Once a year or so I permit myself to be alarmed by the maneuverings of Bob Avakian, the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party of the United States. Some years ago I was invited onto the radio show of one of Avakian's principal porte-parole, whose name escapes me now, but who is a well-known fixture at the lower end of the radio dial.
The subject was some uncontroversial thing, the indefensibility of the US invasion of Iraq or the like. At some point, when it came to discussing the propaganda operation leading up to this invasion, I invoked the name of Stalin, which stopped my host cold, and triggered a spontaneous defense of the Ossetian caudillo, who, I was told, might have had to take some extreme measures, but was sure nonetheless to end up 'on the right side of history'.
This got me Googling the radio program I had innocently agreed to be on, which landed me after a few clicks on the website of the RCP-USA, learning all about the elusive Chairman Bob. A veteran of the '60s student movement in Berkeley, Avakian is now the leading Maoist figure in the US. Fine. that's his thing, and surely there's a place for it. There is a legitimate debate to be had about the historical legacy of the great leap forward. I am a pacifist, and I think that it was not worth it; I understand however the arguments of those who draw to our attention the fact that, through the bloody violence of it, China really did effect a great leap forward, and that therefore I should be interrogating myself about the ways in which my own flaccid pacifism helps maintain the interests of the imperialist lackeys, the paper tigers, etc.
That's all exciting stuff to debate. But what I can't go along with is the conscious cultivation by Avakian and his enablers of a cult of personality around this rather unexceptional Californian. It's remarkable to see them working at it (Avakian has even said, in response to the criticism that there is such a cult: "I certainly hope so— we’ve been working very hard to create one."). This does at least help me to put Maoism in perspective. When I've read Mao, and been utterly put off by the cultic aspect of it, I have sometimes tried to tell myself that this must be something deeply rooted in Chinese culture, and that cannot but come across as odd when translated into English and presented as a universalizable revolutionary doctrine. Why, after all, even if I ultimately judge that the great leap forward was worth it, should I give the slightest shit about Mao the guy? Why should I care about that stupid face of his? It must have something to do, I've often told myself, with ancestor worship, with cultural legacies I simply can't understand, just like I can't understand pangolin worship or couvade.
But the RCP has managed to duplicate precisely the tone of the unbelievably deadpan party-line correctness we know from the Little Red Book, yet transplanted into familiar American situations. Consider this testimonial about Chairman Avakian from a certain Carl Dix, entitled "Traveling with Chairman Avakian: A Determined Revolutionary Leader, and a Fired Man, for Decades." Dix was a member of the Black Workers' Congress from Baltimore, who was hosted by Avakian during a visit to New York. They had a discussion about some minor points of doctrinal difference between the BWC and Avakian's own group, after which, so Dix testifies, the "discussion I had with Bob Avakian was a very important turning point in my life. It is no exaggeration to say that because of it I was able to stay on the revolutionary path." Dix goes on:
The carrying forward of this line struggle is a testament to the correctness of the line that Bob Avakian has led the RCP in forging from the months leading to its formation down to the present. And it is a testament to the importance of us all learning from the approach and method he has brought to the revolutionary struggle for all of the more than three decades that I've known him.
Avakian keeps out of sight these days, and we are not told by Dix when this meeting took place, so we are left with the impression of a mythical encounter, of something fable-like that takes place outside of history but that serves as a seed for the beginning of history: like the Buddha's first witnessing of poverty. Notwithstanding his reclusion, the RCP website assures us that Avakian has an "irrepressible sense of humor" (just the other day I was irked by the assurance from Jobbik, the extreme right-wing Hungarian political party, that their leader Gábor Vona "is perhaps most notable for his disarming sense of humour, which frequently causes members of the audience at Jobbik public forums to be doubled-up with laughter." Why do political leaders who advance themselves through the threat of violence always feel the need to explicitly insist upon their own good humor?)
And now the RCP has a campaign underway that they're calling 'BA Everywhere', which is "aimed at raising big money to project Bob Avakian’s voice and works throughout society—to make BA a household word." It's being supported by something they're calling "The BAsics bus tour" (sic). Sunsara Taylor participated in one of these tours, and explained its importance as follows:
[T]he more that we are promoting Bob Avakian as who he actually is and what he is actually indispensible to (revolution aimed at the emancipation of all of humanity), the more we will be drawing forward and engaging the biggest questions of this revolution and bringing growing numbers into it.
Some of us of a certain age and from a certain part of the world will have trouble suppressing the memory of a different Bob, the fictional idol of the satirical Church of the SubGenius. Here the name 'Bob' was evidently chosen precisely for its uramerikanisch sonority, for its quintessential regular-guy sort of American anonymity. Bob is himself completely non-descript; he is to be worshipped not because he is exceptional, but precisely because he is a cipher.
Now the Church of the SubGenius was described by at least one of its prominent members as a 'very serious joke'. This is an approach to life that makes sense to me, which explains my at least tangential affiliation with the SubGenius crowd at an earlier stage of my development.
A serious joke is still a joke, and it is for exactly this reason that I would still contend that anyone loyal to this latter Bob, who does not exist, is leagues more sophisticated intellectually (and, I would argue, politically) than a follower of the Bob with whom we began. The Church of the SubGenius is trying to penetrate to the essence of mass movements, is exploring, through irony, what it means to line up behind some image of a head. Here there could be no real talk of 'correctness', and the literal mind that knows only correctness and incorrectness can only fear and hate the mind that works at another level. I have no doubt that Avakian would send the frivolous pranksters behind the SubGenius to the fields if he ever gained power.
Of course, the thing is, he most certainly won't, and it's in this connection that the intentional cultivation of a cult of personality seems so ridiculous to me. In order for such a cult to work, there it has to have the power of coercion behind it. Show me a single example, anywhere in world history, of a cult of personality that is not backed up by threat of force. It's a straightforward contradiction. Without such a threat, Chairman Bob is literally just a chairman, like the chairman of a school board, or of a Future Farmers of America milking competition. Even if the RCP were to seize power, its coercion could really only be exercised after the shit's already gone down. In the meantime there is simply no way that Chairman Bob could reasonably hope his dimly glowing personality might have sufficient purchase on (say) my attention to be able to bring about the cult he desires. How could it, when I've got the other Bob to amuse me?
Bob Avakian could become an important figure in my life, when, after the revolution, he sends his thugs to arrest me for this here display of gross incorrectness. I guess that's a chance I'm willing to take. Until then, as the other Bob says, give me slack.