message was the same—"Bring your ideas and come to the debate! The stakes are too high for humanity to not seriously engage with this." To their credit, many did.

As the article in Revolution #265 noted, at the debate itself there was sharp and substantive engagement both between Lotta and Loury and between the panelists and the audience, which was overwhelmingly students but also included professors and activists from the community, including Occupy Providence. Not only did students interrogate Raymond Lotta about the historical experience of socialism, but others took Loury to task for his defense of a system that has driven millions from their homes in the last few years and his own methodology in attempting to attack the accomplishments of socialism in China.

The most striking thing about the debate was that it was clear that the students had never heard anything like the presentation Raymond Lotta made and were, if anything, taken aback by how reasoned, rational and coherent an argument he made for something that the vast majority of them had never even seriously considered before—that revolution, socialism and communism were viable and desirable alternatives to the current capitalist/imperialist system; that the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal), based on the new synthesis of communism developed by Bob Avakian, concentrated the pathway for that future and that they needed to be part of this movement for revolution.

Rather than taking off right after the presentations, as is often the case, most stayed till the end of the question-and-answer period, and the foyer outside the hall was crowded with discussion afterwards.

While many students were impressed with Lotta’s arguments and a number either bought Constitution or made sure to get information on how to get to the online edition, it was also clear that the debate had only cracked open the conversation. Most were still pretty reserved in their comments as they left.

There was one young guy who really appreciated Raymond Lotta’s comments but wanted to talk about how we were never going to convince the capitalists to go along with the changes proposed by Lotta in the debate. In the course of the conversation, someone raised the issue of slavery in the U.S. At some point, they said, you had to decide whether your goal was to "convince" the slave owners to give up their incredibly profitable way of life based on the enslavement of other human beings or was your goal to end slavery.

Once you determined that your goal was to end slavery, then it became clear that you weren’t going to "talk" the slave owners out of this system of exploitation and that it was going to take a civil war to end it. In retrospect, this all seems obvious, but at the time, it was not that clear how things would fall out and it really had to be dug into and deeply understood for people to take the stand they did around the need to end slavery.

In looking at today, you have to decide where you stand on some fundamental issues, whether it is around the degradation and enslavement of women, imperial wars of aggression or the attacks on Black people, and then decide what your goal is—to end these outrages or to "convince" the government of its incorrect policies. The student thought about this for a minute and said that he thought that was the right approach but if that were the case, then you had to deal with the reality that you would be going up against the most powerful imperial power the world has ever seen and that this was a whole other discussion. He then took off into the night, but not before getting the info for the Revolution website and the online Constitution.

Plans are already underway to return to Brown to connect with students who attended the debate and to dig more deeply into the many questions raised in the course of this debate and beyond. But the whole process at Brown—condensed into just a few days—also made our team realize that there is a tremendous amount of yet untapped potential for these types of engagements and debates where the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) can be brought front and center at a lot of campuses as a powerful element of getting BA out everywhere.

A reader

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