Saturday, December 29, 2007


Review: A dull romp with The Chairman

From Ike to Mao to Chairman Bob


"From Ike to Mao: My Journey from Mainstream America

to Revolutionary Communist"

Insight Press, 2006

Around 400 pages into his painfully self-absorbed and unfunny autobiography Chairman Bob Avakian briefly considers the issue of personality cults. Funny, that—as his Revolutionary Communist Party focuses almost solely on the “ideas” of this one man. He spells it out pretty simply: workers accept that some people are special. Some basketball players are simply the best, some scientists are simply brilliant, and some Maoists are bigger than others.

Ostensibly, this tome tells the story of a wholesome American boy. A young, cherubic sport-enthusiast who loved mom and the President. The New Left intervened and before long he was shrill, ambitious leader of the Maoist “new communist movement” collective based in the Bay Area called Revolutionary Union. At this point the story could belong to many left-swerving baby boomers. Like thousands of others, as SDS collapsed “Marxism-Leninism” beckoned. It was now time to build a ‘party of a new type’ which—it was hoped—would successfully replicate the parties of the old type.

Avakian, like Forest Gump with a little red book, paints himself in to the middle of the action. According to From Ike to Mao Avakian was even asked to join the Black Panther Party’s “secret national leadership” by none other than Eldrige Cleaver. The Panthers weren’t ready for him, Avakian intones, because his revolutionary vision chaffed against the Panthers conservatism. At one point Avakian concocts an unverified story about taking the ‘two line struggle’ right into a Panther meeting. He barbequed their pork-chop nationalism with his white-hot MLMTT.

One particularly telling anecdote comes from unity meetings held between Avakian’s RU and a number of majority Black and Latino groups. In a debate over who should represent RU, Avakian insists it should be him—because he’s white. These Black and Latino comrades needed more white people in their lives, due to their head-in-the-sand nationalism. They needed to “get comfortable” with white leadership. But then again the RCP aligned itself with Boston’s anti-busing movement, so let’s not be too surprised. Did I mention they opposed homosexuality and extramarital cohabitation, too?

Eventually, after a couple years attempting to pull other collectives into its orbit, the RU decided to go it alone and declared itself the official revolutionary vanguard of the US proletariat. Or at the very least the vanguard of the lumpenproletariat.

Of course Avakian’s RCP—and eventually it was solely Avakian’s—was not alone. From possibly hundreds of Maoist-influenced collectives, nearly a dozen made similar declarations. By the dawn of the 1980’s the “new communist movement” consisted of a handful of self-declared vanguards.

But don’t read this book to learn that history. Read Max Elbaum’s excellent Revolution in the Air. All you’ll get here is an infantilizing, hand-holding walk through why the RCP triumphed.

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(above) American Maoism for beginners

A lot of people will claim the RCP went through a long ultra left period in the 80’s and 90’s. I don’t think so, I always mention the Shinning Path at City Council meetings. And where did the black motorcycle jackets and red kafeiyas go? And why is there basically only one photograph of Chairman Bob made available? Are we to believe he’s anti-revisionism’s Dorian Gray?

This book does not give you any of the inside scoop you were hoping for. No peeks inside rigorous criticism/self-criticism sessions, no believable snapshots of life with Bob the Exile in Paris, and definitely no hints as to what keeps the Avakian cult crawling along. All we see here is that one highly eccentric individual runs the show over at the RCP, and boy are his ideas important.

What I want to know is why is a split from the mid-1970’s given so much ink? After Mao died the RCP was divided over the new leadership in Beijing. Avakian, true to his Cultural Revolution roots, supported the ousted Gang of Four while the other 40% of the group still supported China’s government. It’s not that interesting, but it takes up a quarter of the book. Is Dengist Menshivism really a hot topic inside today’s RCP? I thought surely the RCP’s 1978 book “Revolution and Counter-Revolution: the Revisionist Coup in China and the Struggle in the RCP” cleared up any lingering questions about the dreaded “Jarvis-Bergman clique”.

Not surprisingly, this book does nothing to explain what the RCP is today and why, over the last two years, Avakian has gone from being undeniable leader to positively cultish Godhead. Avakian was always one to plaster his face around town, but there now exists a climate of total worship inside the RCP. It’s cultivated, clumsy, and curious.

Word on the street is it’s a cushion against a bombshell.

Let me explain.

If there is a successful Maoist movement in the world right now it is clearly the Nepalese movement. Of course in the true tradition of neo-Stalinism they ended up joining the capitalist government right when victory seemed certain, but that’s for another article. Anyway, everyone loves the Nepalese—they keep Maoism relevant. The RCP passionately promoted the Nepalese movement for years, selling their publication, covering their every utterance in their press, and otherwise publicly associating themselves with this broadly supported Maoist movement.

But here’s the problem: the Nepalese are on to Avakian. They may share an international—the Revolutionary International Movement—but they no longer feel the love. The Nepalese charge that Avakian is a cult leader whose ideological contributions amount to smoke and mirrors. Sensible, right? For the last couple years the Nepalese have been preparing to call Avakian out on the carpet, which would shatter the RIM. By the time the criticism/self-criticism hits the fan, Avakian hopes, he’ll be properly insulated from the criticism, thus saving his fiefdom.

Neither does this bland, creepy autobiography address the RCP’s transition from confrontationalist pose in the 1980’s to the celebrity loving “world can’t wait” fear mongerers they are today. It’s a long way from hailing peoples’ war to handing Sean Penn an orange jumpsuit.

(above) The paranoid liberalism of today's RCP, celebrities sold separately

Remember these are the folks whose newspaper masthead featured weapons well into the 2000’s, and here they are with pro-Democratic Party, lowest common denominator pandering. How does this happen? Well, how did it happen to the Nepalese Maoist movement?

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