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Berkeley: Memoir follows author's road to communism
- Rick DelVecchio, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

Bob Avakian has devoted his life to the one ideology that he believes holds the promise of massively releasing human freedom and dignity. The ideology is communism.

Berkeley-bred Avakian's new memoir, "From Ike to Mao and Beyond," leaves a breathtaking impression. Having deepened and purified his convictions over 40 years of personal and political struggle, Avakian sounds a high, sustained cry for complete social transformation almost as if he were the trumpet of Lenin himself.

It's as if democratic capitalism's triumph in the 20th century was history's biggest mistake, a tragic wrong turn from the revolutionary road marked out by Lenin in the Russia of 1917 after the writings of Marx and by Mao in the China of the 1950s and 60s. Unswervingly, Avakian holds that road and is esteemed by fellow revolutionaries as the marathon man of the international anti-imperialist struggle.

Avakian, 62, a veteran of the Free Speech Movement and other upheavals of the Bay Area in the 1960s, makes an unqualified case for Marxism-Leninism as a fertile thought system that's as alive now as it was when the two revolutionary masterminds created it to answer what they saw as capitalism's fundamental inhumanity.

But although Avakian is a devotee of Marx and Lenin, he's also respected in revolutionary circles for his ground-breaking criticism of communist methods. More evolutionary than revolutionary, his nondogmatic communism tolerates contradiction, welcomes dissent and demands the participation of artists and intellectuals in creating a classless society.

"Marxism is not a scripture, it's not a religious dogma," Avakian writes. "It's a scientific approach to reality."

New York's Insight Press is debuting Avakian's paperback in Berkeley on May 6. A diverse host committee made up of people who welcome Avakian as an alternative voice will present the work. Although the author has elected not to appear, give press interviews or even disclose where he lives, his representatives say he wants the book to contribute to a renewed dialogue about Marxism and political theory in general.

"I think that Bob Avakian has taken the whole idea and conception of communism to another level -- he's revived the communist project, if you will, going beyond Marx, Lenin and Mao in some really important ways," said Lenny Wolff, who wrote the memoir's introduction.

"At the same time, there's a lot of other folks who are not communist but who are also trying to help him get heard because, from their own varied viewpoints, they think this is someone whose story and ideas and critical stance are extremely timely," he said.

Avakian's representatives said the author is eager to have his views more widely discussed but wants to stay out of sight because he fears government harassment. He fled America in 1981 amid what he describes in the book as a suffocating climate of intolerance.

"Events like this Berkeley program are one important means to get the news of this memoir out there and in that way introduce him, so to speak, to people," Wolff said. "However, we are also acutely aware of what this government does to revolutionary leaders once they begin to win a hearing."

The first half of the book traces Avakian's four-square upbringing and swift political development from pre-adolescence. The second half shows him reclaiming Leninism as he turns aside the conservatism of the old-line Communist Party, the pragmatism of trade unionism, the revolutionary exhaustion of the Black Panthers after their prime and the anti-leadership tendencies of the New Left.

Following what he is convinced is the correct line, he joins with two fellow Bay Area radicals to form the Revolutionary Union in the late 60s. He expands the organization nationally in 1970 in a bid to create a vanguard for a renewed communist movement.

But America in the '70s goes right instead of left. Ronald Reagan is elected president. Under surveillance for his political activities and grieving a fellow revolutionary's murder in Chicago, Avakian goes into exile in France and assumes the chairmanship of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, a Maoist group intent on radical social transformation in "the colossus of late imperial America."

Today, Avakian remains party chairman and is perhaps best known as a prolific, uncompromising contributor to The Revolutionary Worker newspaper. In one his latest articles, he says the polarized conditions in America today are similar to those in the 1840s and 1850s, and he predicts a new civil war.

"I have a very profound hatred, and I don't hesitate to say it, for this system," Avakian says on a CD that his publisher has distributed with the book.

The grandchild of Armenian immigrants who settled in Fresno to farm, Avakian enjoyed a warm and familial childhood. His mother taught him compassion and sacrifice. The late Alameda County Superior Court judge Spurgeon Avakian, who was changed by his experiences of discrimination as a person of Armenian descent, showed his son about fighting injustice.

Fresno at the time was split by a freeway, with blacks, Latinos and Asians segregated on one side. When the family moved to Berkeley, Avakian learned more about discrimination from African American friends.

Young Avakian's religious beliefs and patriotism were deeply felt. He tells of saying the Pledge of Allegiance as a 9- or 10-year-old and wanting to fall to his knees in gratitude for "not living in one of those awful countries that so many people seem to have had the misfortune of being born in." Sticking with Eisenhower even though his parents went over to Adlai Stevenson, he was absorbed in TV coverage of the 1952 Republican presidential convention.

In short, young Avakian was very much a child of what he calls the naively optimistic America of the '50s. His mainstream roots went deep, which is one of the critical ideas in a memoir that features a cover photo of the teen-aged Avakian in a Wally Cleaver moment as he spins a 45 on the hi-fi. Avakian loved the harmonies of doo-wop and sang with black friends in his own vocal group.

But devotion to mainstream values gave way to skepticism. A milestone on the way to Avakian's transformation to radicalism was discovering that President Kennedy lied when he used the U.N. Charter to justify a naval blockade in response to the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. Classmates at UC Berkeley wondered why he was so aloof the day the president was shot.

Other kids listened to The Beatles and Dylan. Avakian listened to the speeches of Malcolm X. When the sports-loving, doo-wop-singing kid started making Malcolm-esque pronouncements spiced with Richard Pryor-type humor, he had begun his life's quest.

"I always thought that if I hadn't ended up being a communist," Avakian writes, "I would have been a high school basketball coach -- but I was feeling that my life should be about something more than sports."

At first drawn to the Panthers and other radical groups at the time, Avakian turned to communism under the tutelage of a disaffected old-line Communist Party member. He took the revolution to Richmond, organizing workers and poor people -- the proletariat -- against the bourgeoisie. He read to them from a popular book about village life in China before Mao's revolution.

Meanwhile, disgusted with sectarianism and dogmatism in the ranks, Avakian pushed his fellow radicals to stop fighting each other, think big and stay the revolutionary course.

He went to China in 1971 and was awed by Mao's Cultural Revolution. "We saw truly wondrous things," he writes. He came home convinced that revolutionary change could take place in American society as a scientific process.

There were setbacks large and small. Avakian recounts an episode where his old radical mate Eldridge Cleaver of the Panthers lit up a joint and said, "Look brother, we've seen all the revolution we're gonna see." In China, Mao died and what replaced his revolution looked to Avakian like capitalism in disguise.

Fighting on after Mao, Avakian and his party rediscovered the writings of Lenin. Especially influential was "What Is To Be Done?'', which argues that class consciousness, not economic need, is at the heart of the worker revolution.

In the book, Avakian is at his most provocative when he assesses Stalin and Mao. He applauds Stalin for leading the first historical experience in building socialism, the Soviet Union, under difficult circumstances. Although he refers to Stalin's mistakes, he makes no mention of the millions who died under the Soviet dictatorship and insists upon a balanced view.

"If the bourgeoisie and its political representatives can uphold people like Madison and Jefferson," he writes, "then the proletariat and its vanguard forces can and should uphold Stalin, in an overall sense and with historical perspective."


Book release event

"From Ike to Mao and Beyond," a memoir by Bob Avakian, 7 p.m. May 6, King Middle School, 1781 Rose St. (at Grant), Berkeley. -10. (510) 848-1196. The book is available at independent bookstores and through the publisher, Insight Press, at www.insight-press.com.

Contact Rick DelVecchio at rdelvecchio@sfchronicle.com.

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Berkeley: Memoir follows author's road to communism

by Rick DelVecchio, SF Chronicle Monday, May. 23, 2005 at 3:15 PM

Review of From Ike to Mao and Beyond, a memoir by Bob Avakian

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