The Radical

by

Three times Bogdân Ŗžič has refused to debate me. I have challenged him in print and in several public forums, and tonight, I will challenge him again, in person, during the lecture he is giving at Columbia University, and I will make him confront his own traitorousness to the leftist revolutionary cause. How can anyone expect the Revolution to come when our public intellectual leaders are the petit-bourgeoisie? What Bob Avakian says in his New Synthesis of Communism is right on this (and every) front: You cannot do something half-way. Instead of revealing the suffering and madness of the world, Ŗžič’s fusillade of distortion masks it, and that is unconscionable.

A number of Party members will be joining me at the lecture. Likely at Ŗžič’s behest, Columbia has refused to let me participate in the panel discussion that will follow the lecture, so we will distribute our pamphlet at the door. In this pamphlet I have once again challenged Bogdân Ŗžič to a debate, as I will again do verbally during the Question and Answer portion of the event. The debate is necessary, because Ŗžič’s views on the early Communist revolutions are not only wrong but harmful to the future of humanity.

I have called a meeting at my apartment in the Greenwich Village to discuss our course of action. My role is to make aware these youths (Aron, who, at sixty-one, five years older than I, is the exception) of the lies that Ŗžič is likely to tell tonight. I only pay $300 dollars a month for my one-bedroom apartment because it is rent-controlled and has been passed down illegally from revolutionary to revolutionary since the early 1980s. Every insurrection matters, even a small one like this. Enough micro-revolutions will lead to the “capital-R” Revolution. Avakian makes this clear. Ŗžič denies it. Therefore defying him is an important micro-revolution.

So far, Mamen, Sylvia, and Aron are at my apartment, and I have prepared us a light lunch. The bread is from a co-op in Brooklyn, and the produce is from a farm share. Mamen affectionately contributed what she found diving in a dumpster on the way over—juice, cheese, two bagels—of which I will exercise my right to opt out. We can hear the commotion outside, but there is also great commotion inside, as a discourse has commenced. Sylvia has become upset at Mamen’s inflammation that the Bolivarian Revolution was a failure. (Mamen is erroneous, but I let the discussion unfold. She must be allowed to come to the correct conclusions on her own.) Sylvia is shouting (almost with the same timbre that Chavez used to have) that even without meeting its own ideals, the Bolivarian utopian discourse was worthwhile, it being enough of a direct negation of Thatcherist rhetoric to forever disrupt the hegemonic politics of Western oppression.

“Everything is about oil,” says Aron, his bushy gray beard dusty with dumpster-bagel crumbs. “Black gold.” Aron is devoted to the cause, and is always a willing participant, but his years of action with Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies took their toll on his body and mind.

“Yes! The nationalization of the petroleum industry is an object lesson in how controlling the means of production doesn’t necessarily kill a repressive body-politic.” Mamen looks to Aron to see if her point is well received, but Aron seems to have nodded off. Mamen has obviously not yet read Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, even though I gave it to her two weeks ago. She says that she is young and needs to experience life before she reads about it in books. But these books explain how to live, I say. When I was twenty-three, I was already working for the Party as a grassroots organizer in downtown New York, and I was on my way to publishing my first essays. These were about Reagan’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. One was published on the Village Voice Op-Ed page. It was because of that article that I met Bob Avakian, who contacted me right after reading it. My life has never been the same.

There is a heavy pounding on my door, which must be kept locked, even during meetings. Sylvia opens it, and in flies Billy the Kid, shouting “It’s Faggot City outside!” He is referring to the Pride rally on Christopher Street, which is around the corner. I can feel the bleeding of Mamen’s social liberalistic heart as she looks at me with pleading eyes. But when her puppy-doggery is met with my adopted reticence, she scolds Billy herself, telling him plainly and passionately that the word is not acceptable. Billy shakes his cherubic curls at her and flashes a toothy, open-mouthed smile that is meant to convey violent disregard—for Mamen, for the rest of the caring world—but which needs more practice. He hasn’t yet learned how to manifest his anger, and continues to try out new deviations. While unfortunate, Billy’s anger is understandable. Although he is only fourteen, Billy has already experienced his fair share of oppression. His father, a black man, died during the illegal war in Iraq for a country that was more concerned with murdering non-combatants than with his own civil rights. A bank then took away his mother’s home. Billy discovered Insurrectionary Anarchism from some of the other runaways at the C-Squat, and now he comes to my apartment to plan his revenge. The Insurrectionary Anarchists have some good beliefs, the most important being the importance of Direct Action, but they are in general too narrow-minded. They are unable to diagnose the present while anticipating simultaneously both the near-future and far-future. No amount of Direct Action, therefore, will make an Insurrectionary Anarchist into a realistic revolutionary. Mamen says that she “refuses to be bound to a single ideology,” which is quite wonderful, in its naïve childish way. I have been giving Billy Guy Debord to read, and I believe he will soon come around.

The speeches from these feckless activists and community leaders outside the Stonewall Inn echo loudly, though unintelligible, in the courtyard behind my apartment. The Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act not four hours ago, and the LGBTI Community believes that it has achieved an important victory. But true freedom exists only outside the system, and these people are fighting their battles within the confines of the heteronormative body politic, which is de jure constructed on exclusion rather than inclusion. The only way to achieve inclusion is through a complete dismantling of the classist superstructure—that is, a Socialist Revolution. Anyone can see that the DOMA ruling is a false victory meant to lull the LGBTI Community into complacency. Likewise the rising tide of same-sex marriage legalization in the so-called “liberal states.” Billy says that a “suited dick” is delivering the speech that is currently echoing around my courtyard. Surely it is some lawyer from the American Compromising Liberties Union. Echoing and muffling is a good metaphor for what is going on out there (I must remember to include that in my next article in Kultura): as a message spreads, the more the superstructure absorbs the message’s value, leaving a remainder of watered-down pseudo-philosophical sloganization, such as is Bogdân Ŗžič’s pop-culture radicalism. There is no real prescription for how to proceed. Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis of Communism provides good examples of nations where gender inequality righted itself practically overnight after a social revolution. This is what we trying to achieve, and have patience for nothing else. I point to the photo of Avakian and me on the bookshelf, to supplement my point. The photo was taken in this very apartment during a planning session for last year’s march on the Court House. The kids are very impressed by this photograph. The march was a failure—though not through any fault of our own.

 

With a sweep of my arms I bring the room to silence. The food has been cleared away. We sit in a circle. Billy the Kid is already distracted, tracing the tattoo he threatens to etch onto his flawless baby face as proof that no one loves him, but a tug from Mamen, on the sleeve of his German military jacket, rouses his attention. I have already written and printed the pamphlets myself, so the first task is to familiarize everyone with their content. Mamen I do not have to worry about, on this. She watched me compose the pamphlet, which is broken into four sections, excluding the one-page introduction, the compendiary conclusion (titled: “A Call for an Honest and Immediate Debate”), and the bibliography. The four sections are: I) Real Stakes, Real Reckoning; II) ‘New Thinking’ is the Old Thinking; III) The De-Historicisation of the Maoist and Stalinist Project; IV) Bogdân Ŗžič’s Social-Chauvinism Vs. Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis of Communism. I wrote it in a frenzy the night I heard that Ŗžič would be speaking. Mamen sat next to me, and we listened to Phil Ochs and drank oolong tea that a longtime Party member brought back from a recent trip to the People’s Republic of China. Mamen had lots of questions, but I could not answer them. I was too busy writing. At some point, she fell asleep. Mamen is very beautiful when she sleeps. She must have been having wonderful dreams that night because she was smiling, delicately. I picked her up and carried her to bed and didn’t join her until I finished writing, at 3:00 a.m. If anyone at the lecture tonight questions Mamen about the pamphlet, I am confident that she will be able to respond intelligently enough. For the others, a review is necessary. As with all insurrectionary actions, it is important to have every detail and movement planned out in advance, and that all participants know their roles.

The lecture starts at 7:30 p.m., but we will arrive at 6:00 p.m. in order to distribute pamphlets to those waiting in line. Ŗžič has a large following, and lines for his lectures are typical. When the doors open, Sylvia, Aron, and Billy the Kid will station themselves at the three entrances of the auditorium and continue to distribute the pamphlet to anyone who walks past. Meanwhile, myself and Mamen will occupy a row of seats close to the front. I will sit in the aisle seat so that I can get quickly in line for the microphone during the Question and Answer portion of the lecture, where once again I will publically challenge Bogdân Ŗžič to a debate.

With everyone able to recite the plan back to me—I like to go around in a circle and make each participant say his or her role out loud, even if everyone’s role is the same; repetition is a very effective tool—we march ourselves out of my apartment and into the street. The Authorities have closed the blocks surrounding the Stonewall Inn, including my own, and the streets are packed with thousands of jubilant homosexuals. “What did I tell you?” says Billy the Kid, but I admonish him with a stern look. I try so hard with him.

The media—some of it even national—have turned out, their heartless satellites protruding like weapons into the sky. Upon their perches they watch the activists speak, while reporters shove microphones into the mouths of the ­everymen. With my comrades in line behind me, I blaze a trail through the throng. It is vital that we stay on schedule. But suddenly, while attempting to navigate us around a septet of entwined lesbians, Mamen grabs me from behind and spins me to a halt. Billy has cut from the ranks and is pushing his way westward toward the stage. My guess, knowing him, is that his path will terminate at the group of men sharing bottles of champagne. I send Mamen and Sylvia after him, and, frustrating as it may be, waiting on Billy affords me a moment to listen to the speeches. On a small, crowded stage erected in front of the tavern, a woman approximately my same age stands at a tall podium. She speaks into a cluster of microphones of different shapes and sizes.

This is history in the making! she shouts, and the crowd cheers its response. Children who are born today will be born into a world without marriage inequality. And those children who happen to be gay will be allowed to love.

The others on the stage clap and nod their heads. A few wear paper Uncle Sam hats.

But we cannot be complacent! Today, we have achieved a victory in the name of civil rights, but our fight is far from finished! It is our moral imperative to push on. It’s been forty-four years since we first stood together on this spot, and we still stand here until every American is permitted the freedoms granted by the Constitution!

But there is no swifter way to bring about inequality in a Capitalist system than to get married, I remind myself. Gender-regardless, marriage, being an institution inseparable from the oppressive state that governs it, creates a hierarchical, capital-determined relationship. Only after marriage is divorced from the state apparatus will its participants be equal partners. No matter how many times I explain this to Mamen, she refuses to understand. It has become an unfortunate point of contention between us. I would think that the amount of time we have wasted with this discussion would obviate its frivolity, but no. “What about love?” she asks me. There will be time for love after the Revolution, I tell her. “But Bob is married!” she shouts, knowing very well that this isn’t really pertinent to the broader philosophical argument, and also that I hate it when she calls Avakian, whom she has yet to meet, “Bob.”

The crowd is swelling, and we must get moving. Mamen and Sylvia have difficulty getting forward with so many people hugging. Sylvia calls out to Billy, who was apparently refused champagne. He gives Sylvia the finger, and then, with his hands together and arms extended out in front of him, daggers his way back to the group.

At this moment, the crowd begins to chant in unison. Edi! Edi! Edi!, they roar. There is no one at the podium now, but still they chant Edi! Edi! and they clap their hands, clap clap clap, in concert. Suddenly, there is a huge, ebullient cry—I cover my ears, it is so loud—as an old woman slowly climbs the stairs to the stage, one hand waving, the other clasped, for balance, to the hand of the last speaker. When she stands at the podium, she can barely see over it. The microphones are angled lower for her. The applause has not relented. Next to me, a woman weeps, and instead of wiping her tears away she lets them stream down her face. The old woman on stage lifts her hands to quiet the crowd, but it only makes them cheer louder, and they start chanting her name again. Edi! Edi! The old woman’s voice is too meek to rise above the noise. If only everyone would quiet down.

Just then, something pokes me in the shoulder. “Look at that,” says Aron, grinning under his tangle of hair. He motions beyond the crowd. It seems that in the moment I looked away from him, Billy the Kid was approached by a news crew.

Billy, with his curls and frail boy’s body, is what Ginsberg had in mind when he wrote the words “angel headed,” and in his unwashed, too big military coat, affixed with safety pins and punk patches, he is a strange site to behold. Clearly the producer has keyed in on what Mamen calls “viral content potential.” The lights are being adjusted. The reporter, a grinning corporate go-getter looking for a way up the “ladder,” explains something to Billy.

“Let’s go,” I tell Aron. Billy alone on TV is not a good idea. If I can get there before the interview starts I can at least give him some talking points about the Cause, if not go on air myself to explain the reality of this spectacle. The old woman, she who has garnered so much adoration from the audience, has begun her speech, but I cannot listen. The cameraman is already counting down from three on his fingers and the reporter is straightening his tie. Two, one, and the red light goes on. The reporter asks his first question: “As a young person, what made you come out today to celebrate?” I reach them right as Billy delivers his response:

“Fuck the Police!”

The cameraman spins the camera away from Billy. The reporter stands flabbergasted. Two NYPD officers, apparently bored with “keeping the peace,” start making their way toward Billy. How many times must I tell Billy that police brutality is a product of the violence inherent in the global capitalist system?

“Fuck the police!” he shouts again. I grab Billy by his dog-collar and pull him toward the subway. It is time to go. Nothing is more important than tonight’s action.

 

*

 

When I debate Bogdân Ŗžič, I will hold him accountable for his many hypocrisies. I suspect that Ŗžič is a skilled debater, as he was educated in a Soviet system, but a debate on a practical application of Communism will not allow him to hide behind his beloved theory, and I will triumph.

With the pamphlets distributed, there is nothing to do now but to wait, and to listen to the lecture. I am sitting on the aisle, as planned, with Mamen on my right, then Sylvia, Aron, and Billy the Kid, and beyond him a group of what appear to be graduate students speaking Polish. The auditorium is filled to capacity, and latecomers are forced either to stand in the back or to sit in the aisles. Everyone here will be witness to my challenge, making it impossible, for Ŗžič, to back out. The auditorium is not as loud as at the rally, but it is loud, and Ŗžič walks on stage to ridiculous applause.

The event begins. The Italian post-structuralist Lucio Regio introduces Ŗžič with what is barely more than a confused sycophantic ramble. Sad to see such a brilliant thinker (or so I once thought) fall so hard for Ŗžič’s Yugoslav charm. The topic of the lecture is “Post-Hegelian Rationality and the Specters of Catastrophe,” and it is, quite simply, ludicrous. According to Ŗžič, the rising tide of international social unrest thus far in the twenty-first century actually results from a lack of theoretic substance. In order to radically transform the violent reality of the post-imperialist capitalist state, he says, these movements must further move toward the void. Absurd. Avakian’s body of work is an unflinching refutation of this idea, even that which was published five years ago. Mamen keeps shushing me when I try to point out the flaws in Ŗžič’s logic. She says that she wants to listen, and, yes, she must be allowed to come to conclusions on her own. I admit that I, too, am having trouble listening with all the rhetoric swirling around my head.

“We will now open up the floor to questions,” Regio says suddenly, Ŗžič’s lecture apparently over despite no practicable conclusion being reached. Lines are already forming at the microphones. Mamen prods me in ribs. “Get up there. What are you waiting for?” she says. I’m going, I’m going. I must formulize my demands. I step into the aisle and get into line. There are two microphones, one at each side of the hall, and Regio alternates between them, meaning that I will be, at best, the seventh questioner.

“If you don’t get to speak, you must still challenge him,” Mamen whispers to me from her seat. “Interrupt him if you have to. Make him listen.” I wish she’d shut up.

Grad students ask their ridiculous questions, trying desperately to appear smart in front of the famous philosopher, naming this and that theorist. My demand will be quite jarring in this setting. Perhaps I will catch Ŗžič off-guard.

“I’m afraid we are running out of time,” says Regio. “We will take three more questions.”

I am next. A professorial-looking man asks a question about Adorno or Habermas in relation to the Palestinian situation, and then it is my turn. I step to the microphone.

Ŗžič looks right at me. This is what I have come for. I look at Mamen. She smiles, mouths “go! go!” I smile at her. At this moment, in her encouragement, she is very beautiful, and suddenly I want to grab her hand and leave this auditorium. Maybe take her to meet Bob. She will like that. Regio says something I do not hear, an invitation to speak. I look back at Mamen, and, now unsmiling, she points at Ŗžič. Ŗžič appears calm, sips the expensive water Columbia has purchased for him. I take a deep breath.

“My name is Peter Bibben, and I am an activist, writer, and an advocate for Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis of Communism. Bogdân Ŗžič, it is not true, as you allege, that the first wave of Communist-Socialist Revolutions was a failure. It is wrong, it is harmful, and it is unconscionable that you continue to use your stature to try to close the door on the way out of this horror and madness, which is the New Synthesis of Marxist Revolutionary tactics.” When speaking publically, it is important to punctuate one’s statements with forceful hand gestures. I strike the air in front of my chin with five fingers pressed together, like a beak, or a fascia. “Bogdân Ŗžič, I have challenged you to debate me, in print and in several public forums, about the history and prospects of effective Marxist Revolution. Nothing could be more important. This concerns the future of humanity. My question to you, Bogdân, is: Why have you refused to debate? Can we decide, right here and now, in front of this audience, a time and place to have this debate?”

Ŗžič’s confounded silence stimulates the audience to laughter. Sylvia and Billy the Kid stand-up and cheer. Some people are booing, and Billy shakes his fist at them, not realizing that they may actually be booing Ŗžič, who has been exposed.

Ŗžič takes another sip of fancy water and looks at his notes, shaken.

“Let’s take another question,” says Regio. “This will be the final one.” Everyone behind me at the microphone goes to sit down. I consider doing the same; they will never stop trying to silence true believers. The student on the other side of the room starts to introduce himself.

“Wait,” says Ŗžič. “Wait, I want to address this gentleman’s accusation, or question, or whatever it is.”

“You don’t have to,” says Regio, and gestures for the student to speak, the dog barking away intruders from his master’s door.

Ŗžič interrupts again: “Can you repeat what you said earlier?” he says to me.

I take a step back toward the microphone. “My name is Peter Bibben,” I begin again, the microphone popping harshly on the P. “And what I said before, what I said was that I don’t think the first wave of Communist-Socialist revolutions was a failure. Like you say it was. It’s wrong, bad, I think, for you to close the door on the madness and horror and madness, which is the New Synthesis—that is to close the door on the way out of the matter, the way out being Bob’s New Synthesis, Bob Avakian’s. I also said that I have challenged you to debate me about the history and prospects of the Marxist Revolution. And so my question, Mr. Ŗžič, is why have you refused to have this debate? Can we decide, right now, on a time and place to have this debate?”

Ŗžič pushes aside the papers in front of him, leans toward the microphone.

“In response to your first question: It all depends on how you think of failure. If you are referring to my essay ‘Overworld: Badiou, the Death Drive and Mao,’ you must remember that I’m quoting excessively from Laclau. What I am saying is that the ultimate result of the Great Leap Forward was a betrayal of its authentic revolutionary inception. The ultra-Capitalism of Beijing indicates to me that there had to have been some weakness present at the onset. Mein gott, I was praising the Cultural Revolution!”

“What about the debate!” Sylvia shouts. “Are you scared?”

“On this point,” Ŗžič continues, “I don’t think I’m the liar you make me out to be, and I must admit to you that I wasn’t aware of your challenge, and I sincerely apologize.”

“He hadn’t seen my challenges,” I say to Mamen. She frowns. I’m finding it harder and harder to decipher her. I have failed somewhere in my teaching, maybe. She turns away from me.

“You’ve heard my challenge now!” I tell Ŗžič. “I challenge you to debate me!”

“Pistols at dawn!” yells Billy the Kid.

“Ok, we will. We will. I say this publically here. I commit myself. I will be in New York for the rest of the week. If you make the arrangements, I will be there.”

“We will have this debate!”

“Yes. We will. That is what I am telling you: I am committed. Just don’t bring your Lost Boys to interrupt me.”

The audience breaks into laughter and applause again.

“Ah! Ah! Don’t make that gesture,” says a smiling Ŗžič, who is making a wild, exaggerated shrugging motion amid the laughter. “I saw you!” he says to me, mimicking whatever he thinks he saw me do, which I did not. “This gesture, which in my Stalinist experience means ‘What will I do when people protest?’” Again, the audience laughs, although I do not get the joke. Ŗžič repeats: “I promise. This week.”

Regio brings the lecture to a close. He thanks Ŗžič, as well as the audience, and the auditorium quickly clears out.

 

There is celebration in my camp. The youths high-five and then Billy starts to sprint back and forth across the tops of the rows of empty chairs. Sylvia explains to Aron what happened, as he had fallen asleep. Around us, undergraduate volunteers pick up loose papers left under seats, wadding my pamphlets up into great, big balls.

Ŗžič’s assistant, a Romanian grad student, comes over to exchange contact information and to give me a copy of Ŗžič’s schedule. Billy trips and falls onto the carpeted aisle.

“You did it,” Mamen says softly. She holds my hand with her two. “You did it, Peter. You must tell Bob. You have to publicize the debate right away. You don’t have much time. Do you have a moderator in mind? Where will you hold it? I can call the libraries first thing in the morning. The universities, too. What’s the matter, Peter? Ŗžič’s accepted! You are going to debate! What are you thinking, Peter?”

 

 

Daniel Tovrov has an MFA from Columbia, and is the recipient of a 2015 Pushcart Prize.