Platypus Review 51 | November 2012
Last May, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation on the campus of the University of Chicago between Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and Cornel West, a veteran member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the co-author of The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (2012), and Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Edward Remus circled back to that conversation in a July 3, 2012 interview with Carl Dix on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK (88.5 FM) with an eye on the upcoming U.S. elections. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Edward Remus: You helped to found the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) at a moment when there was a renewed interest in Maoism in the United States. What attracted you to Maoism at that moment and what led you to join the Black Workers' Congress? How did your political development then lead you to the RCP?
Carl Dix: I grew up in the United States during the 1960s, when the biggest things going on in this country (and contributing to larger developments in the world) were the U.S. war in Vietnam and the brutal oppression of black people in the U.S. But at the same time, as I came of age, there was resistance on both of these fronts. As a black man, what was being done to black people—but also the heroic resistance that black people were waging—was very impactful and inspiring for me. Also, I got drafted into the army, which posed the question of going to Vietnam. Those two things came together for me.
I decided that the Vietnam War was a war I could not fight and I was sent to Leavenworth Military Penitentiary. I spent a few years there, and during that time I paid as much attention as I could to the continuing resistance against the wars being waged by the U.S. and against the oppression of black people.
I soon came up against the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union didn't strike me as a radically new or different society compared to the U.S. But China had made a revolution a few decades before and was then in the middle of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Here the revolutionaries, led by Mao Tse-Tung, were saying, "Bombard the Headquarters!," calling on the workers, peasants, and students to raise their heads, to criticize, and even to resist the ruling Communist Party who had turned down the capitalist road. That posed to me the possibility of building society on a different basis. It wasn't just a question of getting a different group of people in power and hoping they would do good by you. You could actually cause a rupture. That's how I became a Maoist.
ER: When you look back on the period of the 1960s, do things look different to you now than they did then? Would you revisit your approach in any way?
CD: When I joined the revolutionary movement—I was a founding member of the RCP in 1975—I kind of expected revolution to happen the day after tomorrow. I have to revisit that from the perspective of understanding the history of revolution, how it has developed, what it is going up against, and the kind of situation required for it to have a shot to win. I have come to understand that you can't make revolution in an advanced, imperialist country like this whenever you want, that there has to develop a revolutionary situation, which didn't come to full fruition in the 1960s and definitely is not the case now. But I still view revolution as what is needed, as the way to deal with all the problems that humanity faces, and that our basic thrust of a Maoist approach to that revolution was correct.
ER: How does the task relate to the RCP's current strategic thinking? By most accounts, the RCP is the second-largest Marxist organization in the United States today, and its presence is felt on campus. What is the rationale behind the ongoing series of discussions between you and Cornel West, including the one recently held here on the campus of the University of Chicago? How does this engagement fit within the RCP's larger strategy? How do these engagements express the strategy of the RCP at present, and what motivates the RCP's orientation towards campuses, students, and intellectuals?
CD: Our strategic orientation can be encapsulated in saying that everything we do comes from the perspective of building a movement for revolution. In particular, the idea of revolution has been subjected to an ideological counter-offensive by the capitalist rulers, especially after the overthrow of revolutionary rule in China and the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade and a half later. When it collapsed in 1991, the Soviet Union was no longer a revolutionary country, but one where capitalism had been restored decades earlier. Since then the example of the Soviet Union has been primarily cited to argue that revolution is impossible, that revolutions lead to disaster, and that there is no better society than this capitalist world that we live in.
Going up against that has a couple of key aspects, one being that we have to spread the idea that the world does not have to be this way, that society could be organized differently, and that it will take a communist revolution to do that. People were being hit, coming off the 2008 elections, with the idea that a watershed had been passed, we were in a post-racial society, that the oppression of black people happened but that was in the past. We felt that we had to address that question. Cornel also wanted to address it. He had gone from being a critical supporter of Obama to being one of his most prominent progressive critics. The RCP wants to engage with others who are talking about these things. That was why we spoke to Alain Badiou in the journal Demarcations, and we'll be speaking to Žižek's work in an upcoming issue. It is also why we produced the draft of the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, because we wanted to show people that there is another way that this society could be organized.
ER: What motivates the RCP's orientation towards campuses, students, and intellectuals?
For presumably all of these issues could be pitched to labor unions, urban communities, professionals, or any particular social demographic. But how do you assess the merits of this campus-based focus on students?
CD: In terms of the work on campus, we are going after the youth, and we are going to the youth because our assessment of how revolutionary movements have developed is that, historically, youth from various classes and strata have played a key role; the youth is not yet locked into society. They are more open to looking at what is right and what is wrong and seeing the difference between current reality and the way things could be. We saw that in the 1960s; even the Black Panther Party of the 1960s was formed on college campuses. So that is what we are doing, and as far as the effectiveness, we do go well beyond that.
We think that the communist movement worldwide is hanging by a thread. It has to do with the ideological counter-offensive of the capitalist class, but there is also a crisis within the communist movement, where a lot of communists, including a lot of Maoists, feel that all we have to do is hang on to what Mao came up with, and that if we do that, we can keep going forward. And that is wrong on two counts: The first count is that Maoism was a development of the science of revolution that Marx and Lenin before him had forged, and any science has to be approached not as a dead set of dogma but as a guide for practice; in this case, practice to change the world.
Second, we have to look at the application of Maoism to changing the world and what was proven correct in that application, but also to identify what its shortcomings and errors were. Then you have to break with those errors, not carry them forward, since the world you are trying to change is not the same world that Mao was working on. And that's the importance of the work of Bob Avakian. He is not just saying, "We're for revolution, so the previous revolutions were good, and that is the end of the discussion." He is rather saying, "Let's look at what they were correct on and what they did well, but also where they fell short, what the errors were, and how we can break with those errors."
We have to fight what we call a "cultural revolution within the communist movement" over those approaches. We think that, on one hand, there's a crisis situation in the communist movement internationally, and on the other hand, imperialism is bringing forward people who want to resist it, and we have to show people that the way to get out from under that system is indeed still revolution and communism.
ER: So what accounts for the decline of the Left in the 20th century? Beyond the dogmatization of Maoism, how do you see the Left itself as potentially bound up with a kind of self-defeat or failure in the 20th century?
CD: We think that the central problem is that people cannot even imagine their way beyond this setup. When the Occupy movement developed, Avakian talked about its importance in changing the terms of the debate and discussion, bringing a spirit of resistance into existence. But Occupy also couldn't get beyond the confines of capitalist society to imagine another way the world could be and how you could get from here to there. This idea of taking on and actually defeating and dismantling the repressive apparatus of this capitalist, imperialist state structure and putting into being an entirely different state structure, a new economic system that actually meets people's needs, a new social system that uproots all of the oppressive relations of the past, and a new way of thinking to go along with those new social and economic relations, is something that people have either decided is not possible, is too daunting a question to even think about, or cannot even imagine. We think that is the central problem, and that people need to grapple with that and either answer in the affirmative that capitalist is the best you can do and stop pretending to be leftists and revolutionaries, or grapple with how you could actually deal with this. Any approach that leaves this state structure in existence is going to leave what it enforces upon people all around the world, from massive starvation to wars of empire to women being trafficked as sexual slaves in horrific numbers, and everything else.
Carl Dix, being arrested at Occupy New York.
ER: In certain respects, sections of the Occupy movement saw themselves as addressing that very largest concern. So I want to read a quote from Avakian's article on the Occupy movement, called "Reflection on the Occupy movement: An Inspiring Beginning and the Need to go Further." He says, "Occupy contributes in significant ways to an atmosphere in which people are raising and wrangling with big questions about the state of society and the world, and whether and how something much better can be brought into being." He adds: "It will be a very good thing if these protests continue to spread and further develop." This sentiment was widely shared on the Left when this was written back in November 2011. And in conversation with Cornel West, you stated, "This Occupy movement points to the potential to bring forward and seize a different future for our youth. . . this creates a new situation." Now that Occupy seems to be petering out rather than spreading further and developing, how has the situation changed?
CD: We in the RCP still think Occupy was very important. The impact that Occupy had on the atmosphere of 2011 was that it changed the terms of discussion. Capitalism became something to critique, not something to fetishize. It even extended the Democratic Party, where some party members wanted to raise some criticisms of capitalism, mostly trying to co-opt the Occupy movement. But even that reflected the impact of Occupy and also the spirit of resistance, because even people who didn't come anywhere near Occupy felt its force.
We think that there are still real and important contributions that the suppression of Occupy has not yet been able to obliterate. But we also felt at the time, and still feel, that what needed to be grappled with very broadly was where the inequality that Occupy focused on actually came from: it wasn't just from the greed of the people on top, but the actual system that they preside over, the very way that it worked. First off, you have to view that inequality as more than a national phenomenon. It was not enough to say, "Let's end inequality in the US," because, for one, you couldn't do that short of making revolution, but even if you did, were you going to leave aside the inequality on a global scale that imperialism creates? What would it take to do that?
So we still feel that Occupy was a very important experience, that its (mostly positive) impact is still felt. But there are some questions that have to be grappled with about how to go from that questioning of inequality and other sharp problems that humanity faces today to getting at the source of those problems and what's needed to get rid of them once and for all, both in terms of revolution and how you would go about making revolution in a country like this.
ER: In your view, what is required to transform periodic resistance movements into a possible new beginning for democratic politics and Marxism?
CD: This relates to the idea of fighting the power and transforming people for revolution. Let me give you an example from the work we've been doing around mass incarceration here in New York that's centered on the stop-and-frisk policy of the NYPD. We identified mass incarceration as the key way that the oppression of, particularly, black and Latino people in the United States comes down. If this is not taken on and beaten back, it amounts to what is a slow genocide against those peoples, and it is very important to build resistance around that. We set out to call forth and organize that kind of resistance, but also, to do it as revolutionaries and communists. That didn't mean that people had to endorse revolution and communism to stand up and oppose stop-and-frisk with us.
So as we resist with people, we bring to them an understanding of where the problem that we are resisting comes from. We think that's a crucially important part, because we don't think that people's thinking develops in a hot-house apart from actually standing up and resisting, which is part of the importance of Occupy. A lot of people go from an acceptance of this society and looking for their role in it to beginning to question it. That is the process that we want to take people through on as large a scale as possible. |P
1. Bob Avakian, "A Reflection on The "Occupy" Movement: An Inspiring Beginning… And the Need to Go Further," Revolution 250 (November 13, 2011). Available online at <http://revcom.us/a/250/avakian_on_the_occupy_movement-en.html>.↑
2. "Racism, Inequality and Student Activism," a conversation between Carl Dix and Cornel West held at Berkeley, December 2, 2011, video of which is available online at <http://c-spanvideo.org/appearance/601096122>.↑