Many Americans are fired up in a bad way about Trump getting elected, and the Revolutionary Communist Party, aka RevCom, founded in 1975 by UC Berkeley grad and party chairman Bob Avakian, are particularly vocal about it. A stroll by Revolution Books, in the alleyway just west of Telegraph, between Durant Avenue and Channing Way, will tell you as much. Outside the store sits a signboard with a large poster of Trump in a KKK cap, complete with Hitler-stache—an image made all the more sinister by the gloom of the dark, rainy skies that have been drowning the Bay in the wake of the election. “MEIN TRUMPF,” it reads below his scowling pumpkin-colored face, “A Thoroughly American Fascist Pig.” Below that, a flyer states: “WE REFUSE TO ACCEPT A FACIST AMERICA.”
Wondering if they’d tell me how they really feel about the president-elect, I met up with RevCom spokesperson Raphael Kadaris and Berkeley store manager Reiko Redmonde to ask what’s next for the party now that we’re ushering in the era of The Donald as leader of the “free world.”
“The point is that we’re not in fascism yet,” says Kadaris, a fresh-faced 30-something with a black ball cap, who like his comrade Redmonde, peppers his statements with “You know?” “Right?” and the occasional profanity. “And the only thing that’s gonna stop that from happening [meaning the dawn of fascism] is us, and the millions more like us that can be [made] to see the need to stop it.” Redmonde—a longtime electric blue-haired Avakian supporter who attended Cal in the 70s—nods along in agreement.
Apparently, this is not a battle that can be waged at the voting booth. RevCom’s plan is to create a political crisis so profound that it would prevent Trump from taking office. Its vision has millions of people filling the streets in protest committing acts of rebellion that range from peaceful walk-outs to mass protests against bigotry.*
RevCom proposes that the “resistance” begin today, December 19th, the day the Electoral College votes—and continue until Inauguration Day, January 20th. The proposed slogan for the movement: “In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America!” Kadaris and other RevCom members will be joining an activist group called the Hamilton Electors today to protest Trump ahead of the electoral college at the Sacramento state capitol, and the group is holding an emergency meeting to stop the Trump/Pence regime at the Revolution Books store in New York tonight.
Oh, and just FYI, the RevCom bookstores aren’t run of the mill. As you’d expect, they’re heavy on the canonical Communist texts, with Mao’s Little Red Book displayed prominently. Even the children’s books have a political slant—like Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation, and Operation Marriage, the story of two children who watch their lesbian moms get married right before Prop 8 passes. On the walls of the Berkeley store are posters of Native Americans looking sadly off into the distance as their homelands are raped for oil and coal. Completely volunteer-run, the stores were once peppered throughout the U.S., but now only remain in Berkeley and the Big Apple—though you can find RevCom activist groups in Atlanta, Cambridge, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Seattle and Houston.
“Look, Trump came to power through a so-called ‘legitimate’ Democratic electoral process,” Kadaris says. “And Hitler, as well, came to power through electoral means. And people need to step outside of that whole framework and fight against it.”
He goes so far as to say that anyone currently working in the system, whether it be a high-powered lawyer in the Justice Department or a lowly civil servant in some regulatory back office, should quit immediately, so as not to be a part of the machinery carrying out Trump’s agenda and that of people like newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who supports the Trump-proposed ban on Muslims and whom Kadaris calls an “unreconstructed Southern racist.”
Of course, RevCom’s call for acts of rebellion is nothing new. It’s pretty much what the group has been advocating for decades.
Avakian, the founder, started at Cal in 1961 and became actively involved with the Free Speech Movement (FSM) and Berkeley’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). While at Berkeley, he jumped on a lot of bandwagons—including the anti-war movement, the women’s liberation front, and later—having been inspired by “deep conversations” he had with “some black friends” about racism—the Black Panther party.
According to RevCom’s literature, in the late 60s, Avakian determined that Marxism, “as it had been further developed by Lenin, and then had reached its highest point up to that time in the work of Mao Tsetung,” was the best way to radically transform the world. With this mindset, he started the Bay Area Revolutionary Union with the idea that various activist groups on the Left could come together as a unit to form a revolutionary Communist party. He started writing regularly for the Revolutionary Union (or Red Papers), questioning whether the Soviet Union was actually socialist and arguing that Mao was right—that capitalism had been restored in Russia. Over time, Avakian gained followers, the Bay Area Revolutionary Union went through a name change or two, and then officially became the Revolutionary Communist Party, U.S.A. (RCP), in 1975, with Chairman Bob leading the charge.
In D.C., in 1979, Avakian was one of 17 people charged with multiple felonies for throwing a demonstration at the meeting of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and U.S. president Jimmy Carter. The RCP’s beef? They wanted to “expose” and oppose Deng for betraying Mao’s revolution. Avakian went on a speaking tour and did an interview for a piece in the L.A. Times, (one that, according to RevCom, supposedly “distorted” Avakian’s views). The publicity caught the interest of the Secret Service, and, according to Avakian’s memoir, he received death threats from “various quarters” and decided that it was best to stay in the shadows. He has remained there ever since.
The man’s reclusiveness has given rise to a kind of mythos among his followers. He stays underground, save for a speech or two, on the grounds that it’s too dangerous for him to be visible in the current political climate—an idea that’s been called both paranoid and narcissistic by critics. Of course, it may also be a way to avoid tough questions from pestering journalists.
Though you can always find his recent writings in RevCom’s paper, Avakian’s last public appearance seems to have been two years ago when he and scholar Cornel West had a public dialogue at Riverside Church in New York in front of a couple thousand people. When I ask Kadaris if he had ever had contact with Bob, he cites his attendance at that event as his closest interaction. When I pose the same question to Redmonde, she says, “On my personal history/ knowledge of Bob Avakian: this is not the sort of thing I get into, mainly because it is so important to protect him, and to fight for his ability to do what he does. This system, and this government has a, by now, well-documented bloody history of spying on, jailing, and killing revolutionaries.”
Despite their leader’s seeming reclusion, many RevCom adherents are willing to risk arrest for the cause.
In 1984, RevCom’s Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $2,000 after burning the American flag during a demonstration at the Republican National Convention in Dallas. This led to the Texas vs. Johnson case, in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that burning the flag was protected by the First Amendment. The decision was so controversial that it spurred Congress to pass the Flag Protection Act into law, something RevCom has repeatedly protested by, you guessed it, burning the flag.
As recently as last July in fact, as part of the resistance against Trump, Johnson and 15 other RevCom members were arrested for lighting the flag on fire outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Among the “RNC 16” was Kadaris, charged with two misdemeanors, one for obstruction of official business and the other for the failure to disperse. The court date for motion to dismiss will be held on January 26th.
Needless to say, Kadaris doesn’t harbor sentimentality about any of the traditional notions or symbols of American patriotism. “Trump’s slogan is ‘Make America Great Again.’ One of the first things people need to understand is America was never great,” Kardaris says. “This is the flag that was stamped on the side of the bombs that they dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the flag that the Seventh Calvary waved when they rode into Wounded Knee and slaughtered men, women and children…. This flag deserves to be burned.”
In late November, after Trump tweeted that anyone burning the flag should be subject to “perhaps” loss of citizenship or a year in jail, RevCom burned yet another Old Glory in front of Trump Tower and issued a flag burning challenge online, “Which needs to go viral!” says Kadaris.
The legendary Joey Johnson was actually sitting a few meters behind me during my chat with Kadaris and Redmonde. He gave me a wave but declined my invitation to join the interview. Later, once the notepad and recorder were tucked away, he’d shake my hand, give a warm smile and say, “It’s safe to talk to you now.”
So rebellion is the only way, eh? What about working with Trump to try to achieve common ground? After all, even the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders seems to have at least briefly entertained the idea.
In a statement posted to Facebook on November 9th, Sanders almost sounded hopeful about the prospects: “To the degree that Donald Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him.” Then, only two weeks later, a sharp change in tune: “There is no working with a president who will bring forth programs based on bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia.” Oh, well.
According to Redmonde, a great danger is that working with Trump will only normalize his behaviors and policies.
“People in the Democratic party are saying, ‘Oh, give him a chance; let’s hope his presidency is successful,’” Redmonde says. “Successful? This is someone who has said deport people, deprive them of their rights. [Trump] supports open white supremacists and won’t even denounce when the KKK says they love him and stuff. Many people thought, oh this is a joke—this candidate is a joke. Okay, well, this system legitimized him as one of the possible main candidates, and now he is elected. This is no joke.”
Not that Hillary Clinton would have been much better in RevCom’s eyes. Having a Democrat in power isn’t a firewall against fascism, says Kadaris; it’s just another form of American imperialism. “Maybe a more multicultural empire, but empire nonetheless.”
Just look at what Obama did for the last eight years, says Kadaris, things like “codifying the Patriot Acts, the Military Commissions Act,” effectively “giving much greater expanded powers to Trump, to deport, to spy, to torture. Obama never prosecuted the Bush regime for torturing.”
In Avakian’s book Basics, he says, “If you try to make the Democrats be what they are not and never will be, you will end up being more like what the Democrats actually are.”
Ultimately, according to RevCom, any American political party is just a competing faction within a capitalist‑imperialist system—which is unappealing to any group that believes in Communism.
But, I ask my subjects, wasn’t that faith misplaced, given the failures of the Communist experiment worldwide—in Russia, China, Cuba, and elsewhere?
“I would say that being defeated temporarily is not the same as failing,” Redmonde says. “Failing is having a planet run by capitalism, where you’re actually ruining the whole earth and oppressing the great majority of these people, and you’re holding back the potential of the seven billion on the planet, right?”
Besides, the “defeated” form of Communism isn’t what RevCom plans to instate when a total overthrow occurs. They support Avakian’s “new and improved” iteration, as described in his recent book The New Communism, a copy of which was placed on the table between where the three of us sat.
The book presents a “new synthesis” or theoretical framework for Communism. Based on the writings of Karl Marx and “scientific research,” says Redmonde, it carefully examines Communism’s past failures and accomplishments. And, according to Redmonde, if you can’t think of any of the latter, it’s because you’ve been systematically lied to like most people in the U.S.
“The truth is that those revolutions actually did accomplish a lot,” Kadaris says. “You know, Russia in the Soviet Union after the revolution, it was the first country in modern Europe that legalized homosexuality and abortion. There was a flowering of art. Efforts to have an economy that was guided by meeting the needs of the people and not profit. In China, life expectancy doubled under Mao. The slogan that guided society was, ‘Serve the people.’ In terms of gender relations, ‘Women hold up half the sky.’ That’s the slogan that was popularized in China under Mao.”
As for the tens of millions who died in the Great Famine and the purges of the Cultural Revolution, well. …
When I asked if I could speak to Avakian about this, Redmonde and Kardaris shot hesitant glances at each other, and my ears were suddenly clogged with awkward silence.
Perhaps I’d overstepped.
“You could put in a request,” Kadaris says.
I asked who I could put the request in with. Redmonde reluctantly said I could do it through her, by email.
I requested. Suffice to say, Avakian remains a subterranean alien—at least to me.
So, if the final goal is millions rebelling, I asked if there was a concrete strategy to get there, and how far along RevCom has gotten so far. To the latter question, they both refused to comment, until I pestered them so much that they said they didn’t know how many people were a part of it. But regarding the former:
“There’s no formula for revolution,” says Redmonde. “But I’d like to invite everybody to come to Revolution Books here, and if readers of the magazine are on the East Coast, to go to our store in Harlem where they’re having—every day up to the inauguration—events, discussion, poetry, music, a whole schedule of resistance education, organizing…. I really encourage people to look into the most radical UC Berkeley alumnus around, which is Bob Avakian, and check out The New Communism, you know?”
One of the main obstacles in gathering people for the revolution, says Kadaris, is that the most passionate, violent political advocates are Trump supporters, and society needs to be “repolarized” so progressives have more of that same umph.
“Amongst our side—you know, the progressive people, women, LGBT people, people of color, intellectuals—there’s been much more passivity, and a lot of that has to do with the role of the Democrats, which just suck people into meaningless hope in the electoral voting and electoral politics,” says Kadaris. “We’re talking about repolarizing all of society, all of the different social forces. Because right now the most passionate and intense movement is among those on the right.”
“Anybody who cares about the people on this planet,” says Redmonde, ‘should be thinking about these things, struggling with them, staying up at night, arguing with their friends.”
I ask if violent resistance is part of that conversation.
“Well, we’re not pacifists, and we don’t believe in using any means towards your ends. Your means have to be consistent with your ends,” Kadaris says. “Because we’re serious about an actual revolution, at this stage, we don’t initiate violence. And we oppose all violence against the people…” Redmonde chimed in and they both said in unison, “And among the people.”
“An actual overthrow of this system does involve violence,” Redmonde added, reminding me that, “The System has a standing army and police forces.”
As the interview comes to a close and I go to leave, a Cal student steps into the store, blocking my exit, and says: “How do I boycott Yogurtland?”
A revolutionary’s work is never done, I think—and walk off into the gloom.