The New York Review of (Little Red) Books

How many degrees are there separating Stanley Fish, Tom Cruise, and Maoist revolution? Scott McLemee finds out....

January 30, 2008

Late last year, The New York Review of Books ran a full-page advertisement fairly glowing with the warmth of the enthusiasm it projected for work of Bob Avakian. In case that name does not ring a bell, Bob Avakian is Chairman of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. Once upon a time, Avakian was a student of Stanley Fish at the University of California at Berkeley; but amidst all the excitement of the late 1960s, the poetry of Milton could not compete with the slogans coming out of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, and so a leader of the American masses emerged, even if the masses themselves didn't notice.

The NYRB ad praised Avakian’s combination of “an unsparing critique of the history and current direction of American society with a sweeping view of world history and the potential for humanity.” It called upon readers to “engage” with his work. As it happens, I was once in a punk rock band with a former Avakianite. (This was back when one of the party’s slogans was “Revolution in the ‘80s – Go For It!”) Having thus already had the opportunity to (as they say) “engage” with Avakian’s work, I will testify that he is, at the very least, prolific and capable of extensive discourse. Nearly all of his writings are based on speeches to the party, and they do go on a bit.

In any case, the content of the full-page proclamation was much less interesting, all in all, than the list of people endorsing it. Among them were a few prominent academics. Cornel West was one of them. Members of the Harvard faculty were among the signatories. Ubiquitous cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek has recently added his name to an online version. The list also includes famous entertainers such as Public Enemy rapper Chuck D and Ricky Lee Jones, the folk-rock chanteuse. (The text and the most recently updated set of signatories can now be found here.)

Without quite endorsing the RCP slogan “Mao More Than Ever,” all of them had “come away from encounters with Avakian provoked and enriched in our own thinking.” Or so the text of the ad put it.

In the weeks since it appeared, a few friends who knew of my longstanding fascination with the Chairman Bob phenomenon asked about the New York Review ad. They were surprised to see it, and wondered whether all these people had actually taken up the cause of Avakianism.

My best guess, rather, was that very few of the signatories had read much Avakian. The abundance and verbosity of his pamphlets would exceed the stamina of any but the most disciplined of revolutionary intellectuals. What probably happened, I surmised, was that party cadres had pointed out various anti-Bush statements by Avakian in order to harvest a bunch of signatures from people who were angered by the course of recent history.

At the same time, it was easy to imagine how other people would probably understand the ad. They would look at it and conclude that the signatories were, in fact, hardcore militants looking to Avakian for leadership in establishing a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.

The belief that academia contains literally tens of thousands of such people has, of course, no basis in reality. But it is evidently quite profitable. There is an audience for such claims (the rate of propagation of suckers-per-minute having intensified since P.T. Barnum’s day) and it constitutes a more robust market than the one for Marxist-Leninist pamphlets. One pictures right-wing interns stuffing envelopes with reprinted copies of the NYRB advertisement and sending it to the hinterlands – and humming “We’re in the Money” all the while.

Well, not that it will slow down the fund-raising campaign one bit, but an article that ran on Sunday in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe helps clarify the motive of some of those who lent their signatures. Mark Oppenheimer, the editor of a new journal called The New Haven Review of Books, contacted some of the professors who endorsed the ad. He reports that they were much more interested in upholding Avakian’s right to free speech than they were in the content of his revolutionary doctrine.

There also may be a little nostalgia going on. Avakian is “a living link to the '60s,” writes Oppenheimer, “an era when American campus radicalism reached its apogee of influence. And he was an outspoken atheist back in the day, too, before Christopher Hitchens and others found bestsellerdom in unbelief; one professor told me he admired Avakian’s stand against religious fundamentalism. But above all the Avakian narrative allows civil libertarians to register a vote for free speech, even if they have to ignore the fact that Avakian's speech is in no danger of being suppressed. Rightly concerned about Guantanamo and the Patriot Act, they figure that Avakian is a good proxy fight, or good enough.”

This strikes me as a judicious estimate. But while for the most part concurring with the article (for which Oppenheimer interviewed me about my own sad misadventure of trying to arrange an interview with Chairman Bob), I think there is a little more going in with that manifesto than meets the eye.

Buying a full-page in America’s premier journal of public-intellectual commentary is an expensive proposition for a small group on the far left. And it is not necessarily the most obvious use of resources for revolutionaries who have otherwise spent much of their energy trying to build “base areas” (as Maoist theory puts it) in ghetto areas.

To understand what was really happening, we might take a quick glance at what might look like a very different sort of cultural artifact. I mean the recently leaked video clip of Tom Cruise speaking about Scientology, which recently showed up on YouTube. Here’s a link, for as long as it may be good.

A couple of weeks ago, a researcher for one of the television networks asked me if I might be willing to discuss the clip on one of the prime-time news programs. As with being interviewed for the Boston Globe article, this was a delayed side-effect of having once been in a punk-rock band – for another members of the group was a Scientologist. (A career as armchair subcultural anthropologist and the loss of hearing in my right ear seem to be closely related.)

It seemed as if a much better guest for the program might be Roy Wallis, whose excellent book The Road to Total Freedom: A Sociological Analysis of Scientology was published by Columbia University Press in 1976. But Wallis is now teaching in Belfast, while I live about two blocks from one of the network’s studios. Gore Vidal is said to have remarked that one should never turn down an opportunity either to have sex or go on TV. That seems like incredibly bad advice from the standpoint of hygiene, literal or spiritual. Still, I agreed to take a look at the clip to see if there were anything interesting to say about it.

And indeed there was. The video shows the famously enthusiastic actor discussing the miraculous powers he has gained from his years in the Church. The clip also demonstrates that Cruise can speak advanced Scientology jargon with a certain fluency.

Some commentary about his performance has been remarkably off-base -- treating it simply as a kind of recruitment film starring an extremely prominent celebrity. In fact, most of what Cruse says would be utterly incomprehensible to any potential recruit. You have to know the code, the inner lingo of the movement, to understand the implications of the points he was making.

Having studied Wallis’s monograph, I was able to follow the message almost like a native speaker. And that message was aimed strictly at anyone in the Church inclined to doubt its leadership. Cruse was pretty clearly warning members that their only hope lay in the authority of its established hierarchy.

So I explained in a short memorandum for the TV people – who thanked me, then decided another talking head wasn’t required for their program, after all. Gore Vidal might be unhappy, but I was slightly relieved. (Getting the Scientologists mad at you is no picnic. We’re talking about a church for which litigation is practically a sacrament.)

With hindsight, I think the general point of my analysis also applies to that full-page ad, as well. Whatever the intention of Cornel West or Slavoj Zizek in signing the appeal from the Committee to Project and Protect the Voice of Bob Avakian, the most important audience for its message was not the public-intellectual world served by The New York Review of Books.

The force of the discourse was, in important respects, centripetal. Its real audience is the party faithful. Or rather, those supporters who, at certain moments, feel doubt about whether Chairman Bob Avakian Thought actually can change the world. (The Chairman himself thinks that failure to appreciate his contributions is a major weakness among his followers, according to recent discussion among people formerly close to the party.)

There is nothing like a full-page ad in NYRB – endorsed by celebrities, no less – to make the road forward look that much brighter for the rank-and-file. It must also lift the Chairman’s own spirits. After all, the job of providing Maoist leadership in the world’s most highly developed country, with not a peasant in sight, has to get kind of depressing, at times.


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