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Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
Re-envisioning Revolution and Communism:
Part IV: The New Synthesis: Political Implications—Dictatorship and Democracy
The following is Part 4 of the text of a speech given in various locations around the country this spring. The text has been slightly edited for publication. Revolution is publishing this speech in five installments. The complete speech is available online at revcom.us.
The new synthesis also has extremely important implications in regard to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx called the necessary transit point to a communist society. In short—how does the socialist state maintain itself as a power in transition to a world communist society without states—and not become an end in itself? How does it continue to advance—and not get turned back to capitalism?
Avakian has spent over 30 years deeply summing up the experience of the socialist revolutions in the Soviet Union and China, including the conceptions, assumptions, methods, and approaches of the great leaders who led those revolutions. Here too, I’m mainly going to briefly outline or sketch out some key markers, and point people into the works.
In large part, what was written by Avakian in Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity applies to the whole first stage of the communist movement:
In the history of the communist movement and of socialist society, the basic orientation has been one of dealing with the material reality and the conditions of the masses of people as the priority, as the focus and as the foundation, as opposed to the bourgeois approach of ignoring—or, in fact, reinforcing—the oppressive conditions of the masses of people, the great majority of humanity. And it is very important to grasp firmly that, in the name of the individual and “individual rights,” advocates in one form or another of this bourgeois approach actually uphold the interests of a class—and the dynamics of a system in which that class, the bourgeoisie, rules—where masses of people, literally billions of individuals within the exploited and oppressed classes, are mercilessly ground down and chewed up, and where their individuality and any notion of their individual dignity is counted as nothing.1
The communists of the Soviet Union and China led the masses to use their revolutionary power to do amazing and unprecedented things. The ownership of the means of production was socialized, and channeled to meeting the material requirements of society and the needs of the people. In the space of a few years, women in those countries went from among the most enslaved and suppressed in the world to the most liberated. The people went from being mainly illiterate to almost entirely literate, with education and culture thrown open to those who had been locked out of it before. The Soviet Union in particular carried out tremendous strides toward equality for what had been called the prison-house of oppressed nations and peoples. And health care began to be provided for all, where before the revolution most people had never seen a doctor.
But you can’t just leave it at that. Necessary as it is, it’s not enough to just stand firm and defend—and cherish—those achievements in the face of the endless barrage of slander and distortion. It’s not enough just to go deeply into where those revolutions were starting from, and the relentless and unspeakably vicious forces they were up against.
Upholding Achievements, Listening to Criticisms
One must also listen to and deeply examine the criticisms of that experience—from every quarter—and ask the question: at what cost? The proletarian state must hold on to power in the face of life-and-death resistance from the overthrown exploiters and vicious attack from without; but must that make it necessary to curtail and even chill and repress dissent, and ferment, and a diversity of ideas and approaches—including ideas and approaches oppositional to socialism? The new power faces a world-historic task in bringing the masses into intellectual life and the arts, and in forging a whole new culture, and amazing things were done in that regard in China in particular—but must that entail a restriction on the pursuits and inquiry and experimentation by people who were trained as artists and scientists in the old society, or even in the new? There is for the first time the basis—and a huge need—to approach the question of freedom as a positive and collective undertaking—“how we’re going to transform the world, and serve the people,” not “I want to get mine”; but must that mean that there is no need or little positive role for individuality, and individual space? There is a need to “get things done”—but how does that relate to the proletarian state as a radically different form of state, drawing the masses increasingly into the actual overall direction and direct administration of the state?
You can’t answer those questions for real if you are facile about it. Think for a minute about the Civil War in this country, and the period of Reconstruction, right after the slaves had been freed and were supposed to have been given land and political rights. Now for many years, the story that was told in the schools—and even more so, in the culture, with works like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation—was that Reconstruction was a terrible period in which white people underwent horrible suffering. (By the way, this should actually give you some perspective on the stuff you see on the socialist revolutions almost every week in the book review section of the New York Times.)
What actually happened is that in order to break the power of the southern planters, the northern capitalists at first deprived some of them of political rights for a while and militarily backed up the former slaves in attempting to vote, hold office, and claim land. But as these southern planters were reintegrated into the ruling class on a now subordinate basis, and as other contradictions in other parts of the U.S. began to boil up, the northern capitalists pulled out their troops and allowed their former enemies to organize the Ku Klux Klan, to institute slave-like systems of convict labor and sharecropping, and to deprive the Black masses of any rights at all—and to enforce this both through laws and through lynch mobs. This orgy of vengeance that overturned Reconstruction was officially labeled as “The Redemption.” And history was rewritten by the victors, until a new generation in the 1960s went back and unearthed the real, objective truth of the matter.
To have actually achieved the goals of Reconstruction would have required depriving the former slave-holders of political rights and enforcing that. Quite frankly, it would have been bloody, and some innocent people might have suffered...but it would have been worth it.
To not have almost 5,000 lynchings in the period after the defeat of Reconstruction, and the effects of that on millions of Black people?
To not have had the destruction of the spirit that went with the whole system of segregation?
To stop the institutionalization of things like convict labor, and chain gangs, and terrible schools, and all the other things that dog people today, sometimes in different and sometimes in almost unchanged forms?
Now let’s turn the page to the communist revolution, which is far more thoroughgoing, fundamental and radical than Reconstruction was ever intended to be and that came to power in far more difficult situations. These revolutions faced not only the overthrown exploiters—who, as Lenin once said, retain all their know-how and sense of entitlement and connections from before, and who come at you with ten times the viciousness and trickery once they lose their paradise—but also the militarily much more powerful imperialist powers. The Soviets fought a Civil War from 1918 to 1921 that cost millions of lives and basically destroyed what little industry they had, and they faced in that Civil War interference and invasions from 17 different military powers, including the U.S. And again, there was the Nazi invasion—not even 20 years after they won the Civil War.
However, even fully coming to grips with that, we still have to interrogate what was done, analyze the shortcomings in both practice and theory, and truly prepare ourselves—and the masses—to do better the next time.
More Deeply Breaking With Bourgeois Democracy
As part of doing better—and even in order to answer the question of “at what cost” on the right basis—it’s been necessary to make a more thorough rupture with bourgeois-democratic influences and the whole conception of “classless democracy” within the communist movement. Avakian, in his landmark book, posed the question Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, and emphatically answered it YES!
Now I want to get into this by quoting two short statements from Avakian that we often run in our newspaper. The first one is:
The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism.
What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.
And then, from a different angle, this:
In a world marked by profound class divisions and social inequality, to talk about “democracy”—without talking about the class nature of that democracy and which class it serves—is meaningless, and worse. So long as society is divided into classes, there can be no “democracy for all”: one class or another will rule, and it will uphold and promote that kind of democracy which serves its interests and goals. The question is: which class will rule and whether its rule, and its system of democracy, will serve the continuation, or the eventual abolition, of class divisions and the corresponding relations of exploitation, oppression and inequality.
Let’s talk about the implications of that. To begin with, you cannot use instruments of capitalist dictatorship—the armies, prisons, courts, and bureaucracy which this system has developed and shaped to reinforce and extend exploitation and imperialism—you cannot use those very same things to abolish exploitation, uproot oppression, and defend against imperialists. And you cannot use the tools of bourgeois democracy that have been designed, first, to settle disputes among the exploiters and, second, to atomize, bamboozle, and render passive the masses of people, as a means to mobilize and unleash people to consciously understand and transform the whole world. While it is true, as Lenin put it, that socialism is a million times more democratic for the masses of people, socialism is not and cannot be an extension of bourgeois democracy (which is founded on exploitation) to the exploited. And that lesson is not only scientifically founded, it’s been paid for in blood.
The “4 Alls”
The proletarian dictatorship—and the proletarian system of democracy—has to be different. It has to serve the abolition of antagonistic divisions between people and the relations, institutions, and ideas that grow out of and reinforce those divisions. Now the new power will do a lot toward that end right away—including taking over these socialized means of production and beginning to use them to meet the material needs of the people and to further the world revolution.
But the morning after victory you will have a society in which people have grown up as members of different social classes. Even leaving aside the big capitalists—which you better not, since they’ll still be around, unreconciled to their dispossession—there will still be distinctions among the people: between those who have been trained in things like medicine, administration, and engineering, on the one hand, and those who lack those kinds of training and have had to work in foundries, the hospitals, or the fields, or have not been able to find any work at all, on the other. And there is also the force of habit from centuries in which the only way that people have come together to carry out the production of life’s necessities has been mediated by—or carried out through—relations where one main class exploits another, and where there is a strict division between those who work with their minds and those who work with their bodies.
Moreover, you will have to deal with all the social relations and ideas that have been conditioned and reinforced by those relations of exploitation. The new power will immediately set about destroying the pillars of this system like white supremacy and male supremacy, and instituting real equality. But even after you initiate these transformations, and even after people’s thinking will begin to be liberated in many ways and reflect the new socialist relations, the centuries of exploitation will nevertheless still have a big effect in people’s thinking. It will be like post-traumatic stress syndrome after a rape; this society and all the people in it have been traumatized by hundreds and thousands of years of oppression and the results in people’s thinking—the racism, the sexism, the USA Number One national chauvinism and the nativist hatred of people from other countries, the elitism, even the feelings of inferiority that are drummed into the masses—these will all be struggled against, but they will not just disappear. And those ideas will feed on the still-remaining inequalities and economic relations which contain aspects of capitalist-type relations but which can’t be wiped out overnight—what is called “bourgeois right.” Political ideas and programs that represent those relations will grow in this soil and assert themselves, and provide a basis for new-born capitalist elements to contest for power. And the new power will have to mobilize the masses to identify, understand, and overcome them.
So it’s not so easy as “well, we just change the economic relations, and the rest falls into place”—and to the extent communists have thought or still think like that, it does a lot of damage. Every arena of society will have to be transformed and revolutionized, over a much longer period of time than anticipated by Marx or Lenin. And all of these realms—as Marx scientifically put it, all the class distinctions, all the production relations on which they rest, all the social relations which arise on that basis, and all the ideas that correspond to those relations—or the “4 alls” for short—will have to be abolished in order to get to, and as part of the process of reaching, communism.2
A Different Kind of Dictatorship and Democracy
So you will need dictatorship over the former exploiters and those who aim to restore exploitation; and you will also need democracy among the masses to truly carry through on the needed transformations. But these will have to be dictatorship and democracy of a qualitatively different character than what we have now. Again, you can’t just turn things upside down, with different people wielding the same instruments. There have to be forms through which masses of people are actually coming to life and creating a far different society, and changing themselves in the process, on a scale that frankly can hardly be imagined from within the mental confines of “what is” under this system.
That has to mean mobilizing—and unleashing—people, leading them and learning from them, to overcome the inequalities and the social relations of the old society, all of which undermine the advance toward a new form of society. It means equipping ever broader masses of people with the theoretical tools to critically analyze society and to evaluate whether and how concretely it is moving in the direction of communism, and what needs to be done to go as far as possible in that direction at any given time.
Now this approach goes straight up against the idea that mainly what you have to do under socialism is “deliver the goods”—make sure that people’s living standards are rising, that their lives are more secure, and so on—and leave things in the hands of the people “who know how to do that.” In other words, “feed ’em and lead ’em.” This is what is known as a revisionist approach—keeping the name of communism, but revising the revolutionary heart out of it. And this was the line of the people who finally did seize power in China after Mao died, and overthrew those who had been grouped around Mao, and we’ve now seen where that ultimately leads—a capitalist hell with a socialist label.
So the question is this: Are the masses going to be people who only fight and produce? Or are they going to be emancipators of humanity? Can the masses really face the world as it is, understand it, and transform it?
The answer is, they CAN. But not spontaneously and not without leadership. People cannot take conscious initiative to change the world if they don’t know how it works. That takes science. And because things have been set up in such a way to lock masses out of working with ideas, they need to get that science from people who have had the opportunity to get into it. Again, they need leadership.
And make no mistake about it—everybody is getting led, in this society, in one direction or another. Right now a lot of people who claim they don’t get led are pouring all kinds of effort, resources and hope into this Clinton vs. Obama thing. And once Clinton, Obama, or McCain is in office, whichever one wins will set the terms. They will tell you what to do, and—as they have been telling you—they will do that to serve American domination of the world and the “social order” within America.
So the question is not whether there will be leaders, but what kind of leaders, serving what goals. Bob Avakian put it this way in Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity:
[S]o long as that is true, the essential questions will remain: What is the content and effect of that leadership—where will it lead people, and how? What does it enable people to do, or prevent them from doing? Does it contribute to their capacity to actually comprehend reality, and to act consciously to change it, in accordance with the fundamental interests of humanity—or does it interfere with and undermine that?3
It’s important to think about this in relation to what I explained earlier about the still-remaining advantages and power retained by the overthrown imperialists and their international connections. The proletariat cannot share power with the bourgeoisie, or it will get eaten alive—as I said earlier, this has been dealt with scientifically, in polemical works by Avakian like “Democracy: More Than Ever We Can and Must Do Better Than That” (which appears in the book Phony Communism Is Dead...Long Live Real Communism!) and, yes, these are lessons paid for in blood. On a still deeper level, only the proletariat has an interest as a class in actually abolishing those 4 alls, and the state either has to be an instrument for abolishing those “alls”—or else it will reinforce them.
Because of all that, you will still need an institutionalized leading role for the proletarian party in the socialist state, so long as there are antagonistic classes and the soil out of which class antagonisms can grow. (Once those classes are abolished, there will then no longer be a need for institutionalized leadership, or for a state altogether.)
At the same time, we have to recognize and deal with this as a contradiction—to constantly revolutionize and revitalize the Party so that it continues to provide that kind of leadership and does not turn into new oppressors.
This is no small problem—and it is one Avakian has devoted a great deal of attention to and is a big part of what I’m getting into next: a qualitatively different approach to—and a new synthesis on—the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Solid Core, with a Lot of Elasticity
To be clear: we are talking about changes from and ruptures with much of the approach in the societies that up to now could be said to have been genuinely socialist and genuinely revolutionary but which nonetheless had significant shortcomings. This is not, as someone humorously put it, “run the good plays, don’t run the bad plays”—this is a whole different approach, founded on the breakthroughs in communist world outlook and epistemology that I touched on earlier; a way to correctly answer the question “at what cost” and a way to lead things in a different way, and to a higher level.
Let’s take the question of having an official ideology, which has been a feature of previous socialist societies. Now, as I said, the Party does have to lead in socialist society, and the Party itself has to be unified around communist ideology, which enables it to lead people to correctly understand and transform reality. The Party, however, is a voluntary association. But what happens if everyone in society, in the Party or not, has to profess agreement with this ideology in order to be heard, or even to just get along?
Well, the fact is that most people are not going to really take this up as their outlook in the direct aftermath of revolution, fresh out of capitalist society. Bob Avakian has used the metaphor of a parachute to describe how things become compressed at the time of the revolution, how society splits into two poles—one fairly tightly adhering to the revolutionary camp, and the other defending reaction. But after the revolution that compressed character of the people’s pole opens back out, like a parachute. As Avakian wrote in The Basis, the Goals, and the Methods of the Communist Revolution, after the revolution has come to power:
...all the diversity of political programs, outlooks, inclinations, and so on—which reflect, once again, the actual remaining production and social relations that are characteristic of the old society, as well as what’s newly emerging in the society that has been brought into being as a result of the revolutionary seizure and consolidation of power—all these things assert, or reassert, themselves. And if you go on the assumption that, because people all rallied to you at that particular moment when only your program could break through–if you identify that with the notion that they’re all going to be marching in lockstep with you and in agreement with you at every point all the way to communism– you are going to make very serious errors...4
It’s not the second coming, where everyone gets saved and “sees the light”—thank god! It’s a socialist society. You can lead people to do a lot of new things, a lot of important and emancipatory things, and set off a whole process in which people change society and themselves in a positive direction...but it can’t be done as if everyone has suddenly not only understood, but begun to adhere to and apply the communist method, stand, and viewpoint. And if you try to lead as if that is the case, you (a) are not going to be acting in correspondence to what is true, and (b) are going to, as a result, dam up and distort the whole process through which people come to know the truth and you will give rise to a phony, stifling, or chilled atmosphere.
There has to be a leading ideology—and the difference in socialist society is that we’ll openly express it, rather than mask it the way the capitalists do—but the people who aren’t sure they agree with it should feel free to say so and the people who don’t agree should definitely say so and it should get debated out.
A similar principle has to be applied to politics. On one level, the Party has to take initiative and mobilize people, and unleash them around key objectives. It has to set the terms of debate. And yes, this can be and has to be a lively and inspiring and mind-opening process—and it has been in the past, not only in China but at least for the first decade and a half or so in the Soviet Union.
But what about spontaneity from below? What about things that seem to go off in a whole different direction, or that oppose the main political terms and activity that are being put forward by the Party? What about scenes in the arts that arise on their own, like the coffeehouse scenes of the ’50s and ’60s with the “Beats,” or the hip-hop scene and graffiti crews that arose in the South Bronx 30 years ago, or the spoken word poetry slams of the ’90s—things that would arise from the people, many of which might have an oppositional, or at least “not in control,” character to them? What about political groups that want to debate questions without Party people around, or take actions that go against projects, even important projects, that the Party and the government itself are involved in? What about teachers who want to teach theories and interpretations that don’t coincide with the Party’s understanding?
To be frank, there really hasn’t been much room for this sort of thing in the previous socialist societies. In Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity, Avakian criticized a tendency in both China and, more so, the Soviet Union “toward constriction...of the process of socialist transformation; and, insofar as this tendency exerted itself, it led to some mishandling of the relation between the goal and the process, so that whatever was happening at a given time became, or tended to be identified with, the goal itself—rather than being understood as part of a process toward a larger goal. And, along with this, there was a constriction of the relation between the necessary main direction, in fundamental terms, and what were objectively ‘detours’ or departures from—but were seen and treated as dangerous deviations from—that main direction. This, to a certain degree and sometimes to a considerable degree, led to a stifling of creativity, initiative, individual expression and, yes, individual rights in the overall process, especially when these appeared to conflict—or actually did conflict, in the short run—with the expressed goals of the socialist state and its leading party.”5
On a very basic level, you actually need intellectual ferment to understand the world. Ferment, debate, experimentation—intellectual “air”—gives you a window into all of what’s churning beneath society’s surface at any given time, and the possible roads to resolution and advance opened up by that churn; it helps you see where you may be proceeding wrongly, or one-sidedly. Without this, the dialectic between the Party and the masses—between leaders and led—would tend to be too “one-way”; the critical and creative spirit would grow blunt, on both ends.
For if you try to give people critical tools in a hothouse kind of atmosphere, it just doesn’t “take”—people have to be led but they also have to learn for themselves, and the leadership itself has to be transformed and revolutionized in the course of that. To get that process right requires ferment, contestation, and just out-and-out wildness. There was no small amount of this in the Cultural Revolution—but we’re talking with the new synthesis about something on a far greater scale, with different elements and dynamics to it.
And let’s frankly come to grips with this: after ten years of the Cultural Revolution in China—the best of the previous conception of socialism—most people did not really understand the stakes of that last battle. Well, the different character and greater dimension of ferment in the new synthesis is one big part of the answer to how to do better next time.
“Going to the Brink of Being Drawn and Quartered”
Avakian has made the contrast between the metaphor of casting out a line, as if you’re fly-fishing...and the “solid core with a lot of elasticity,” expressed by this sort of motion. Let’s take an example. You could have a situation where the socialist government had decided to build a dam somewhere to meet some very pressing material needs of the people—and by the way, a revolutionary society here is going to have pressing material requirements and needs because we are not going to be sucking the blood of the people of the planet anymore!—and someone like Arundhati Roy (who is a very prominent and non-communist Indian novelist and progressive activist) might be agitating against it. And with the new synthesis, you wouldn’t just tolerate that—you’d be giving her air time and funding her, even as she might be organizing against you and leading demonstrations and maybe even some kind of massive sit-in. You’d have to get in there and mix it up and debate. If she was right—even in part—then you’d be learning from her. And if she wasn’t right, you’d still have to win people over—not in a debate against a straw man but against a passionate, articulate and convinced advocate of the position.6
And it would NOT be risk-free—because people whose motives are not good would almost certainly operate and maneuver within all that, and attempt to turn it into something that goes over into actual attempts to destroy the socialist state. And let’s not forget that if you give up power, if you let bourgeois forces (old or new) restore capitalism, you’d be committing a great crime against all the people who sacrificed to win that power and, even more so, humanity more generally.
The solid core will set the terms and the framework. But within that, it’s going to unleash and allow the maximum possible elasticity at any given time while still maintaining power—and maintaining it as a power that is going to communism, advancing toward the achievement of the “4 alls,” and together with the whole world struggle. Now there’s going to be constraints on the solid core at any time in doing that, including what kinds of threats you’re facing from imperialism. Sometimes you’ll be able to open up pretty wide, and sometimes you may have to pull in the reins; but strategically, overall, you’re mainly going to be trying to encourage and work with the elasticity, trying to learn from it and trying to figure out how you lead things so that it all becomes a motive force that is actually contributing—even if not so directly or immediately, in the short run—but overall contributing to where you want to go. And it’s going to be challenging and complex and full of risk figuring this out.
That’s why Avakian talks so much about “going to the brink of being drawn and quartered”—and SEEKING to do that! The role of dissent is INTEGRAL to this model of socialism, even as there are ways at any given time that it would radically complicate the whole thing. Again, unless you are ready to go to the brink of being drawn and quartered—and drawn and quartered refers to a torture where they pull your limbs in four different directions!—your solid core will end up very brittle...and the elasticity won’t be very...well, elastic. And just to be very clear: this is a strategic concept which is not the same as—and should not simply be identified with, or reduced to—being pulled in a lot of different directions by a lot of different challenges, or having a lot of different tasks to do. This conception of "going to the brink of being drawn and quartered" is speaking to something much different, something more complex, more profound and strategically important than that.
In addition to dissent of this kind, Avakian has also brought forward for discussion as part of this model the ideas of: contested elections where key issues facing the state are vigorously debated out with real stakes; a constitution (including the constraints that it puts on the Party); an expanded view of individual rights; the existence of civil society, with associations that are independent of the government; and a whole new way of tackling the contradiction between mental and manual labor, including a different view on the role of intellectuals—all of which I can only mention here, but would be eager to go into during the question period.
One last question on this point: who IS the solid core? The solid core is not identical to the Party and it’s not identical to the proletariat, in some kind of monolithic way. At any given time the solid core represents a minority—in the first phases of socialist society, it’s those firmly committed to the whole objective of getting to communism; and then you’ve got various gradations of people, from different classes and strata, grouping themselves in relation to that. The solid core has to have roots in the proletariat, and the leadership has to constantly bring forward and unleash new people from among those who are “on the short end” of the contradictions left over from capitalism—for example, people who were not trained in mental labor in the old society, or women from various strata (as well as men) who want to push forward women’s emancipation.
But the proletariat itself is not a static thing—it contains a lot of diversity and undergoes very dynamic change both from its participation in all spheres of society and from the whole process of living with and transforming—and learning from—the middle strata. You have different classes and you have various levels of commitment to the communist project, and you’re trying to work with that contradiction—but not from the top down. This is about unleashing a process and then getting into the process with the masses.
This is very different from previous conceptions, which rested on a sort of “reified” view of the proletariat—a view which confuses the world-historic role of the proletariat as the class embodying the new relations of production with the individual people who happen to be in that class at any given time. As I touched on earlier in the discussion of “class truth,” this “reification of the proletariat” was reflected in a lot of emphasis on the class origins of people in evaluating their opinions and putting them into positions of leadership or responsibility, and held that if workers and peasants were in such positions, you were somehow guaranteeing against revisionism. This was very pronounced with Stalin, but also found expression with Mao and the Chinese Revolution in different ways.
Once More on the New Synthesis
So we’ve covered a lot in terms of the political implications of the new synthesis, particularly in regards to socialism. But before we move on to strategy, and on the basis of everything I’ve just said, I want people to think about how much—and with how much profound importance—is captured in the following description of the new synthesis from Part 1 of Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity:
This new synthesis involves a recasting and recombining of the positive aspects of the experience so far of the communist movement and of socialist society, while learning from the negative aspects of this experience, in the philosophical and ideological as well as the political dimensions, so as to have a more deeply and firmly rooted scientific orientation, method and approach with regard not only to making revolution and seizing power but then, yes, to meeting the material requirements of society and the needs of the masses of people, in an increasingly expanding way, in socialist society—overcoming the deep scars of the past and continuing the revolutionary transformation of society, while at the same time actively supporting the world revolutionary struggle and acting on the recognition that the world arena and the world struggle are most fundamental and important, in an overall sense—together with opening up qualitatively more space to give expression to the intellectual and cultural needs of the people, broadly understood, and enabling a more diverse and rich process of exploration and experimentation in the realms of science, art and culture, and intellectual life overall, with increasing scope for the contention of different ideas and schools of thought and for individual initiative and creativity and protection of individual rights, including space for individuals to interact in “civil society” independently of the state—all within an overall cooperative and collective framework and at the same time as state power is maintained and further developed as a revolutionary state power serving the interests of the proletarian revolution, in the particular country and worldwide, with this state being the leading and central element in the economy and in the overall direction of society, while the state itself is being continually transformed into something radically different from all previous states, as a crucial part of the advance toward the eventual abolition of the state with the achievement of communism on a world scale.7
Let me put it like this: the first stage of our movement was epochal and heroic—it deserves and demands deeper study and it must be defended and upheld. But the best of that understanding alone would not and will not get humanity to communism. With the new synthesis, that prospect has been re-opened; as one comrade put it to me, it’s like a new branch on the evolutionary bush.
Next: Part V: Strategic Implications—Making Revolution
1. Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity in the Revolution pamphlet Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation (May 1, 2008), p. 31. Available online at revcom.us/avakian/makingrevolution[back]
2. Karl Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50, in Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 1 [back]
3. Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity in the Revolution pamphlet Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation (May 1, 2008), p. 52. Available online at revcom.us/avakian/makingrevolution2 [back]
5. Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity in the Revolution pamphlet Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation (May 1, 2008), p. 35. Available online at revcom.us/avakian/makingrevolution [back]
7. Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity in the Revolution pamphlet Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation (May 1, 2008), p. 35. Available online at revcom.us/avakian/makingrevolution [back]
Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
Obama’s Speech on Israel:
Editor’s Note: Last week, Barack Obama was designated as the “presumptive nominee” of the Democratic Party, and Hillary Clinton endorsed him. What does it signify—and what does it NOT signify—that for the first time in U.S. history a Black person has been made the political candidate of a major political party? This is a very important question and we will be exploring it in future issues of the paper, including next week. This issue, however, we want to highlight the particular importance of Obama’s very first act after claiming the Democratic Party nomination—a speech on Israel, to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC is an influential and powerful organization that describes itself as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” and the AIPAC Conference itself is a major event—in addition to Obama, Clinton, McCain, Condoleezza Rice, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke.
In his speech to AIPAC, Barack Obama asserted many things about the origins and nature of the state of Israel, and emphasized his “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” based “on shared interests and shared values.” And he did so at a time when “Israel’s security” is being invoked as one possible justification or pretext for—or part of a larger scenario—that would compel the U.S. (or Israel, with U.S. backing) to attack Iran.
The Founding of Israel:
Myth vs. Reality
Running through Obama’s speech is an underlying theme that the establishment of the state of Israel is justified in light of the Nazi Holocaust. He says, “I also learned about the horror of the Holocaust, and the terrible urgency it brought to the journey home to Israel.” And, “It was just a few years after the liberation of the [Nazi concentration] camps that David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the Jewish state of Israel.”
The Nazi genocide against the Jews was one of the towering crimes of the system of imperialism. But how does the genocide against the Jews committed by the Nazi regime in Germany during World War 2 provide justification for almost a million Palestinians being forced from their homes into exile, and to suffer the continued ethnic cleansing by the state of Israel? Or, for Israeli attacks on other countries? The Palestinians and the people of the Middle East in general had nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes of the Nazis.
Obama, in his speech, concludes that: “We know that the establishment of Israel was just and necessary, rooted in centuries of struggle and decades of patient work. But 60 years later, we know that we cannot relent, we cannot yield, and as president I will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security.”
But the establishment of Israel was in fact mainly a product of imperialist moves to dominate the Middle East. In 1917, the British imperialists put their stamp of approval on Zionist settlement in Palestine, seeing this as a way to impose their own interests in the region. The British set themselves up as the colonial administrators of Palestine. Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, explained that England’s support for the Zionist “enterprise was one that blessed him that gave as well as him that took, by forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”
After World War 2, as the U.S. moved to dominate former colonies of Britain and France, Israel aligned with the U.S.
Obama is mobilizing public opinion behind unconditional support for Israel based not on some moral imperative to support an oppressed people, but on the strategic needs of the U.S. And his speech was a statement to the ruling class that as president, he will stay on that course.
Israel’s Strategic Role
When Obama says “our alliance is based on shared interests and shared values,” he is telling the truth. But the shared interests (and values) between the U.S. and its Israeli enforcer have nothing to do with “freedom and fairness…social justice and equal opportunity” as Obama claims.
In a recent op-ed piece supporting U.S. military aid to Israel, U.S. Representative Steve Rothman (who has been a strong supporter of Obama), reminded his colleagues that in the Middle East, “One strategic ally in particular has always stood out from all others: the state of Israel.” And that Israel provides “America with vital security assistance in the Middle East and around the world.” Rothman invokes “literally hundreds of examples of how Israel has helped the United States with our national security goals: intelligence, improving American military technology, capturing Soviet and Iranian equipment, destroying the Iraqi nuclear reactor, eradicating a Syrian nuclear facility, and many more unclassified and classified [secret] instances.”
He argues that “without our partnership with the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces—the Israeli army], the United States might need to have 100,000 or more additional troops stationed permanently in that part of the world to make up for the protection of U.S. interests and vital intelligence provided by Israel to the United States.”
And, Rothman emphasizes, “With the ongoing efforts of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons technology,” Israel’s role is “more critical than ever.” (“U.S.’s valuable, strategic relationship with Israel,” The Hill, June 3, 2008)
It is these kinds of calculations that drive the U.S. ruling class as a whole, and Obama as candidate for commander-in-chief, to make support for Israel unconditional—particularly right now.
“Israel’s Security”—Who is Threatening and Killing Whom?
Part of justifying unconditional support for, and mobilizing public opinion for Israel involves portraying that country as the victim in the region. In his speech to AIPAC, Obama said: “I have long understood Israel’s quest for peace and need for security. But never more so than during my travels there two years ago. Flying in an [Israeli Defense Forces] helicopter, I saw a narrow and beautiful strip of land nestled against the Mediterranean. On the ground, I met a family who saw their house destroyed by a Katyusha rocket. I spoke to Israeli troops who faced daily threats as they maintained security near the blue line.” And he said that “I don’t think any of us can be satisfied that America’s recent foreign policy has made Israel more secure.”
Obama speaks of “Israeli troops who face daily threats as they maintained security near the blue line.” But what is that “blue line”? It is the current border between Israel and Lebanon. Who has brought death and destruction across that line? In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. The official death toll was 19,000 people. In South Lebanon, the region that borders Israel (just north of the “blue line”), whole communities were leveled.
During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon in July and August, Israeli jets waged a massive bombing attack on the Lebanese capital, Beirut. By early August of 2002, the newspaper Financial Times reported that eight out of nine homes for orphans in the city had been destroyed by Israeli cluster and phosphorous bombs. The Los Angeles Times wrote, “In the last hours of the last air attack on Beirut, Israeli planes carpet-bombed Borj el Brajne (a Palestinian refugee camp). There were no fighting men left, only the damaged homes of Palestinian families, who once again would have to leave and find another place to live. All of West Beirut, finally, was living in wreckage and garbage and loss.” (August 29, 1982)
In the midst of the bombing of Beirut, a Jewish survivor of the Nazi Holocaust living in Israel, Dr. Shlomo Shmelzman, went on a hunger strike in protest. He wrote, “In my childhood I have suffered fear, hunger and humiliation when I passed from the Warsaw Ghetto, through labour camps, to Buchenwald [a Nazi concentration camp]. Today, as a citizen of Israel, I cannot accept the systematic destruction of cities, towns and refugee camps. I cannot accept the technocratic cruelty of the bombing, destroying and killing of human beings….Too many things in Israel remind me of too many things from my childhood.” (cited in The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, by Noam Chomsky)
In the course of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli military forces surrounded and sealed off the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut while their Lebanese allies massacred between 750 and 3500 people. Israeli military and allied forces were to occupy southern Lebanon for 18 years.
Again, in 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon with over 40,000 troops, killing over 1,000 people, displacing over a million and blanketing South Lebanon with over a million anti-personnel cluster bombs that today still maim and kill Lebanese farmers and children.
Similar horrors take place in Gaza, where a million and a half Palestinians are imprisoned, deprived of basic human needs, and subject to constant Israeli terror [see Gaza article, page 13].
Today, Israel maintains a qualitative military advantage over any country in the region. It receives in the area of three billion dollars in military aid from the United States each year. In a statement widely reported on around the world, but that got much less airplay in the U.S., former president Jimmy Carter said on May 26, while in England, that Israel has “150 or more” nuclear weapons.
Israel has never publicly acknowledged its nuclear weapons program, even while the “open secret” of its nuclear arsenal is held over the Middle East. Israel is one of four countries that are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Does any of this argue that Israel is a besieged country on a quest for peace and security?
Unconditional Support for Israel
In the framework of the critical role Israel plays in the region as an extension of U.S. interests in the Middle East, and with the U.S. ratcheting up pressure and threats on Iran, Obama’s speech emphasizes that his support for Israel is unconditional.
It is in this context that Obama presents the Palestinian people with an offer-they-can’t-refuse of a “two state solution,” based on “Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, with secure, recognized and defensible borders.” And, with Jerusalem “undivided” (completely controlled by Israel).
Even if the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority were granted “independence,” this could only have the character of the so-called “independent” Bantustans that were set up by the apartheid regime in South Africa (see map of the border between Israel and the Palestinian Authority zones on the West Bank). These areas are isolated, besieged, and cut off from each other by Israeli settlements, walls, and Israeli military checkpoints.
Then, Obama goes on to argue against “those who would lay all of the problems of the Middle East at the doorstep of Israel and its supporters, as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all trouble in the region. These voices blame the Middle East’s only democracy for the region’s extremism.”
As we have been pointing out, Israel exists within a whole network of power relations in the Middle East, and is integral to how U.S. imperialism dominates that part of the world in the larger picture of imposing itself as the world’s sole superpower. Within that, the state of Israel—the U.S.’s attack dog in the region—does inflame the anger of people in the region. As we could only begin to indicate in this article, a great amount of suffering, humiliation, and death has resulted from the birth and ongoing role of Israel. Yes, this has provoked widespread and deep anger throughout the region at Israel and the U.S. Today much of that anger is channeled into Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism does not, however, fundamentally challenge U.S. imperialism and actually backs up reactionary social relations—for example, the oppression of women. This movement is not just a dead end, but a weight on the back of the people. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a result of a whole complex set of political and military developments that have included the U.S. funding and enabling such movements during the “Cold War” in opposition to the Soviet Union, as well as policies on the part of Israel and the U.S. to crush progressive, nationalist, secular, and especially communist resistance to imperialism in the region. Now the U.S. wants to “have it both ways” by pointing to the very movement which they originally backed as a pretext to tighten their domination and aggression!
Further, the whole setup in the region, with brutal and corrupt regimes enforcing the role of different countries in the global matrix of imperialism is enforced by U.S. military blackmail and aggression (as in Iraq), and Israel’s military and intelligence operations are a critical part of that.
Iran in the Crosshairs
Obama’s speech, with its pervasive thread of “an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security” comes in the midst of very ominous signs that the U.S. may be preparing an attack on Iran. On June 7 the New York Times reported, “In more tough talk in Israel on Friday, Shaul Mofaz, a deputy prime minister and minister of transportation, told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot that, ‘If Iran continues its program to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack it.’”
In his speech Obama said, “The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”
This comes amidst claims by the U.S. and the European powers (and Israel) that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and that even Iran’s ability to enrich uranium—a level of technology far from a capacity to produce nuclear weapons—is intolerable.
It is in this context of real danger of war, and of promoting the whole set of terms and lies that would justify that, that Obama then argues, “Finally, let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel. Sometimes there are no alternatives to confrontation. But that only makes diplomacy more important. If we must use military force, we are more likely to succeed, and will have far greater support at home and abroad, if we have exhausted our diplomatic efforts.”
In delivering his speech to AIPAC, Obama declared that, “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” When he delivered the speech, he departed from this text to repeat that sentence, and then in case repeating this twice didn’t make the point clearly enough, he emphatically repeated the word “everything” a third time.
Everything means everything (especially when it’s repeated again and again). In the first televised debate of Democratic Party candidates, former Senator Mike Gravel said of the leading candidates at the time (including Obama): “I got to tell you, after standing up with them, some of these people frighten me—they frighten me. When you have mainline candidates that turn around and say that there’s nothing off the table with respect to Iran, that’s code for using nukes, nuclear devices.” (Later, TV networks refused to allow Gravel to participate in televised debates even though his poll numbers were similar to several other candidates who were allowed to participate).
Summing up Obama’s speech to AIPAC, the reactionary Republican journal Weekly Standard wrote, “So begins the great transformation, whereby a dovish primary candidate mutates into a (moderately) hawkish nominee.”
Auditioning for Commander-in-Chief
If Obama is selected to be commander-in-chief of the United States, he will inherit and be constrained by a whole course set by the Bush regime’s “war on terror.” Whatever differences he has or does not have with Bush and McCain are within the framework of carrying that forward. And in his speech to AIPAC, Obama is fundamentally pledging to follow that course.
Obama said, “My presidency will strengthen our hand as we restore our standing. Our willingness to pursue diplomacy will make it easier to mobilize others to join our cause. If Iran fails to change course when presented with this choice by the United States, it will be clear—to the people of Iran, and to the world—that the Iranian regime is the author of its own isolation. That will strengthen our hand with Russia and China as we insist on stronger sanctions in the Security Council.”
And even beyond the fact that Obama is arguing that diplomacy would create the best terms for a military attack should the rulers of the U.S. decide on that, imperialist diplomacy is still imperialism—it’s still unjust bullying, aggression, and interference which is directly against the interests of the people. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, “diplomacy and sanctions” cost over 500,000 people, mainly children, their lives.
What right does U.S. imperialism have to decide the political landscape of the Middle East and to impose its domination on the region? This has been the reality for over 60 years. For much of this period, Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, has been a strategic enforcer of all this. Imperialist domination of the Middle East has led to one nightmare after the other for the people of that region. Whoever is at the helm of the U.S. will be an overseer for all that.
“After the Holocaust, the worst thing that has happened to Jewish people is the state of Israel.”
Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA
Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
Interview with Author Douglas A. Blackmon
A Note on the Interview
We are publishing this interview courtesy of “Beneath the Surface” radio show hosted by Michael Slate on KPFK, Los Angeles. The views expressed by the author in this interview are, of course, his own, and he is not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in this newspaper.
Douglas A. Blackmon’s new book, Slavery by Another Name – The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Doubleday, 2008) has unearthed ugly chapters of U.S. history that have been buried for decades. In graphic and truthful detail, Blackmon’s powerful book reveals the widespread use of bonded labor after the Civil War—and how this amounted to a new form of slavery that incorporated many of the same inhuman conditions of brutal confinement like shackles, whippings, hog-tying. and water torture.
Douglas A. Blackmon, the Atlanta Bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, has written about race and especially the interplay of wealth, corporate conduct, and segregation. In 2000, the National Association of Black Journalists recognized Blackmon’s stories revealing the secret role of J.P. Morgan & Co. during the 1960s in funneling funds between a wealthy northern white supremacist and segregationists fighting the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
On May 6, Michael Slate interviewed Blackmon on “Beneath the Surface,” KPFK radio in Los Angeles, 90.7 fm (streaming worldwide on kpfk.org every Tuesday from 5 to 6 pm Pacific time). The following is the transcript of that interview.
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Michael Slate: At the end of your book you say you feel that that period of time between the betrayal of reconstruction, the destruction of reconstruction, and World War 2 and maybe even beyond World War 2 and into the 1950s, you talk about how that should not be called the Jim Crow era, but rather that it should be called “the age of neo-slavery.” Can you explain that?
Douglas Blackmon: Sure. There are two points that I'm really making there. One is in some respects the biggest demonstration that I hope the book makes. And that is that this period of time, beginning at the end of the 19th century and continuing up into World War 2, as a country we have shared in a national instinct to have a sort of collective amnesia, or at a minimum, a minimization of the reality of the things that really happened to African Americans all across the South in that period of time. And one aspect of that minimizing the offenses of this period, has been to call it the Jim Crow era. Now I don't think that's what people intended when it began to be known as that, but in hindsight, that's fairly clear to me. Jim Crow was a character that was played, in the beginning, by a particular actor who would perform in blackface and do comedy routines that were meant to denigrate Black Americans. Before the Civil War that became an incredibly popular form of entertainment.
After the Civil War, Jim Crow came to define the entertainment of that era, and the symbolism of Blacks in the South. I liken that to our calling the 1930s in Germany, if we named that period of time after the most popular anti-Semitic comedian of Germany at that time. I think we would all recognize that that was an offensive way to refer to that period in history. The reality, what Slavery by Another Name demonstrates, I think, is that in truth, since the beginning of the 20th century, a new form of forced labor involving hundreds of thousands of people, and terrorizing hundreds of thousands of other people, had emerged in the South, that amounted to what I call “neo-slavery,” and we should call it what it was, the age of neo-slavery.
Slate: I have studied that period to a certain degree and had some sense of what happened after the Civil War, after the Confederacy was defeated. You depict a sense of freedom when you speak about it in your book, but when you're talking about the age of neo-slavery, you're talking about a whole new stage of slavery that came after Reconstruction, right?
Blackmon: Yes. After the Civil War, African Americans in huge numbers, all across the South, experienced an authentic period of emancipation. Now, it was never as it really should have been. It was a tough time, and a world of poverty and deprivation of services, and great difficulty and great animosity between Blacks and whites at that time. So it wasn't a perfect time, but it was an era in which millions and millions, and there were four million Blacks, essentially, at the end of the Civil War in the South, and huge numbers of those people participated in free elections. They were accorded the full rights of being citizens as guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. They had jobs; they had farms; they had employment of various kinds. Like I said, it was a difficult, poverty-stricken time, but there was true emancipation and true freedom.
But what began to happen in the South, particularly after federal troops were removed in 1877, and even more so after another 15 years when it became clear that there was no possibility that white northerners would ever send federal troops back to enforce civil rights, all across the South, the state legislatures of every state passed laws which began to effectively criminalize Black life and to create a situation in which African American men found it almost impossible not to be in violation of some misdemeanor statute at almost all times. And the most broadly applied of those was that it was against the law if you were unable to prove at any given moment that you were employed. So vagrancy statutes were used to arrest thousands of Black men, even though thousands of white men could have been arrested on the same charges but they hardly ever were. And then, once arrested, the judicial system had been re-tooled in such a way as to coerce huge numbers of men into commercial enterprises as forced workers through the judicial system. And then thousands of other people lived in fear of having that happen to them, and that was part of how they were intimidated into going along with other kinds of coercive labor, like sharecropping and farm tenancy and many other things.
Slate: Give people a sense of the scope of this, because in your book you concentrate a lot on Alabama. I really liked the device you used. I really thought that was very powerful, that woven through it is this one character that you're searching for—where was he from and what happened to him and what was his life before that, his ancestors and what's happened since—but you unfold something. It concentrates a lot on Alabama, but the scope of this was huge, both in terms of the numbers of people involved, as well as the spread across the South.
Blackmon: This was a phenomenon that by the beginning of the 20th century, in effect, as of 1901, every southern state had completely disenfranchised virtually all African Americans. There was no Black voting of any meaningful degree still occurring in the South after 1901. And every southern state had some version of this array of laws that could be used to arrest almost any Black man who did not live under the explicit control and protection of a white man. And every southern state in one manner or another had adopted the practice of, rather than imprisoning the people who were convicted of these flimsy or fictitious crimes, actually leasing them out to commercial enterprises for periods of one or two years or sometimes much longer periods of time as forced workers. And Alabama was the place where the system lasted the longest in its most explicit form, and was the most evolved in terms of how every county government [was involved] and the enormity of the numbers of African American men who were leased by the state. And in the case of Alabama, there were at least 100,000 African American men between the 1890s and the 1930s, or about 1930, at least 100,000 African American men were leased or sold by the state of Alabama to coal mines, iron ore mines, sawmills, timber harvesting camps, cotton plantations, turpentine stills, all across the state.
There were at least another 100,000, and I suspect many more—the records are incomplete—but at least another 100,000, just in Alabama, who were similarly leased out of the local courts, just where a county judge, in cooperation with a local sheriff, would parcel out all of the prisoners that were rounded up and brought to the county jail. And so at least 200,000, it's probably more like 250,000 to 300,000 African Americans, just in Alabama, were forced into the system, just in the most informal ways. And there are very well documented records of thousands of Black men who died under these circumstances during that period of time. And I document in the book the stories of men like Jonathan Davis, who in the fall of 1901, left his cotton field to try to reach the home of his wife's parents, where she was being cared for and would soon die of an illness. He was trying to reach her before she died. And on his way to the town 15 or 20 miles away where she was being taken care of, he was accosted on the road by a constable, and essentially is kidnapped from the roadway and sold to a white farmer a few days later for $45. And that is something which happened, in the book I name dozens of people that happened to. It's clear some version of that sort of kidnapping happened to hundreds and hundreds of other African Americans. And again, all of that is just in Alabama, and there were versions of this going on in all of the southern states. So in reality, there's no doubt in my mind that hundreds of thousands of African Americans had these events occur to them, and millions of African Americans lived in a form of terror of this happening either to them or to their family members.
Slate: When you talk about re-enslavement, people might have the reaction, “Wait a minute, re-enslavement, was it really as bad as slavery?” Can you give people a sense of the conditions that you've actually documented? Because they were horrifying.
Blackmon: Well, Green Cottenham, the character you referred to a moment ago, who much of the book is woven around; the wife of Green Cottenham; the family of slaves and former slaves that he descended from. And what happened in the course of slavery's resurrection and how it began to intrude upon the lives of those former slaves and their descendants. And finally Green Cottenham, as he rises into the delta in the beginning of the 20th century, is arrested in Columbiana, Alabama, outside the train depot in a completely spurious situation where initially it's claimed that he broke one minor law, and then later it's claimed that he broke a different minor law, and so finally he was brought before the county judge three days later. The judge, to settle the confusion, simply declares him guilty of yet another offense, of vagrancy. On the basis of that, he's fined, $10 I think was the actual fine, and then on top of that he's charged a whole series of fees associated with his arrest: a fee to the sheriff, a fee to the deputy who actually arrested him, some of the costs of his being jailed for three days, fees for the witnesses who testified against him, even though as far as I could tell there were no witnesses. All of these things added up to effectively about a year's wages for an African American farm laborer at the time, and an amount that obviously somebody like Green Cottenham, an impoverished, largely illiterate African American man in 1908, could not have paid.
So in order to pay those fines off as part of the system, he is leased to U.S. Steel Corporation, a company that still exists today, and forced to go to work in a coal mine on the outskirts of Alabama, with about a thousand other Black forced laborers. And those men lived under almost unspeakable conditions. They worked much of the time deep in the mines in standing water, which was the seepage, which would come out from under the earth. They were forced to stay in that water and consume that water for lack of any other fresh water, even though it was putrid and polluted by their own waste. They had to operate in these unbelievably cramped circumstances. Any man who failed to extract at least eight tons of coal from the mine every day would be whipped at the end of the day, and if he repeatedly failed to get his quota of coal out, he would be whipped at the beginning of the day as well.
The men entered the mine before daylight. They exited the mine after sunset. They lived in an endless period of darkness under these horrifying circumstances. They had little medical care. They were subject to waves of dysentery and tuberculosis and other illnesses, and it was ultimately one of those epidemics of disease, which caused Green Cottenham to die five months after he arrived at the jail, in August of 1908.
And those conditions, and far worse ones even, were incredibly common in the forced labor camps that by then had emerged all across the Deep South.
Slate: One of the terrible ironies you bring up in your book is that in the previous form of slavery, a slave owner was a little more hesitant to actually outright kill a slave because there was a lot more invested in the slave. But in this neo-slavery, that was one of the ways they exercised their terroristic dominance over the mass of forced laborers. A slave's life was inconsequential.
Blackmon: That's right. Before the Civil War, in the antebellum slavery that we all know more about, or at least think we know more about, under that system, as terrible as it was, and nothing that I say is to minimize how terrible antebellum slavery was. But the economic incentives of that system explicitly encouraged the preservation of slaves, because a slave owner had invested large sums of money in the acquisition of a slave. And then they wanted the slave to live as long as possible both so they would have the productivity of them as a worker, but also so that they would procreate, and there would be more slaves, which would add to the value of the assets of the farm. This was the fundamental economic formula of antebellum slavery. There was also a sense in the religious beliefs that were prevalent at the time that god had ordained slavery, but that white men had some obligation nonetheless to care for this lower species, and this is something that whites were routinely taught every Sunday morning.
Well, in the new slavery that emerged after the Civil War—it actually had its beginnings in an experiment with industrial slavery that had begun in the Deep South just before the Civil War, when a handful of industrialists had begun to experiment with using Black slaves in settings like iron foundries and sawmills and coal mines and other of these coarse industrial activities. That was extremely profitable for those slave owners before the Civil War. And they began to realize one of the reasons it was so profitable was that when you removed Black men from family settings and took the view that as long as the enterprise has received a return on its investment within four or five years by working these men at a pace far beyond what any human being could be expected to survive, then you could begin to make a profit off of these men in a relatively short period of time. And if they then died, or were worked to death, that that was a reasonable bargain in the economic equation of industrial slavery.
Well that process was stopped by the Civil War. But after the war, some of the very same men were the leaders of the effort to begin re-engineering this new kind of neo-slavery after the Civil War. And as it metastasized across the South at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, this much more brutal, more harsh form of slavery was endemic. There were few women in the picture. It was overwhelmingly focused on young Black men. And they were routinely worked to death or put into positions where their death was likely or probable, and because it cost so little to acquire them through the judicial system, through the fake judicial systems that emerged to feed this traffic in humans, there was little incentive to protect these workers in any way, and they rarely were protected.
Slate: When you're talking about the Civil War, you mention something that it's really important for people to keep in mind, that the Civil War actually was a war between the slave system and capitalism. And there was actually a moral component of it in that people actually were taking a stand that slavery was wrong and shouldn't exist, but then, along with a lot of other things in the superstructure, there was a reassessment of the Civil War that actually went along with the birth and implementation of this neo-slavery. When slavery was defeated as the dominant economic system in the South, there was this need to industrialize the South, to fully bring capitalism into the South. Also you had the growth of the need to expand of capitalism generally in the country, and a lot of this tied into—when you mentioned U.S. Steel it made me think of this—the existence of this neo-slavery in the South.
Blackmon: That's right on several fronts there. One of the interesting things to me as I tried to plumb these phenomena in the course of the seven years of research that I did on this while doing a few other things too, but I spent a lot of time trying to understand why it was that in the aftermath of slavery, of the Civil War, and especially after a period of time in which there actually had been a fair amount of successful Black and white interactions politically in the South, as in fact there was in many places for a period of time after the Civil War, but why was it that, in spite of all of that, and in spite of the fairly obvious moral rectitude of having ended slavery once it had finally come about, why was it that there was so much venom and animosity among white southerners and such an insistence to begin returning to some kind of forced slavery?
One of the things that became clear to me as I studied what was happening on cotton farms and in other settings across the South, was that number one, the southern economy and in some respects the national economy, were addicted to forced slavery. White southerners really had no idea how to grow cotton without the availability of armies of forced Black workers to do that work, both in terms of the need for manual laborers and the intellectual knowledge that was necessary to deploy those laborers in the setting of cotton farms and even in industrial settings. This addiction to forced labor was so great that there was this enormous compulsion to return to it.
But in the end it's perhaps not all that surprising that white southerners conducted themselves in the way that they did in terms of their ability to mete out such violence and depravity, really, against African Americans—maybe that's not such a surprise. But what was shocking to me as I began to understand it better, was the degree to which whites outside the South, whites all over the country, began to reassess the Civil War, began to reassess the mythology of the Civil War that had viewed it as a war of liberation and emancipation, and began to instead be driven by a sense that the integration of slaves and their children and grandchildren into mainstream American society was simply too hard and was not worth the effort. Even Ulysses Grant, the great Union general, during his presidency in the 1880s, confided to a member of his cabinet that he had come to realize that the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave full citizenship to freed slaves, had been a mistake. And by the end of the 19th century, when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, and McKinley was the last Union officer to hold the presidency, and the generation that had made up the Union army and that army of liberation had become a geriatric generation who were passing from the national stage. When Teddy Roosevelt becomes president as a result of that assassination in 1901, he enters the White House as an idealist very committed to rights for Blacks, but by the end of his presidency, he, along with the vast majority of white Americans in every region of the country, has turned completely against the idea that Blacks should be guaranteed a full place at the table of American life and American citizenship.
For me that was one of the most remarkable aspects of coming to understand the sequence of events. There was this great betrayal of southern Blacks by their former allies outside of the South.
Slate: The other part of that question was about the expansion, the accumulation of capital and the profitability of this neo-slavery for the growth of this system.
Blackmon: Particularly at the end of the 19th century when you had this explosion in parts of the South, like Alabama, northern Georgia, and the coastal areas of the South where there were these huge forests of pine trees, mostly virgin timber, millions of acres of virgin pine forests where there was an enormous industry of harvesting pine rosin from the trees that was then distilled into turpentine. In some respects that was as important a commodity to the U.S. economy in the 1900s as gasoline is today. That's a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. It was an incredibly lucrative business that involved thousands and thousands and thousands of people and millions of dollars. And all of those enterprises, particularly in the South, were incredibly reliant, as was railroad building, another one of the main ones, all of those enterprises and industries were overwhelmingly dependent on the use of forced labor, and also the existence of a forced labor system to depress the wages of free laborers. Those were incredibly important phenomena of the economic revitalization and industrialization of the South. Many of the fortunes that were accumulated at that point in time, particularly in cities like Atlanta, where I live, some of the most prominent families and most prominent publicly traded corporations that exist today, their roots are either explicitly connected to this kind of forced labor, or the wealth that was used to build those companies such as Coca-Cola company and many others, the wealth that flowed to create those corporations stemmed originally from these forced labor practices.
Slate: You talked about the use of the courts in enslaving people. But you had the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments. You had what people would assume would be various federal legal remedies to this. What was actually the story in terms of being able to go to the courts to stop this kind of stuff?
Blackmon: The real story was that while slavery was unconstitutional on the basis of the Thirteenth Amendment, and clearly it was explicitly the case that no state could pass laws to recreate a formal system of slavery, no person could hold a deed showing that they owned a person as a slave and file that deed at the courthouse. That clearly could not happen. That was unconstitutional. But the Congress had never taken the next step, the next logical step, of passing a criminal statute which made it explicitly a crime to enslave another person. There were laws on the books that could have been used to prosecute someone for holding a slave, such as kidnapping and similar laws, but at that time, those were all state offenses and could only have been prosecuted by state officials like a county sheriff or the attorney general of a southern state.
But the reality was, no southern state would ever bring a case or such charges against a white man in the South. And no white jury in the South under almost any circumstances, would convict a white man for that. And so it created this kind of legal limbo in which slavery was unconstitutional, but there was no federal statute which actually made it a crime to hold slaves. So as the years went by, and thousands and thousands of complaints poured into the White House, and into the Department of Justice in Washington describing instances all over the South—there are 30,000 pages of material related to these complaints in the National Archives today—and as these thousands and thousands of complaints poured in as the years went by, the policy of the federal government was that there wasn't a statute on which a U.S. attorney could bring a case against a person for holding slaves, except in very narrow circumstances. So the policy of the federal government was that it would not involve itself in investigations or prosecutions of individuals who were still holding slaves in the South.
That was the policy of the federal government all the way until December 11, 1941.
Slate: Let's end with that, because it is stunning, the bald-faced cynicism that finally brought an end to this semi-officially-sanctioned slavery.
Blackmon: It is cynical. What finally brought things to an end was that on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. As the next President Roosevelt is engaging the government to mobilize for a massive war, he gathers his cabinet and asks them all to give a report on the critical issues that face the war mobilization effort. And one topic that comes up is propaganda, and what are the propaganda vulnerabilities of the United States? Someone in the room, there is no record of who, says that the United States is going to have trouble over its treatment of African Americans in the South, and that the Japanese would argue in their propaganda, which was the case eventually, that America was not the country fighting for freedom, and that the proof of that was in its treatment of Blacks in the South. So Roosevelt immediately orders that an anti-lynching law be drafted and introduced in the Congress. It was still many years before such a law actually passed the Congress.
But subsequent to this meeting, the attorney general at this time, Francis Biddle, went back to his own office, asked the same questions of his immediate deputies, and one of his deputies says, yes, lynching is a big issue, but it's also a problem, you're going to find it hard to believe this Mr. Attorney General, but there are places in the South where slaves are still being held, and it has been the policy of our department not to prosecute cases against those people. The attorney general is shocked initially, but then asks for a memo on how to prosecute such cases under laws which did exist. Four days later, on December 11, he distributes a memo to all U.S. attorneys essentially saying that this has come to his attention and instructing them that from that day forward they should prosecute cases and giving them a sort of cheat sheet on how to attempt to do that. And in 1942, just a few months later, a family near Corpus Christi, Texas, a man and his adult daughter, are arrested and charged under the new policy of prosecuting these cases, and they're tried later in 1942, and convicted. In 1943, they're sentenced to prison for having held a man named Alfred Irving as a slave for more than five years. I mark that as the technical end of the age of neo-slavery.
Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
Each year the California state high school track and field championships draw thousands of avid track fans from all over the state to some of the most exciting sports competition in the country. For two days a multinational crowd comes together to celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of high school athletes of all nationalities, some just a few years away from becoming world level competitors. A group of us decided to get to this year’s championships at Cerritos College in the L.A. area early so we could engage the crowd entering the stadium over the harm being done by religion—and especially the rise of fundamentalist religion—in this country and the world, and the need for people to break with the slavishness it promotes and to get with revolution and communism.
Many of the current national high school track and field records were set at this meet in previous years by athletes who later became world champions. And this year was no exception.
It was the long distance events that stood out most at the May 30-31 finals. Woodbridge-Irvine senior Christine Babcock’s 4:33.82 broke the national record in the girls 1600 meter run—that she had set only eight days earlier! And German Fernandez of Riverbank in the Central Valley broke the meet record in the boys 1600 meter run, then came back a few hours later and won the boys 3200 meter run in 8:34.23—breaking the national record by nearly 8 seconds!
We came to the meet with lots of t-shirts with the famous picture of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with their black-gloved fists thrust in the air in support of the struggle of Black people in the U.S. Next to the picture is written “We Need a Lot More of This…” On the back of the shirt is a picture of football player Terrell Owens, on one knee pointing to “heaven”—with the words “… Not This.” And we came with plugger cards promoting Bob Avakian’s new book, Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, to make sure as many people as possible came away learning about the book. We also sold copies of Revolution newspaper. The book title interested some people in knowing what a revolutionary communist leader had to say about religion, and they got the newspaper to learn more. Overall it was an exciting afternoon—controversial of course, but also challenging and inspiring for us as well as the fans.
The picture on the front of the t-shirt resonated with many track fans. It made people smile, call out their names, and talk about the special meaning that historic moment had for them. One fan went to school with them at San Jose State; others had run with them, or been coached by them. Many remembered seeing it on TV; and one person remembered the fool George Foreman, who opposed their action by waving a huge American flag in the ring before his fight. And many knew what a price they were made to pay for their courageous act.
When people saw the back of the shirt and the pluggers for Away With All Gods, things sharpened up. Some got it right away and agreed with it. They knew Terrell Owens, and how so many athletes are into “giving thanks to god” for their accomplishments, and wanted the shirt. With many, there was some direct experience with national oppression and more openness to revolutionary politics. And we were able to get into the connection between breaking with this slavish thinking and radically changing the world. Among these folks we sold 17 t-shirts. A pair of youth, one Latino and one white, asked, “Is that an atheist shirt?” The Latino wanted to know all about it, including why we didn’t believe in God. His friend really wanted to get one to wear back in school.
Many others doubted the possibility of “radically changing the world,” or that we had to “unchain the mind” to get there. One youth couldn’t fathom how anyone would want to contribute anything to society without god, if you thought that you’re nothing after you die. Some people wore Obama t-shirts.
Strongly religious people didn’t like the shirt, front or back, and often walked away disturbed—especially when they saw the title of the book. Some stayed to argue that praying to Jesus made a difference in their lives, and often said people are to blame for their own conditions, whether it’s those who died after Katrina; or the one-in-nine young Black in prison; or the people of Haiti so desperate they’re being forced to eat cookies made of dirt.
A discussion with three Black youth captured some of the contradictoriness we experienced more generally outside the meet. The most religious among them was also the most close-minded. He dismissed the extreme punishments called for by the Old Testament against gays, rebellious children, adulterers, etc. by saying Jesus “changed” all that. His belief assured him that if you worked hard you could “make it,” something the others also shared, at least about themselves. And essentially his outlook toward the conditions of people here and around the world was that it should be left to god to deal with.
But as we talked more about the gulf between the reality faced by people here and worldwide and the way things could be—the incarceration rates of Black and Latino youth, and the dead-end futures most see; the incredible exploitation and suffering of people all over the planet by imperialism—the others reacted differently. The second youth wanted to know why he couldn’t be part of resisting all of that and still believe in god. We united with what was positive in this sentiment and urged him to act on that, while explaining that the slavishness that religion promotes among the masses is rooted in the whole idea of the existence of some kind of divine, all-powerful being, and people have to break with this and confront reality as it actually is in order to change it.
The third, a young woman, agreed that the tremendous oppression and inequality in this country, as well as what the U.S. is doing in the world—from the Iraq war to the global exploitation—was a crime. And was trying to understand what we were saying about the role of religion in enslaving people’s minds when they need to be resisting all this and becoming emancipators of humanity. We began to talk about the fact that all the major religions strongly promote the patriarchy—a word she was familiar with—and the shackles that this “traditional morality” puts on people’s minds, and the tremendous harm it does. As the discussion began to change, the first youth decided we needed to end it!
We almost got arrested at the end when five cop cars showed up. It took them forever to find something in the code book to charge us with. People came around, wanting to buy the shirt and shocked at what the cops were doing. They gave one of us a citation for vending without a license and kicked us all out. One Black youth, who had paid to see the meet but stood by and watched because he wanted a shirt, was ordered to leave as well. He had competed a few years ago at this meet, now goes to college in Atlanta, and felt that what happened just reminds him of home. By the end, hundreds had gotten the plugger and learned about the book Away With All Gods!; many went home with a t-shirt, the newspaper, and something challenging—and inspiring—to think about. Now we’re looking forward to the next opportunity where we can do this again!
Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
Berkeley High School Students vs. Fascist ICE Raids
At lunchtime on May 22, more than 2,000 Berkeley High School students of all different nationalities streamed out of class and formed a human chain around the school to protest the escalating attacks on immigrants. As they linked arms, they chanted “Immigrants are people!” A young woman with the group Fighting for Immigrants’ Rights and Equality (FIRE), which organized the protest, said, “Most of the school went out with us… Ooooh it made the whole school feel good, like we were a family, no matter what race you are or nothing, like we were together.”
In the first three weeks of May, ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security) made 900 arrests in California. The day after May 1st, when thousands of immigrants marched in the streets, ICE agents raided 11 branches of a chain of Bay Area taqueria restaurants, arresting 63 people. The day after Cinco de Mayo, ICE vans drove though the streets of Berkeley and East Oakland, including in the neighborhood around Berkeley High. A family of four was arrested in their home near the high school. As word spread, worried parents rushed to the school to pick up their kids.
In Oakland, which has declared itself a “sanctuary” city for immigrants, Mayor Ron Dellums went to Esperanza Elementary School after reports of ICE vans prowling around and declared, “We don’t want this type of intimidation. Immigrants are human beings, and need to be dealt with respect.” Dellums said police officers would be posted at the school the next day to prevent ICE from coming onto school grounds.
Students at Berkeley High and Oakland High protested in the following days. But they felt they needed to do something bigger. A Berkeley High student said about the family that was arrested near the school, “We knew them, and so it really affected us… We thought ‘we have to do something,’ like we weren’t just going to sit down and like it’s OK.” Many students, especially Latinos, described the fear that their family or friends would be rounded up when they heard that the ICE was prowling around.
A white student said, “The fact that they [ICE] came around the school opened all of our eyes. Some people sort of knew something like this was happening, but how could they believe it? But when they came here it shows that they’re not just going after certain people… It’s real. It’s right in front of us.”
Teachers and school administrators in Berkeley had taken a good stand in the face of the ICE threats. Teachers gave rides home to some students, and the Berkeley school superintendent sent out a phone message to all parents assuring them that the district “would not allow any child to be taken away from the school.” A Berkeley High teacher told Revolution, “The teachers were here to help. The superintendent sent out a message immediately. That’s not to be taken for granted because it doesn’t happen everywhere, but it happened here.”
The May 22 protest was something the students themselves decided to do, and they were supported by many teachers and staff, including the principal. Some teachers were at first a little reluctant, especially since this was at the end of the semester, but student organizers won them over.
One student told Revolution, “ICE’s whole function is like slave catchers. These [immigrants], they’re running from extreme poverty. They’d probably starve if they didn’t come to America… The government, they might act like they want to get all the ‘illegal’ immigrants out but they don’t because they want to keep exploiting the immigrants. They’re just trying to get them scared so they’ll be willing to work for no money as they are forced to do now. They are constantly being hunted. They’re basically turning them into slaves. They are taking all of their rights away. That’s all rooted in capitalism. In a non-capitalistic society we wouldn’t need to have this kind of stuff.”
Berkeley students have taken a righteous stand saying that they refuse to learn to live with the new “normality” in this country where whole communities are being terrorized by armed immigration police, and tens of thousands are being deported each month. One student said, “The fact that these people come out and target an entire group of people is new to us. It’s something that we’re not used to seeing… It’s our fear and our anger that brought us together. Some people took the time to educate themselves. We don’t have to fear it, but we need to say no to it.”
Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
Leaflet by Revolutionary Communist Party, L.A. Branch
The following is the text of a leaflet that was recently put out by the Revolutionary Communist Party, L.A. Branch.
Six hundred students fought on May 9th. Black and Latino students fought against each other. The authorities knew the fight was coming and didn’t do anything to prevent it. Instead, once it got going and spread, the police marched in to mace students and beat them with billy clubs.
Every news channel showed the story over and over about how Blacks and Latinos got in a “melee” at Locke High School. There were articles in the L.A. Times. The story even made it into the New York Times and national news.
The students at Locke got played by the system.
Where were all the news articles when 800 Black and Latino Locke students united with each other in September to walk out for the Jena 6? Where were the interviews about how more than 200 of them marched for miles down Imperial Highway through neighborhoods of different gangs, and were supported by people all along the way?
This system has no interest in promoting THAT kind of activity by Black and Latino people. It does have a big interest in keeping people fighting each other.
Immigrants forced off their land in Mexico and Central America are driven to risk their lives to cross a militarized border only to land in the poorest neighborhoods and worst jobs—preyed upon by employers who exploit their illegal status, and getting locked into detention centers when they are swept up by ICE. Black people are being thrown away by this system—locked out of jobs and locked in to the penitentiaries. From slavery to “Jim Crow” segregation to Katrina, America has been a hell for Black people. What kind of system keeps people competing to be exploited in shit jobs, hunted, jailed, shot down by police and robbed of our humanity? A capitalist system.
To ever have any chance of solving these problems, we need revolution.
The capitalists and imperialists who run this system are all too happy to see their words coming out of the mouths of those they oppress and keep divided. My clique, my gang, my hood, my turf, my race, my nationality over yours—this is nothing but capitalist dog-eat-dog ideology—ideology that keeps people trapped in a capitalist competition that has only them winning. Stop fighting each other and get with the revolution, and become an emancipator of all humanity.
Society does not need to be organized this way. It makes no sense to have the wealth created by the collective labor of billions the world over appropriated by a few, when today that stands in the way of solving the most basic problems people on this earth face. There is no reason people’s most basic needs can’t be met, no reason for people to be starving like the kids in Haiti eating dirt cookies, no reason for racism to keep people down, no reason to destroy the environment—except the workings of a system that is holding humanity back. With revolutionary state power people of every nationality could be part of a collective process to overcome all the divisions that have existed for generations in order to transform society for the benefit of humanity. Now is the time to build a revolutionary movement and prepare politically to bring this kind of change in the world.
What you do now matters. Wear a black and brown ribbon. Come to the unity picnic. Get and spread Revolution/Revolución newspaper (in hard copy and at revcom.us).
Check out the works of Bob Avakian, available at Libros Revolución (213) 488-1303.
Revolutionary Communist Party, USA
Los Angeles Branch
Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
From A World to Win News Service
Revolution Editors’ Note: The following article reports, among other things, on the decision by the U.S. State Department to cancel Fulbright scholarships to study in the U.S. that had been given to seven Palestinian students in the Gaza Strip. The cancellation was attributed to Israel’s blockade of Gaza which prevents Palestinians from leaving the area. Since the article came out, the U.S. State Department announced on June 2 that the Fulbright grants are being reinstated. The students will still have to undergo individual “security checks” by the Israeli Defense Ministry before they will be cleared to leave. According to the New York Times, Israeli and U.S. officials wanted to restore the scholarships because “training ambitious and talented young people under Fulbright grants was one of the ways to help blunt the appeal of radical forces in Palestinian society.” Meanwhile, as the following article makes clear, the vicious Israeli closure of Gaza continues—for example, power cutbacks forced the closure of the half dozen colleges and universities in Gaza in April.
The News Service article also reports on Israel’s arrest and deportation of Norman Finkelstein, whose fierce criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and U.S. backers of Israel led to his being denied tenure at DePaul University a year ago. This outrageous move by Israel still stands. And so does Israel’s decision in April to bar Richard Falk—a distinguished professor of international law and a newly appointed U.N. official—from entering Israel to carry out his mandate to investigate human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine.
* * * * *
June 2, 2008. A World to Win News Service. Since last September, when the Israeli government formally declared Gaza a “hostile territory,” very few people have been let out of Gaza for any reason. Between one and two thousand young Palestinians used to travel from the Gaza Strip every year to attend university abroad. Now even those students who have won acceptance and scholarships at schools abroad, let alone the vast majority for whom this is impossible, have little hope of ever going anywhere.
Two recent events have spotlighted this situation. One is the announcement by the prominent American professor David Mumford that he would donate the money he received for a prestigious Israeli mathematics prize to a Palestinian university in the West Bank and an Israeli group that opposes travel restrictions on Palestinians. The other is the decision by the American State Department to cancel Fulbright Scholarships to study in the U.S. that had been awarded to seven students from Gaza, so as to spare Israel further embarrassment caused by its refusal to let them out. The coincidence of the two events was particularly bad timing for both the U.S. and Israel. Mumford’s thoughtful, moral stance underlined the hypocrisy and inhumanity of both the superpower and its client state.
Mumford, almost 71, is well known for his work in algebraic geometry and later vision and pattern theory over many decades at Harvard before becoming a professor at Brown. The Wolf Foundation prize, one of the field’s most important, awarded to three mathematicians this year, is only one of a series of distinctions he has won. While in Tel Aviv to receive the award at the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) from Israeli President Shimon Peres, he explained his decision to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz May 26. “I decided to donate my share of the Wolf Prize to enable the academic community in occupied Palestine to survive and thrive. I am very grateful for this prize, but I believe that Palestinian students should have an opportunity to go elsewhere to acquire an education. Students in the West Bank and Gaza today do not have an opportunity to do that,” he said. “The achievements I accomplished in mathematics were made possible thanks to my being able to move freely and exchange ideas with other scholars. It would not have been possible without an international consensus on an exchange of ideas.”
Speaking to the Associated Press the same day, he said, “I feel strongly that mathematics is an international enterprise, and it’s really grown up essentially in every country. It’s really important that everyone have access to higher education, to the international community where mathematics is being carried on.”
It is a measure of what kind of world we live in today that even these sentiments can be considered treasonous and tantamount to “terrorism.” Although renown and age may have put Mumford beyond the pressure the Zionists and American authorities have put on other academics, many Israeli commentators linked his gesture to the case of Norman Finkelstein, arrested on his arrival in Israel May 23, held for questioning by the Shin Bet (domestic security police) for 24 hours until a fellow prisoner helped him contact a lawyer, and then deported and banned from re-entering Israel for the next decade.
Both of Finkelstein’s Polish Jewish parents survived Nazi concentration camps. He was forced to resign from DePaul University in Chicago last year because of critical reviews he had written of books by other prominent scholars whom he accused of misrepresenting the documentary record to defend Israel’s policies and practices. The 55-year-old American political scientist describes himself as a supporter of the “two-state solution” and “not an enemy of Israel,” but also says that he believes that in the pursuit of the truth it is “possible to unite exacting scholarly rigor with scathing moral outrage.” His research has led him to call the alleged historical basis for Zionist claims to Palestine “a hoax.”
This kind of police attitude toward academic dissent is becoming more flagrant in Israel and in regard to Israel in countries like the U.S. and Great Britain. Last year, Ilan Pappe, a well-known Israeli historian who has researched and exposed the Zionist leadership’s long-standing plans and later conscious military campaign to drive out the Palestinians when Israel became independent, was pressured to resign from his job as a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa and forced to leave Israel by threats to kill his family. He currently teaches in the UK.
Recently the University and College Union, the largest professional organization of academics in the UK, called on its colleagues to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss “the humanitarian catastrophe imposed on Gaza by Israel” with their Israeli colleagues. Last year the organization dropped a call for a boycott against Israel in the face of legal threats and the condemnation of the British government. A group called Academic Friends of Israel had threatened to bring action against the Union for violating UK laws against racism. The British government called the academics’ latest motion, which is not a call for a boycott, a threat to “academic freedom” anyway. Apparently in the eyes of the British government, such freedoms only apply to Zionists and not their critics, and certainly not to Palestinians.
The decision to drop the Fulbright Scholarships for the Gaza students was particularly remarkable because all seven had been interviewed and vetted by the U.S. State Department for inclusion in a State Department-run program that is explicitly meant to serve American foreign policy interests. Its purpose is to identify and train young men and women seen as potential future influential friends of the American empire. When, in the swirl of the events described above, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was challenged about this at a news conference, she claimed that she knew nothing about the decision taken by the department she heads.
Even an Israeli member of parliament, the Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the educational committee in the Knesset, was far more honest than Rice. On hearing about the Fulbright controversy, he compared Israeli and American policies to the way Jews were “deprived of higher education” under the Nazis and given restricted access to education and academic positions in European and American universities historically. At the time of this writing, it seems that the State Department may reverse its decision.
Bir Zeit, the university near the West Bank town of Ramallah to which the mathematician Mumford donated some of his prize money, is one of 11 Palestinian universities, five university colleges and 25 community colleges. Its students include secularists, Moslems and Christians. Despite Israeli restrictions, Palestinians on the whole continue to have one of the world’s highest literacy rates.
Although the West Bank, unlike Gaza, has not been declared “hostile territory” and is not under the same kind of total imprisonment as Gaza, the 572 Israeli checkpoints and frequent lockdowns by the Israeli army can mean spending hours in line to reach their campus, if they can get there at all. The UK-based Network for Education and Academic Rights points out that Israeli restrictions make school attendance particularly difficult for women. The lack of funds is so dramatic, the group says, that Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, with 6,000 students, has less than a thousand books in its library.
The Israeli government long made it very difficult for people from Gaza to attend school in the West Bank, as part of cutting off connections between the two Palestinian territories, separated by just 40 kilometers, and left it slightly easier for them to go abroad. Now neither opportunity is open to them. The Israeli organization Gisha, the other recipient of Mumford’s prize money, gives a detailed count of 710 Gaza university students cut off from the schools abroad where they were either enrolled or accepted as of October 2007. Israel also keeps foreign lecturers and specialists from entering Gaza.
Although Gaza has half a dozen universities and colleges, in April they all had to shut down for lack of electricity when Israel cut back power supplies. These schools are unable to offer degrees in many important fields, even at the undergraduate level, let alone more advanced training. The quality of education is necessarily affected by the fact that local academics and professionals are kept isolated from their colleagues everywhere else. The lack of any possibility for study in the various medical disciplines is particularly cruel because this keeps Gaza residents dependent on Israeli medical facilities that are very often denied to them.
Israel claims that it will make exceptions for “humanitarian cases,” but specifies that it does not consider education a “humanitarian” need.
The truth is Israeli policy is not to treat Palestinians as human beings. To leave aside the issue of whether Palestinians have a right to higher education and focus on the indisputably “humanitarian” issue of medical treatment alone, Israel is literally killing Palestinians. Of course, one way it does this is with missiles and bullets fired at civilians on an almost daily basis (the Israeli army opened fire on a demonstration of thousands of people identified as Hamas supporters in Gaza May 30, wounding at least six). But another is by denying them medical care, which amounts to a targeted killing of the weak.
Ha’aretz, other Israeli news sources and the Palestinian media have been filled with accounts of people who have died while waiting for the occupiers’ permission to leave Gaza for treatment. Most recently, on May 20, a 22-year-old Palestinian suffering from cancer and 11 other critically-ill Gaza residents filed a petition asking the Israeli High Court to overrule the military’s refusal to let them leave. In an affidavit filed by Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, the youth, Ahmed al-Baghdadi, said that the Israeli General Security Services told him that he could hope for medical treatment only if he agreed to become an informer. Some patients are given permission to leave, but are turned back when they arrive at the border, even in an ambulance. A doctor speaking for the Israel physicians’ group called this “torture.” It is also, sometimes, murder. In early April, the World Health Organization reported that 32 Palestinians had died while awaiting an exit permit or because they had a permit but were turned back anyway.
The student issue, like medical care, is just one dimension of Israeli policies that have made Gaza, with its 1.5 million residents crammed into 360 square kilometers, the world’s biggest open-air prison camp.
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
Check the stores' websites for details and more events.
June 10 + 24, Tuesdays, 7 pm
The Tuesday discussions on revolution and communism continue. Join us for these regular, always lively, discussions.
June 17, Tuesday, 7 pm
First Night Opening Celebration of the new Revolution Books. Food, drink, performances, special guest.
June 19, Thursday, 7 pm
Julie Salamon, author of HOSPITAL: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, God and Diversity on Steroids. New York Times journalist Julie Salamon has written a “compelling and damning portrait of a dysfunctional health-care system…”
June 23, Monday, 7 pm
A special performance by David Shapiro of THE FEVER, a play by Wallace Shawn. When actor David Shapiro introduced the play to Chicago in 1995, Wallace Shawn said, “I wish I could have done it this way, but I didn’t know how.” Performance is a benefit for the new Revolution Books. Tickets are limited. $25.
June 25, Wednesday, 7 pm
Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason. “This impassioned, tough-minded work of contemporary history paints a disturbing portrait of a mutant strain of public ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism that has developed over the past four decades…” (Jacoby is also author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.)
Wednesdays, 7 pm
“Re-envisioning Revolution and Communism: WHAT IS BOB AVAKIAN’S NEW SYNTHESIS?” June 11: Part II: A Philosophy to Understand—and Change—The World. June 18: Part III: The New Synthesis: Political Implications—The International Dimension. What’s the difference between seeing internationalism as something you extend to the people of other countries, and taking the whole world as your point of departure? And why does it matter?
June 15, Sunday, 12 pm brunch, 1 pm salon discussion
Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian.
June 19, Thursday, 7 pm
Special performance by David Shapiro of THE FEVER, a play by Wallace Shawn. When actor David Shapiro introduced the play to Chicago in 1995, Wallace Shawn said, “I wish I could have done it this way, but I didn’t know how.” Donation $10, space is limited, reservations recommended.
312 West 8th Street 213-488-1303
June 14, Saturday, 3 pm
Special 5-week seminar on Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World—sign up by phone, or email us at email@example.com or the Away With All Gods! Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 15, Sunday, 3 pm
“Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity”—by Bob Avakian. The vanguard party—why you need it, why it’s the most important form of organization for the masses, what it can and must do.
Volunteers needed! June 28 through July 2
Join Libros at the American Library Association’s annual national conference in Anaheim, and at the Los Angeles Social Forum at USC.
July 19, Saturday, 2 pm
Libros Revolucion Presents: "Religion, Atheism and Black People" – a talk and discussion with Clyde Young, of the Revolutionary Communist Party, featuring the new book by Bob Avakian, Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World. Call for details.
2425 Channing Way near Telegraph Ave
June 10, Tuesday, 7 pm
Discussion of “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity”—Heightened Parasitism and the “Two Outmodeds.”
2626 South King Street
June 16, Monday, 6:15 pm
Discussion: Part 4 of “Re-envisioning Revolution and Communism: WHAT IS BOB AVAKIAN’S NEW SYNTHESIS?”
June 15, Sunday, 3 pm
“On the Threat of a U.S. Attack on Iran And Our Responsibility to Resist It.” Talk by Ann Wright, Career Diplomat and Army Colonel (ret). Co-author of Dissent: Voices of Conscience.
June 19, Thursday, 7 pm
Reading of A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel by Hatim Kanaaneh, author.
Secular Sunday, June 22, 3 pm
The first in a series of five discussions of Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, by Bob Avakian.
2804 Mayfield Rd (at Coventry)
Cleveland Heights 216-932-2543
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 3-8 pm
Every Wednesday, 7 pm
Discussions of “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” by Bob Avakian. We will focus on Part 2: Everything We’re Doing Is About Revolution. June 11 discussion will focus on “A culture of appreciation, promotion, and popularization.”
1833 Nagle Place
June 14, Saturday, 7 pm
Book Group discusses Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian. More on “God Does Not Exist—We Need Liberation Without Gods.”
(between Cass &2nd, south of Forest)
June 11, Wednesday, 6:30 pm
Discussion of Away With All Gods! Unchaining the MInd and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian. Part 3, Religion, A Heavy, Heavy Chain. Taqueria Arandas, 1807 Livernois Avenue (at Vernor), Detroit.
1158 Mass Ave, 2nd Floor, Cambridge
4 Corners Market of the Earth
Little 5 Points, 1087 Euclid Avenue
404-577-4656 & 770-861-3339
Open Wednesdays & Fridays 4 pm - 7 pm,
Saturdays 2 pm - 7 pm
Revolution #132, June 15, 2008
Revolution Newspaper's Expansion and $500,000 Fund Drive
At a moment when much of humanity finds itself in a living hell, when the horror of the U.S. occupation of Iraq threatens to escalate into a war against Iran, and when the future of the planet itself is threatened, Revolution newspaper must be out there much more boldly and much more broadly—exposing what is going on, revealing why, and pointing to a revolutionary solution in the interests of the vast majority of humanity.
from “Truth…in Preparation for Revolution!” (available at revcom.us)
Important things were accomplished in Revolution newspaper’s expansion and fund drive. People from all walks of life came forward and participated in raising funds for Revolution. Now, we are challenging people to donate “economic stimulus” tax rebate checks to something really worthwhile—the Revolution expansion and fund drive.
Much is at stake. If people are going to really understand what is going on, and if something good is to be pulled out of the current storms, a greatly expanded Revolution newspaper must be at the heart of that process.
Send checks or money orders to: RCP Publications, Box 3486 Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654 or donate online at revcom.us/fund_en.php