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The People’s Republic of Cambridge

March 6, 2015

Harvard Square

(This is an excerpt from my book The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race.)

My next literary love affair was with the black firebrand, Eldridge Cleaver, and his book Soul on Ice. Eldridge was born in 1935 and then raised – or, better, led a wayward youth — in California. In 1958, he was sentenced to eight years in various prisons for assault with intent to kill. There, like Malcolm, he became a Black Muslim and spent much time in quiet study. He quit the NOI in the wake of Malcolm’s assassination. He left jail in 1966 and plunged into radical politics. He became Minister of Information for the Black Panthers, the most militant of the protest groups. In 1968, he made a Paul Paulson-like run at being elected President of the United States, only to go on the lam to Algeria after having walked the walk of his own talk in a shooting incident. He revolutionized the strategy of finding Jesus as a convenient way to dissociate himself from his criminal past and to ease the transition into a less testosterone-driven middle age and then to write an inspirational book on the conversion, this one called Soul on Fire. This allowed him to return to the country in 1975, whereupon it was back to the slammer till 1980. Six years later, in the ultimate break with the past, he became a Reagan Republican.

But in September, 1986, all I knew of Eldridge Cleaver was what was told to me by the man himself in Soul on Ice, published in 1968 at the height of his radicalism in a country at the height of its protest. Much of it was written in prison – again a case of a guy having the time and the monkish conditions to pursue an intellectual life. There is one chapter on his reaction to the assassination of Malcolm X. By then, he had already left the NOI, tearing from his cell wall the picture of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and replacing it with one of Malcolm kneeling in a mosque in Cairo. The killing only reaffirmed Cleaver’s own experience of how the “quickest way to become hated by the Muslims was to criticize Elijah Muhammad or disagree with something he wrote or said. If Elijah wrote, as he has done, that the swine is a poison creature composed of 1/3 rat, 1/3 cat, and 1/3 dog and you attempted to cite scientific facts to challenge this, then you had sinned against the light, that was all there was to it.” Malcolm and Eldridge, though coming as ignorant young men to the Nation of Islam, had become too well read to believe in this hogwash.

My favorite section of the book was called “The White Race and its Heroes.” Its premise is that circa 1967 the political division is no longer between white and black, rather between young and old. This paradigm shift had been initiated by Jack Kerouac and the Beats in the Fifties who were uncomfortable with straitlaced white society. Here Cleaver quotes, with approval, the passage from On the Road when Jack strolls through the Negro part of Denver wishing he “were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap.” But the rebellion of the Beats lacked focus, and so was manifested in drugs and an unconventional lifestyle. This was not unlike my own days hitchhiking and carousing around the country. Then young whites “began an active search for roles they could play in changing the society.” They ended looking no further than the Civil Rights movement. They joined blacks in articulating the sins of America.

Now these young whites “recoil in shame from the spectacle of cowboys and pioneers – their heroic forefathers whose exploits filled earlier generations with pride – galloping across the movie screen shooting down Indians like Coke bottles.” They are even reassessing the heroes they were taught, in grade school, to worship as gods. “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of black slaves.” This made them oppressors, not freedom fighters. But Hollywood continues to purvey fantasies. “The ‘paper tiger’ hero, “James Bond, offering the whites a triumphant image of themselves, is saying what whites want desperately to hear reaffirmed: I am still the White Man, lord of the land, licensed to kill, and the world is still an empire at my feet.” Young Caucasians are so embarrassed by such distortions that they are now “taking people of color as their heroes and models,” men like “Malcolm X…John Lewis…Martin Luther King.” The old “white heroes, their hands dripping with blood, are dead.” He ends by saying that if “a man like Malcolm X could change and repudiate racism, if” he himself “and other former Muslims can change, if young whites can change, then there is hope for America.”

In Denver, I had gotten into the habit of keeping a book open on my lap when driving to study at red lights and in traffic jams. One beautiful autumn day, I was idling at the Porter Square intersection in Cambridge, Mass, with my windows open, reading Soul on Ice. Two white, affluent kids were standing on the median strip doing political work. They approached my car and one of them introduced himself as Something Kennedy and wanted to talk to me about his cousin, Joe Kennedy, who was running for…His words faded into a blur, as the ghost of Malcolm X filled my head with thoughts of how the chickens had come home to roost when Uncle John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. And here was Eldridge Cleaver, on my lap, who, not thirty seconds ago, had told me how the old white heroes were not heroes at all, just “butchers, invaders, oppressors.” And who was more of a prefabricated American hero than Jack Kennedy? I became angry at his nephew for being associated with what Malcolm had called the K.K.K. (John, Robert, Ted) and also for being rich and white. I snapped my fingers for him to stop talking nonsense, then held up Soul on Ice, and, in the superior tone of a working class autodidact, asked:

“You ever read this?”

He stepped back to get a better look. Then he pointed at the cover and, roaring with laughter, said: “Ah, great book, man!”

Eldridge was right about one thing: Youth was radical, and both Something Kennedy and I were still young, malleable dudes.

……………….

Let us go back to the day when I first picked up a book. It was done in reaction to when my supervisor at Purex suspended me for insubordination. He and the corporate authority had brought me into a room and made false accusations, and all I could do in self-defense was let fly with obscenities. Afterward, I vowed never again to be struck dumb by my inability to string together two intelligent words, and reading would be the key to reaching this goal. It was mere coincidence that the first book I read, A Man, had to do with standing up to authority. But there were three other books I was to read within the next six months that were deliberate choices born of my anger at the soulless corporation, Purex. I was not satisfied with a novel about rebellion or a self-help book on how to play the game of business and win – no, I swung all the way to the other side of the reading spectrum and took out from the Levittown Library, in order, the biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky.

I had grown up a diehard Cold Warrior, and so I recognized the names of Lenin and Stalin. They were cartoon villains to white working class kids of that era, like Dr. No in the James Bond movies and the Joker in Batman. Lenin and Stalin were goddamn Commies, enemies of capitalism. But now I felt that corporate America, in the guise of Purex, had insulted me on a personal level, and so fuck you Ronald Reagan and Lee Iacocca, and hello to the Red Revolution.

I was not halfway into the Lenin biography when I came upon the story of the original modern terrorist, Serge Nechaev. He was the one who came up with the strategy of a network of three-man cells that made it difficult for the secret police to uncover the whole operation and that is still popular today among Islamic extremists. He was also the one who inspired the novel The Possessed by Dostoyevsky, the middle-aged author who believed that the young, ruthless and nihilistic students of the 1870s, like Nechaev, were more in league with the devil than on the side of the downtrodden angels, that they were more of an unhinged destructive force (especially within its own ranks) than a group committed to building a better society. Dostoyevsky may have been a fanatic in his own right, but on this issue he was a true prophet. Nechaev set the tone for all Red politics to come when he killed, in cold blood, another student who disagreed with him on how the revolution should proceed to the next utopian level.

Then Nechaev wrote something called The Catechism of a Revolutionist. Here are some of its key points: “The revolutionist is a doomed man” and “has no personal interests, no emotions, no attachments…Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution…The revolutionary…has broken all bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities…and accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy and if he continues to live with them, it is only in order to destroy them…He only knows one science: the science of destruction…The revolutionary despises public opinion…He is merciless toward the State and toward the educated classes…For him there exists only one pleasure…the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim, merciless destruction…The revolutionary can have no friendship or attachment…He enters the world of the state…of the so-called civilization, and he lives in this world only for the purpose of bringing about its speedy and total destruction…” And it goes on and on to detail who should be killed, who tortured and who exploited once these comrades attain power. The end (freedom) justifies the means, and lies (propaganda) will bring about truth. One could write an entire book on the contradiction and insanity of The Catechism of a Revolutionist.

Nechaev died in a Czarist prison in 1882. Marx, to his credit, denounced him as not a true member of the Cause, though Lenin would later commandeer both men and force them on the Russian people so that, with Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power, Russian society, circa 1936, would be beholden more to Nechaev than to Marx. The only thing crazier than The Catechism of a Revolutionist was being an illiterate kid in Levittown copying it all down on ten pages of legal paper, as if such an act would bring down my evil supervisor and Purex.

I had never heard of Trotsky, the more brilliant of the Big Red Three, until the Lenin biography, and so he was my last study. In between came Stalin, who helped bring me back down to suburban earth and was also the one responsible for bringing a pickaxe down on Trotsky’s head in 1940 in Mexico City. But it was a remark by Trotsky that really jolted me from the Communist dream. He said that in his ideal socialist paradise every worker would do his job with a soldier aiming a gun at his or her back. In comparison, my supervisor at Purex seemed like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, though who is to say, if given the chance, he would not have kept the liquid detergent line operating at the point of a bayonet.

My quest for literacy got off to a wayward start out of pure coincidence at having been curious about Russian Communism after my disillusioning experience at Purex. With a dictionary opened at my side, some of the first words I learned were drawn straight from stale Lenin-Marxist rhetoric. I copied down and studied their definitions, and then, excited by these new toys, would shoehorn them into everyday conversation. I would be hanging out with my Levittown chums swilling down beers and passing around joints and a conversation would come up on the merits of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. I would say that Mick was at the vanguard of rock n’ roll and that he was a street-fighting proletarian full of incendiary ideas, and Keith Richard was the anti-bourgeoisie; or that, on stage, Robert Plante was intrepid and a true comrade, while his band-mate, Jimmy Page and his two-neck guitar, were the result of dialectical materialism. My drinking comrades took these outbursts in stride. We were all so stoned and inebriated on illegal substances that I came off impressing them as their smart and profound buddy. Really, dude.

My honeymoon with the Big Red Three was short and the breakup acrimonious enough to send me back into the capitalistic arms of Uncle Sam. A year later, at the machine shop in Bristol, PA, whenever co-workers complained about the Jew owner, I would defend him, saying that he was the one who had started a business from scratch, always a risky enterprise. If those meth addicts wanted money and freedom, then they, too, should have some balls and take a chance rather than, five mornings a week, sleep-walking up to the time-clock. This was not the Soviet Union, but America, where any smart person could carve out a piece of the materialistic pie. Yet this did not stop me from hating guys like my supervisor at Purex, since they were backstabbing tyrants carving mini kingdoms out of corporations that other people had built from scratch. Then there was the whole debate with Slice over how I thought America had the right to bomb and invade any country that resisted putting up a McDonalds in their back yard. On such evidence, I was no longer a Marxist.

What had set me going in the right direction were the Penguin Classics. That was how I ran into George Orwell, who would become another of my “boys,” though on a less passionate scale. I never went on an Orwell binge. Instead, I picked him up early and for the next five years read his novels at half-year intervals. On the eve of my Civil Rights spree, in Denver, I discovered his essays. He was the voice of sanity that maintained a close enough distance so to step in whenever I was thrown too far off balance by my latest bout of fanaticism.

His first such steadying influence came when I read his allegory on the Russian Revolution, Animal Farm, and then a number of explanations on its meaning by literary critics. The story Orwell told was simple: Capitalism was indeed a ruthless machine that brutalized humanity in its inexorable search for cash and property. Marx was a dreamer who pointed this out and then expressed some hazy idea on how to reverse this trend and died with his head in some fairyland. But his ideas were attractive to young fiery types. Stalin and Trotsky took up Marx and used his philosophy to gain power, thus contradicting the whole premise of the working class rising up on its own to control its destiny. The truth was that the proletariat, far from being noble and capable of self-government, were dumb, docile, and easily manipulated by the words of the party news organ, Pravda, which “could turn black into white.” And if that failed to convert the stubborn working stiff, there was the new secret police to cart individuals off to the gulag or the grave. Trotsky was more capable and intelligent than Stalin, but in politics the prize goes to the best liar and the most ruthless (Nechaev), and though Trotsky could fib and destroy with the best of them, he was no Stalin. Hence the pick axe in the skull. In the end, the capitalist masters were replaced with new masters, as Stalin moved into the old Czarist palace, the Kremlin.

Though Orwell attended the elitist (high) school, Eton, he was an autodidact at heart and would later excoriate the British educational system as run by sadistic and not so bright homosexuals who preyed upon teenage boys. He then moved beyond the reach of the schoolmaster’s whip to become a cop in Burma, where, off duty, he read and reread classic novels. He eventually returned to Europe to become a dishwasher and a bum in an attempt to understand the proletariat. He wrote of this experience in Down and Out in Paris and London, his first novel. I was aware, when reading it, that Orwell was only slumming, as today’s Yuppies do when visiting a jazz club in the black ghetto, but at least that was better than Marx, Lenin and Trotsky glorifying a proletariat they had never met, much less labored beside, in person. Orwell’s next adventure was fighting in the Spanish Civil War. There he came face to face, at ground level, with the real Communism that betrayed the Loyalist cause for the sake of the Party, just as Nechaev had outlined how a true revolutionist should act in order to maintain radical purity. Orwell worked as a journalist during World War II. Afterward, he became disillusioned with political parties and the humans that created them, enough that he moved to a cold, uninhabited island to write Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1950, he died of TB in London at the age of 46.

People usually associate Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four with Big Brother, the all-seeing and all-knowing government whose picture bears a striking resemblance to the thickly coifed Joe Stalin. But what he and the book stand for above all else is disdain for cant and hypocrisy. Fascism and Communism are the same evil monster, only with different slogans, all lies.

At the heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the study of how language and its abuse lead straight to the loss of freedom. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party, the brainwashed functionaries serving Big Brother, whose Stalin-like image is everywhere WATCHING YOU. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth where his job is to go through articles and history books and rewrite them so that past events align with present dogma. The brainwashing never lets up for a second, as Party-controlled telescreens are present in every nook and cranny, much like how they are in American airports and shopping mall food courts, bombarding the Outer Party with propaganda, courtesy of the Thought Police. The viewing idiots are incited to cheer at good news and jeer at bad news. During the Two Minutes Hate, they are goaded into downright hostility toward the enemies, internal and external (the nation is always at war), of the Party, since nothing brings people together more than hatred toward a common enemy. There are also the numerous placards citing the Party’s three slogans: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The meaning of words are twisted around in an attempt to mold the thoughts of the citizenry. But Winston, whose job is to fabricate lies, begins to entertain thoughts of rebellion. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” He writes in his secret diary: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

To make a short novel even shorter, Winston becomes enamored of a girl without the Party’s permission, as the two of them enjoy one night and morning of freedom before being arrested by the police. Winston undergoes a few torture sessions at the Ministry of Love. In the end, he writes FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, then TWO AND TWO MAKES FIVE before surrendering himself to the Party and jotting down GOD IS POWER. He falls in love with Big Brother, dark mustache and all.

Again I was reminded of Purex. Here is the story in a three-sentence nutshell: I had been ordered by my African American supervisor to work at a sink washing off labels from liquid detergent bottles, and then, a hour later, the same man told me that I had abandoned my post, when, in fact, I had all the while stood right in front of him listening to him claim that I was not really there in front of the sink. He and the higher-ups at Purex proceeded to tell me that two plus two makes five. I disagreed with this lie using the aforementioned incoherent obscenities, claiming that two plus two makes four, and so I was suspended for three days without pay. That day Big Brother had a mustache like Stalin, though he was a black man from West Philly, who, within the confines of that prison-looking plant in Bristol, PA, could twist reality to fit his ambition to control me, a kid always and forever determined to maintain his individuality.

It was now 1986 and I was living in Boston. I had by now learned that if one wanted to study good prose, then Orwell was the man. This made sense in that anyone, like Orwell, who saw distorted language as the first step to the Gulag, must also be alert to clarity in his own use of language, whether in the written or spoken form. Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” gets to the core of this topic, and it remains to this day my personal mini-Bible. Sloppy language produces sloppy thought. One must use concrete prose if one is to “think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.” He comes down hard on clichés and even harder on Marxist clichés. This is because precision means deliberating over each word to form an original idea, whereas to copy down an entire phrase culled from common usage is to bypass the thought process all together. The goal is to put a vivid image in the reader’s mind, and to do that requires employing the correct words and the correct amount of words, to build the image from the inside out, all of which takes thought and vigilance. If one eases up and falls back on clichés, then the intended meaning can be concealed even from oneself, and the writer becomes a hack (or a New Age/Self-Help spewer of mush). A foggy-minded citizen is ripe for political exploitation.

In reading Orwell’s other essays, I came across two old friends, Charles Dickens and Henry Miller. He pays Dickens a few compliments, saying that he “had little or no formal education, but he lost nothing by missing it;” or that no one ever wrote so well from a child’s point of view; or that he had the “largeness of mind” never to indulge in cheap nationalism.  But, for the most part, he rips the Victorian novelist. I had just thrown the last of those seventeen volumes of Dickens against the wall when Orwell put his finger on what it was about these novels, aside from their vast number, that had come near to crushing my soul: All the stories arrive at a happy ending through the artifice of the rich, cheery guy spreading the wealth to the less fortunate, albeit noble, characters. “Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place.” But what infuriates Orwell the most is the total absence of a real working class. Even the bourgeoisie, who have jobs, are never seen doing those jobs. Orwell goes off on a Marxist tangent when he explains Dickens’ answer to life’s problems: “…a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic.” Still, Orwell concedes, Dickens must be given the nod for having done what counts – his work has survived to now being required reading in college English and Literature classes.

Orwell is kinder to Henry Miller. In the beginning, the guardian of English prose offers the American expatriate the highest praise. Miller’s first two books, Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, “give you an idea of what can be still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word…It is flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different from the flat cautious statements and snackbar dialects that are now in fashion.” Then he goes on to question Miller’s passive political stance, circa 1939, as the height of irresponsibility. “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps…Hitler, Stalin, bombs…putsches, purges, slogans…press censorship, secret prisons…Hollywood films and political murder.” The essay is entitled “Inside the Whale” to illustrate how Miller longs to be in the belly of a whale, as in a womb, though a transparent one so he can still view the decay of civilization, but nonetheless be out of harm’s way. “Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.” Yes, clear prose and thought were a defense against totalitarianism, but if accompanied by zero political engagement, the writer still plays into the hands of Big Brother…On the other hand…

………………

In September 1986, I was not inside the whale. In succession, I became obsessed with Martin Luther King and Civil Rights history, the white-complacency-destroying Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver and his literary bomb, Soul on Ice. My temperamental pendulum was swinging back and forth between the leftist moderation of Orwell and the fanaticism of the kid five years ago who had copied down The Catechism of a Revolutionist.

But a revolutionary attitude was out of place in a year when Ronald Reagan, friend of the rich and foe to Civil Rights, was at the height of his popularity. Such isolation worked to sharpen my anger and defiance. I was Nechaev, and Reagan was Czar Alexander II, and I would have loved to throw a bomb at what Gore Vidal called “The Acting President.” What drove me to distraction about Reagan was that he believed in Hollywood fairytales, in James Bond coming to the rescue at the eleventh hour, in celluloid heroes, all white, and such a world had no room for real American heroes like Martin Luther King. Reagan had opposed for a long time making the birth of King into a national holiday, and had only signed the bill when Congress left him no choice.

The only person I hated more than Ronald Reagan was a Ronald Reagan partisan. I could not fathom how anyone could worship a guy who was so out of touch with reality, a public figure who had given speeches detailing heroic deeds that, as reported by Sixty Minutes, had been lifted verbatim from Hollywood movies. Those who swallowed such lies, and went so far as to defend them and their President, were prime examples of what Orwell meant by lazy thinkers, people who, because they spoke in clichés, would believe anything that sounded pretty, however outrageous and residing square in the Land of Fantasy. And the polls showed that the majority of Americans thought this way, or, rather, bypassed all real thought. Reagan, they said, made them feel good about themselves – yeah, like a narcotic. Nancy may have espoused saying no to drugs, but not the drug of Rambo patriotism that denied the reality that people of color also had a right to exist in this world and were not just cardboard cutouts to be knocked over by Clint Eastwood (“Go ‘head, make my day,” Reagan once said in a speech that made the audience cheer), Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who married into the K.K.K.). The telescreens were everywhere depicting our Acting President making one heroic gesture after another, none of which necessitated him dodging live bullets on Omaha Beach (Reagan had avoided the real World War II and instead made propaganda movies in California) or crawling through the swamps of Vietnam  (Reagan criticized kids who wanted to avoid Southeast Asia). It may have been 1986, but to a fanatic becoming stoked on dissident literature, like myself, it sure felt like 1984.

On the map of Eastern Massachusetts, the town just left of Boston reads “Cambridge,” but to residents in the area it was called “The Republic of Cambridge” – and Harvard Square was the Kremlin. Here the women wore no makeup and refused to shave their legs or their faces. To do so was to objectify themselves in an evil patriarchal society. They were human beings with real thoughts, not sexual playthings, though there was no man alive who would argue the latter point. To utter a sophomoric joke around a Cambridge woman was to invite their loud wrath, and if in a crowded public arena, an even louder wrath. Their male counterparts would also chastise a regular guy for calling a woman a chick or a babe. If you were walking down Mass Ave. and someone bumped hard into you, don’t worry, it was only some bearded intellectual with thick black-rimmed glasses too absorbed in solving the problems of the world to notice pedestrian traffic. There were Karl Marx look-a-likes and others who wore red or black turtleneck sweaters. There would be one man donning the same hat Lenin wore when he disembarked at Finland Station and began the Russian Revolution, and, at his side, a Cambridge woman who looked and dressed like Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Harvard Square 1986 was a place and time that confused itself with St. Petersburg 1918 or Paris 1968 – a place untouched by the Reagan Revolution.

One day, in Harvard Square, I passed a sign that read “The Revolutionary Bookstore.” If Harvard Square was the Kremlin, then this must be the Lenin Library. In the display window there were pictures of Mao and Che Guevera and a poster of the Black Power fist made famous by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics. Up until now, all the books that I had jammed into my head had been written in the past or about the past, and all had been read in a vacuum, my having met very few intellectuals, much less sat down and conversed with them about matters requiring vast erudition. This was why, after striking up a conversation with the clerk at The Revolutionary Bookstore, I remained there for two hours. Hallelujah, I had found an actual intellectual, a Radical Communist to boot! The next logical step was for me to stalk the poor bastard.

The Radical Communist did not quite look the part, lacking the black sweater, the Lenin hat, the beard and the thick glasses. He was about thirty and dressed as how Joe Kennedy and his young cousins might at Hyannis Port after the touch-football game on the front lawn and just before Uncle Ted walked in with the booze – that is, in chinos and an oxford shirt. But he did possess the two most important characteristics of his trade – a voluminous knowledge of history and politics…and NO sense of humor.

At the start, I submitted my credentials to him by praising my two new heroes, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The RC was pro-Malcolm (a true militant) and anti-King (ineffective and a compromiser). The latter comment made me a little hot under the blue collar. I asked how he could dismiss a man who had gone to jail and been beaten for standing up to Jim Crow, and who, in the process, had helped bring down Jim Crow. None of that mattered, countered the RC, for King was temporizing, and the so-called end of segregation was a ploy to make blacks think they had won freedom, when, in economic and political fact, they had gained nothing but the right to eat a hamburger at a Woolworth. This, I knew, was straight from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I now became tentative, saying, But you have to admit that blacks are better off than they were before Civil Rights. The RC shook his head, as if to pity my ignorance. He pulled out the heavy artillery – statistics. He explained how the standard of living for the average African-American in 1986 was well below that of 1926 and then he proceeded to reel off five minutes worth of numbers as proof. The capitalist regime had frustrated the black race at every turn. Pre-1965, the racist persecution had been visible as lawful segregation; now it was covert in the form of a tacit agreement among the white power elite to prevent the black man and woman from becoming free citizens in full control of their own destiny. Giving blacks token governmental posts was just a way to appease them, to create the illusion of progress. Allowing them in the army and on the police force was an ingenious ruse to implicate them in their own oppression. There were thousands, perhaps millions, of government agents throughout the land whose primary task was to devise other, more elaborate ways to keep down the black populace.

I could barely follow his argument until he started on Reagan and how he was behind the whole plot. Now, at last, the RC and I were united by a common source of hatred, Reagan. I thrilled as the RC riddled the Acting President with overwhelming statistical evidence as to his insidious plan. Never mind that I had judged the former star of Bedtime for Bonzo as too much of a scatterbrain to be capable of organizing such an evil web of intrigue, for I was too smitten with the RC to fret over the false logic of his presentation. I was like the nerd who has a chance with the town beauty so long as he indulges her every whim and convinces himself that, yes, Vogue Magazine does have a lot to teach society, except the object of my adoration was a Leftist Political Nerd.

I admitted to the RC that I was only an uneducated printer, but was willing learn about the world. He scratched his chin and studied me for a moment, as he would a lab rat, or a minor capitalist pig. Then his eyes lit up with the self-love of a person about to save a lost soul. He said, yes, he had the perfect book with which to set me on the road toward Marxist enlightenment. It was called A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a professor at Boston University. Once home, I told Judy that I had met someone – her face darkened – a guy – a kiss on the cheek – an intellectual – say what?

A People’s History of the United States begins with the first (maybe) white man to visit the Western Hemisphere, Columbus. (Malcolm X had once lectured at Harvard — where, perchance, Zinn attended – on the subject of the captain of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria: “Then Columbus landed on this island, San Salvador, and told the people, ‘I have discovered you in the name of the Queen of Spain,’ which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How can you discover a human being?…They must have looked at each other wondering, like, ‘Where did this fool come from?’”) But, as Zinn tells it, the Columbian dialogue was not so lighthearted an exchange. Right off the bat, Columbus writes in his log that the Arawak “have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” The only problem was that he and his white sailing buddies had all brought ashore a festering disease that led to an epidemic that wiped out the entire Arawak tribe. Now Columbus had to fetch his own water.

As a Philly native, I had always been partial to the gang of ’76. Now I learned that they really were a gang – of rapacious plutocrats. George Washington was the biggest landowner in the colonies, and John Hancock and Ben Franklin were two of its richest feudal lords. This was not a battle of humble farmers against an oppressive monarchy, but rather a small posse of rich guys wanting to get even richer and using the yeomen as cannon fodder.

Thomas Jefferson was the author of The Declaration of Independence, except when it pertained to his own slaves. The U.S. Constitution – that sacred document – was really “the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.”

The War of 1812, when the “the rockets’ red glare” were first observed at Fort McHenry, had little to do with self-defense and more to do with “the expansion of the new nation.” The hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, of twenty-dollar bill fame, was a genocidal maniac, doing his Old Hickory best to wipe out the Creek Nation.

Remember the Alamo? More like, remember the U.S. ordering troops into Mexico as a clear act of provocation and then feigning shock when Santa Anna defended his territory – and, no, as regular white guys now joke, several thousand Mexicans did not arrive at San Antonio in three Toyota Corollas.

The Civil War was not an altruistic campaign to free the slaves; it was a conflict between two very different economic systems, industry against agriculture. Abraham Lincoln never had any intention of ending slavery. His overriding ambition was to keep intact the Union, regardless of whether half of it was a Gulag operated by pretty women named Scarlett and guys with skinny mustaches named Rhett. Even the Emancipation Proclamation was a misleading document. All it did was declare slaves free in the South, which the Union had no dominion over, while saying nothing of those slaves under Union Control. This was not unlike an abusive parent railing against other people beating their children.

Teddy Roosevelt, the short guy who claimed to talk softly and carry a big stick, expressed loud disapproval in response to the even shorter Filipinos expecting independence from white imperialism after the U.S. had won the Spanish-American War. Teddy’s rationale was that since we had freed them from the Spanish, it was now our right to own and operate the place. Those natives who thought otherwise were exterminated like cattle in a Chicago stockyard, with the number of Filipino deaths reaching into the several hundreds of thousands. The Filipinos ended up on the short end of that big stick.

Even World War II, the one fight that remains righteous in the minds of all Americans, appears less holy when examined by Professor Zinn. The attack on Pearl Harbor was not the random act of evil as described in the grade school history books. The U.S. was indignant when Japan had moved into its own imperial playground, China, and so, in retaliation, FDR had instituted a total embargo on steel and oil against those uppity Japs, who, in turn, saw no alternative but to hit back – where it hurt, as in sinking the majority of the American Naval Fleet.

Then there was the darling John Kennedy, who was no darling to anyone who failed to serve his political ambitions. He would not commit to Civil Rights because of his true commitment to Southern Democrats. He sold the Freedom Riders down the river until TV footage of the massacres at Anniston and Birmingham made him look bad to Khrushchev.

The victims of these marauding patriots came in four categories: Indians, blacks, women and the poor working man. The privileged white man’s unilateral war against Native-Americans began with the decimation of the Arawak and progressed from one massacre to another, culminating at Wounded Knee in 1890, and reaching an anticlimax in a second, less murderous Wounded Knee in 1973. Zinn relates the three hundred and fifty-year woes of black Americans from the twenty kidnapped Africans who landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 to when, in 1969, the FBI unleashed two hundred rounds into a Black Panther apartment killing two members, one while he lay in bed. White males even lorded it over their own wives as illustrated in 1776 with Abigail Adams writing to her husband, and future American President, John, that, when organizing the new union, to “remember the ladies,” since “all men would be tyrants if they could,” and onward to Margaret Sanger, who, in the early 1900s, underwent a mental breakdown due to a suffocating marriage prior to leading the Suffragist crusade, and thence to the many women who, fifty years later, battled to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The plight of the working man began in 1839 with the Anti-Renter movement in New York when, long before Eddie Murphy made the words famous, the proletariat was shouting “Kill my landlord!” Such agitation reached its peak in the 1920s and 30s during massive labor strikes only to have been for naught in lieu of how today our corporate economy rewards the one percent who are already rich and makes poorer the other ninety-nine percent. This was not George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and saying he could never tell a lie; instead this was Uncle Sam cutting down the lives of its citizens and telling them they should be happy.

Malcolm X had already discredited two of my old white heroes, the bookends of American history, Columbus and Kennedy. Still, I had clung to the belief, drilled into me since first-grade, that the men who appeared on U.S. currency and Mount Rushmore were good and noble demigods; and that, at its core, America was a beacon of light held up by a beautiful woman on Ellis Island. Now it turned out that it was all a sham. It was a traumatic experience for me, not least because of its suddenness. A six hundred-page book from a professor at B.U. had brought down a lifetime of acquired mental scaffolding of believing two plus two makes five. Eldridge Cleaver’s hyperbole that the old “white heroes, their hands dripping with blood, are dead,” was now supported by scholarly evidence. It hurt to know that two plus two makes four.

I sought the guidance of the RC. He listened to my reaction to A People’s History of the United States. When I finished describing the whole that was now in my heart, he said that was why this country needed a revolution from top to bottom, a total dismantling of a corrupt, imperialist and racist system. Capitalism was the root of America’s evil and could only be corrected by a new socialist order, of the workers rising up and taking control of the government.

When, a month previous, I had been going back and forth between Malcolm and Cleaver, I had also discovered Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident. I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and the autobiographical The Oak and the Calf. Solzhenitsyn was no well-fed intellectual peering at Russia from the other side of the world and thereby making it conform to his own wishful thinking based on personal grievance, but a guy who had lived the horror of the Gulag and the continuous persecution from the KGB. In Russia, Big Brother did a lot of watching. What Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Soviet Union from his own experience and from collected eyewitness accounts made Zinn’s America seem like Utopia.

I told the RC that, sorry, communism doesn’t work. Look at the Soviet Union. He could not tell me that living in Moscow was better than living in Boston. He shook his head in the manner of a virtuoso toward a well-meaning clod, and then educated me on the difference between real Communism and the version now practiced in Russia. Lenin-Marxism was good socialism, while what Stalin and Khrushchev had made of it was bad socialism. I knew that Lenin was no innocent man, that he had memorized The Catechism of a Revolutionist and had not forgotten it once in power when he created forced labor camps and the Cheka (the precursor to the KGB). Stalin had only enlarged pre-existing Leninist institutions. Solzhenitsyn had verified the story. But I was not infatuated with Solzhenitsyn, and so kept mum, as the real object of my ardor, the RC, went on to extol Marx and Lenin. They were the ones I should look to as heroes, said my intellectual flame. The RC almost convinced me that I had been wrong in questioning the moral supremacy of the founder of the Soviet Union.

The RC reserved his highest praise for Mao Tsetung, a non-white hero that Cleaver had recommended to fill the vacuum left by the dead white heroes. The RC instructed me that it was the immortal Chairman whose words I should imbibe like milk from the Socialist teat. I answered that, come to think of it, there was a biography of him sitting in a box in my bedroom. Is it by Russ Terrill? he asked, snorting with contempt. Ah, yeah, I said, dreading further censure. Don’t read that. Why? Because no Western capitalist writer will tell the Truth. He nodded to a shelf that stocked only Maoist literature. You should start there, he said. The reason I had not opened the Mao biography at home was that all those Chinese names and places were too much for my Anglo-Saxon brain, and not even the RC was going to get me to wrestle with all those Xueliangs and Pengfeis. Even the most hen-pecked man must somewhere draw the line.

As a compromise, the RC pointed me toward another author, Bob Avakian, Chairman of the American Communist Party. He also had his own shelf stacked with books and shoddy pamphlets that appeared to have been run off on a mimeograph machine designed by a Soviet collective. There was a photo of Avakian as a thick-bearded man wearing a turtleneck sweater and a Lenin hat. His body was tilted at a romantic angle in a transparent attempt to be the next Che Guevera. In one of his books, it read that he had been a “major voice on the revolutionary left since the 1960s,” working with the Black Panthers and the S.D.S., after which he “emerged as the leading Maoist thinker in the United States.” Then, in “1980, under threat of more than a lifetime in jail – as a result of trumped-up charges…Bob Avakian was forced into exile in France.” To appease the RC, I bought two of Avakian’s books and also a copy of The Revolutionary Worker, the weekly organ of the American Communist Party that just so happened to be edited by none other than Bob Avakian, and went home to study these texts.

The Revolutionary Worker was a shrill publication full of exclamation points and sinister pictures of masked rebels who, to my proletarian eye, looked like spoiled kids still at home with mommy and daddy and who were only playing at revolution. Inside was a long article on Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The RC was determined to get me to know the Chairman one way or another. The Cultural Revolution sounded like a cool thing, as it incorporated two of my favorite words, and so I started reading the essay, and stopped at ten paragraphs. Orwell was right: Marxist writing was bad writing. All I could grasp was that the author deemed the Cultural Revolution one of the great endeavors in the history of Man.

Perhaps I would have better luck with the two books by Avakian. The author had the same desire as Zinn to shed light on the dark side of the American Dream, but, after twenty pages, it was obvious that he lacked the Professor’s ability to tell a good story – which is to say, Avakian wrote Marxist prose. Getting through the next five hundred pages was no less an ordeal than were the seventeen tomes of Dickens. He exhausted whole chapters refuting Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Paine for deviating from the dialectical-materialist interpretation of history and failing to include the proletariat in their visions of a better society. How Plato, in the day of the olive grove and hand-plow, was supposed to champion a nonexistent proletariat and advocate the dismantling of a yet to be created capitalist superstructure was a mystery to me, especially when it was explained using indigestible phrases like “predominate ideology” and “nonaristocratic strata.”

Avakian was fond of juxtaposing sound erudition with the use of exclamation points. An example was when he wrote how, in the Civil War, the Union enlisted freed slaves as soldiers, and “nearly two hundred thousand did so, often fighting on the front lines of the most fiercely contested battles and incurring a death rate of 20 percent, which was 35 percent higher than the rate for white Union soldiers, even though they were only paid about half the wages of these white soldiers!” Elsewhere he described – this time forsaking the exclamation point for a barrage of Marxist jargon – the mistake made by the Black Panthers. Huey P. Newton, their leader, did not realize in time that gaining power “can only be done in the fullest sense through the application of a comprehensive, all-around view of reality and the principles involved in its development – which is the science of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought.” Avakian’s prescription for the ills of society was the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that will somehow rise up and usher in a new millennium, though actual manual labor was not mentioned as part of this utopia, much how Orwell had observed of Dickens that his answer to life’s problems was a vague future of domestic idleness. Thus was joined the American Marxist and the Victorian promoter of bourgeois values.

If I were to review these books today, one sentence for each would suffice to explain my opinion. Of the first book, A Horrible End or An End To The Horror?, I would quip: “It depends on whether Bob Avakian stops writing his tortured prose.” In summing up the second one, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, the answer would be: “No.”

I would also review another of his books, this one on Chairman Mao, without even reading it. I have since learned that the Cultural Revolution was nothing more than the government encouraging kids to rat out their parents, which, to anyone with teenaged children, is scarier than being watched by Big Brother. Another of Mao’s crazy schemes was his Great Leap Forward that resulted in thirty million people leaping into the grave from starvation. Avakian’s book is called Mao Tsetung’s Immortal Contributions, which, in my review, I would rename Mao Tsetung’s Mortality Contributions.

I would then update the status of Bob Avakian. He is the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, meaning, I guess, that he sits on a chair in a room by himself holding forth to the walls. He is still editing The Revolutionary Worker, now called just Revolution, in which he continues to make grand statements. For instance, he has a sixteen-point draft programme (the spelling of a guy too long in Europe) that could have been issued by the pre-1917 Lenin in his hideaway in Zurich. Here is a selection: “1) The Party and the Masses…2) Revolution Means Waging People’s War…8) Proletarian Dictatorship, Democracy and the Rights of the People.” Then he resurrects the forgotten ghost of Nechaev, and writes: “The whole system we now live under…is completely worthless and no basic change for the better can come about until this system is overthrown.” This language when used by a romantic youth can be excused as a bout of philosophical growing pains, but it sounds absurd from a man of seventy. A mature scholar should understand that life, the kind that is lived in the biological world, is oblivious to dogma. He should also admit that Czar Alexander II did actually free the serfs and was gradually bringing democracy to Russia, but was stopped short when he was assassinated in 1881 by a student radical group called the People’s Will, disciples of Nechaev, which led to a brutal reaction by his successor that ended further progress. That is what happens when revolutionaries try to level the whole system. Life is evolution, not revolution. Avakian remains in self-imposed exile long after Communism has at last been put out of its misery because he claims that the American government is trying to kill him. The final sentence would read: Bob, dude, you’re not that important.

But I was not so detached at twenty-six. Though I hated every moment spent with Avakian, he did manage to further stoke the radical flame that was now consuming my brain. I tried to keep my visits to The Revolutionary Bookstore at long enough intervals so as not to alarm the RC, who did seem to be growing unnerved by my frequent visits. I asked him to clarify how a dictatorship of the proletariat equaled freedom to the citizenry. Was this what Orwell had in mind in Nineteen Eighty-Four with The Party’s slogan FREEDOM IS SLAVERY or IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH? The RC was close to losing his temper when he said that the dictatorship of the proletariat was just a necessary step toward the perfect society. Then I pulled back, realizing I was pushing him away and could lose my first and still only intellectual friend. On each visit, I departed with another leftist book.

I became a social menace, as my native sense of humor was being buried under the fast accumulating mountain of guilt at the pain and suffering of the world. I now agreed with another of Orwell’s comments, lifted from the Dickens essay, that a bourgeois (American) lifestyle is irresponsible because it leads people to “see everything in terms of individual success, with hardly any consciousness that the community exists.” Anyone whom I noticed not daily concerned with the plight of African-Americans received from me a sermon and then was told to go and sin no more. I questioned twenty-year friendships on the basis of past use of the n-word, and lucky for them (and me) that I now lived three hundred miles from Levittown. When I asked people what their thoughts were on Civil Rights and was given the response of What did Martin Luther Coon ever do for me?, they were disowned, to say nothing of strangled during one of my frequent vengeance fantasies. To me, with the imminent birth of my child, black and white relations were of the utmost urgency. My radicalized mind saw only strife and mayhem ahead, and whites had better address the racial situation now or our kids were going to wind up swinging from lampposts as payback for the sins of our ancestors. Even such appeals to the saving of our children – usually a cheap and sure way to win converts — left my white compatriots cold or laughing at all “my crazy talk,” and, yes, they began to avoid me like a self-righteous plague. I concluded that Malcolm should never have altered his first opinion of whites — they really were devils.

If I now suspected all white people of bad intentions, then my view of African-Americans was the opposite. They were angels, all of them. Any harm certain blacks had ever done to me or to society in general was really the fault of white society, of the chickens coming home to roost. Jesse Jackson, whom I had before considered something of a charlatan when he ran for President in ’84, I now hoped would run again in ’88 and this time be the victor. As a lifelong enemy of the L.A. Lakers, I decided that, on second thought, the black Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were admirable fellows. The most significant change in my relations to black people was that I began giving them preferential treatment, something years of frontline experience had taught me was the quickest way to earn their contempt. But I was too far down the radical path to think with a clear head.

In the past, I had often wondered why some blacks were prone to violence. Now I was baffled as to why all tens of millions of them were not applying the torch to the white power structure and killing every last one of its architects. This assessment was nothing short of realistic when one understood their history and present condition. One day, I made a survey of my past employers, some twenty to twenty-five men, in order to ascertain which of them would have hired a black person and which would have yanked down the “Help Wanted” sign at their approach. I found that the only ones with black workers had been the large corporations, with Purex going so far as to have a black supervisor (whom I now forgave) while the smaller businesses employed not a single person of color. I recalled many of these petty bourgeoisie owners telling me, pointblank, that they would only hire a nigger under governmental threat, though it would be tempting to first shut down the place. I broadened this microcosm to the whole nation until it became irrefutable that blacks were discriminated against in the job market and thus were left with little choice but to explore other, less law-abiding ventures, or to simply burn down the whole rotten edifice.

My job was as a printer at a mental hospital, a corporation. One of my co-workers was a black man about my age from Jamaica. He had the disposition that even a lieutenant in the Moral Majority would have been hard-pressed to hate due to his skin color. He was never angry, nor blue. Yet I would try to rile him with inside information on the atrocities that whitey had committed against his people over the last three centuries. I advised him to throw off the yoke of oppression and to stand up to the white menace and demand his freedom. Okay, then he should at least quit being so nice to these blue-eyed devils and not let them think he sanctioned the status quo. He would respond by smiling and patting me on the back, and inform me that things had improved for his race and were getting better every day, regardless of what those leftist books and the Radical Communist proselytized to their narrow audience. He chuckled that if white corporate America wanted to con him into a false sense of security by enabling him to lease a new car, which he had just done, or to subsist at an unchallenging job with an above average benefits package, which we both had, then it sure beat toiling on a sugar plantation back in Jamaica for poverty wages. “In fact,” he said, “I hope they try to con me some more.”

Another employee at the mental hospital was a white man in his forties and another pleasant soul. One day, he mentioned how much he loved Ronald Reagan. He may as well have called my pregnant wife the town-pump, so instant was my desire to slam his stupid red face (which before I had viewed as cheery) into a nearby mailing machine. I asked him the exact reason why he liked such a buffoon, to which he replied that Reagan stood up to the liberals. There it was – the L-word. My gentle red-faced co-worker helped put into focus what it was that so much bothered me about the Acting President. His fuzzy Hollywood grasp of reality had transformed a word that commonsense saw as good into something denoting evil. In Webster’s Dictionary, the word “liberal” means “generous…broadminded…ample and full,” whereas its opposite, illiberal, is listed as “stingy…bigoted…lacking in culture and refinement.” It followed that most of the Republican nation believed that to be a good American one had to be mean-spirited, xenophobic and uneducated and yet be dedicated to family values. On telescreens everywhere the Great Communicator had America thinking (or not thinking) that two plus two made five, and that IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. I had to walk away from the red-faced man so as not to get physical, which would have only aggravated another of my personal relations. But I promised myself that if I ever saw him lying on the side of the road with his body mangled head to toe, I would heed his opinion and, instead of being a bleeding-heart liberal and lending him a compassionate hand, I would be a good illiberal Republican and walk away and let him bleed to death – perhaps even kick him in his red face just to demonstrate my patriotism.

I was starting to wish I were a black man. Then life would be simple. I would not be torn by this internal conflict between my biological identity and my adopted sympathies, and no longer have to struggle to  accept people I had always loved who did not even try to live up to a higher ideal. I could be pro-black and anti-white without any confusion as to my personal identity. I would be expected, like the black Malcolm X, to tell the cracker where to go and afterward not feel a tinge of remorse or embarrassment. I could be a fanatic that made sense.

Other times, I would get nostalgic for the old days when, not liking nor respecting blacks as a group, I got along with them much better as individuals. My view of race back then was unobstructed by historical data and radical dissent. I saw personalities, not human beings wrapped in dogma. Ignorance was bliss, or Strength, whereas now enlightenment was clouding my street-level judgment.

The author who brought my radical fever to the meltdown point was someone whom the RC touted as an oracle – Noam Chomsky. He was a Professor of Linguistics at MIT (not far along Mass Ave from The Revolutionary Bookstore), a field he had dominated since the Fifties with his innatist theory of language, which had something to do with the idea that grammar was wired into our brains at birth. But what Chomsky was better known for were his political writings.

His thesis can best be explained as follows: America is bad and every other country is good. To be more specific, for all our blather about promoting freedom abroad, in practice, we (the CIA) go around the world overthrowing democracy in order to set up rightwing dictatorships. This is to clear the way for our expanding corporations, which need stable environments to allow them to grow into humungous cash cows, and nothing is less stable than a nation in the throes of early democracy. The Third World countries that have been wrecked by our need for “profits over people” are, to name a few, Cuba in 1898, Italy in 1948, Guatemala and Indochina in ’54, Iran in ’56, Chile in ’73, East Timor in ‘75 and Nicaragua in the 80s. We encouraged genocide in East Timor and used chemical warfare to kill one-quarter of a million South Vietnamese. Corporations are, by nature, hierarchical, and so are at odds with government by consent. Worse, the money generated by these foreign-based companies go to the executives back in the U.S., leaving Third World natives, who have had their lives and homes leveled under the advance of economic progress, to fend for themselves amid depleted environments. But we American citizens know nothing of this global depredation because the media is owned by these same conglomerates. If reporters want to keep their privileged jobs, they will toe the party line and paint the U.S. as good and altruistic. And don’t even think that this is all the result of the free market, since all the welfare mothers on the planet do not receive a fraction of the government money that is given to large corporations. Boeing is one example of a company that owes its entire existence to government handouts. Lee Iacocca, the exemplar of rugged individualism, was not the guy who saved Chrysler; instead, he was the guy who begged Uncle Sam to save Chrysler. Every technological advance has come not from bold entrepreneurs, as myth would have it, but from “enormous state subsidies and intervention.” The “public pays the costs and the rich get the profits.” Our evil foreign policy works in tandem with how we manipulate the United Nations. We use it when condemning other states that we perceive as out of line – that is, resisting our capitalist encroachment – and then ignore it when the international tribunal calls us to the stand.

Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver may have upset my complacency, but, as witty and engaging writers, they also supplied a comic edge to my growing anger. Also, they had some positive things to contribute to the discourse, even about the blue-eyed devil. Zinn had demythologized the standard American heroes, but it was an important piece to my education, to say nothing of an intellectual spark of Big Bang magnitude. These guys brought me to the political table, which would have pleased Orwell, since the table is outside the belly of Henry Miller’s whale. Chomsky, on the other hand, made me want to forsake the table – and the whale and the ocean, too — and commit suicide. A world made so bleak and sinister by its most enlightened ambassador, America, was beyond repair.

To lighten up, I began to alternate leftist polemics with real literature, which, as chance would have it, ended up adding to the conflict. At the mental hospital, one of my educated customers told me that if I wanted to be a writer, then an English prose master to study was Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita. I was to learn that, yes, he was one of the great stylists of the twentieth century, but also that he was born a Russian aristocrat and had been uprooted by the Bolshevik Revolution. It was not until twenty years later that he started to write novels in English. His father had been part of the provisional government that had assumed power in February 1917 and was composed of well-rounded men intent on democracy. But true freedom would have entailed a slow, multi-voiced process, which inspired in Lenin (the spiritual descendent of Nechaev) zero tolerance, as everything had to be torn down so that utopia would rise up out of the ether in some far off day. Trotsky’s Red Army killed or drove out of Russia anyone with an original idea or who was at least capable of nuanced thought — and no one fit that description better than Nabokov and his democratic father.

The first of his books I read, The Gift, was half a love letter to butterfly collecting and half a mock biography of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, an early Russian revolutionary, on whom all things that make for a worthwhile life, like an appreciation of nature and colorful winged insects, was lost in favor of political orthodoxy. This was the same guy who wrote the radical tract What is to be Done?, a title which Lenin later borrowed for his own panacea for what ailed mankind. Lenin and Chernyshevsky were of the same dull, humorless and one-dimensional stamp. Soviet fashion, the ugliest in history, issued from the likes of these men.

The second book was the autobiographical Speak, Memory. It is prose at its evocative best on the charms of pre-hammer-and-sickle Russia. Nabokov has no patience, like Solzhenitsyn, for anyone who judges Leninism an improvement over Czarist rule. Toward the end, he clinches his argument by stressing how the two regimes treated political prisoners. He writes that when “revolutionaries [under the Romanovs] did get caught, banishment to Tomsk or Omsk (now Bombsk) was a restful vacation in comparison to the concentration camps that Lenin introduced. Political exiles escaped with farcical ease, witness the famous flight of Trotsky – Santa Leo, Santa Claws Trotsky – merrily riding back in a Yuletide sleigh drawn by reindeer: On Rocket, on, Stupid, on, Butcher and Blitzen!” Yes, even when I sat down with an art-for-art’s-sake author, revolution was in the air.

There still remained the biggest source of my inner tension – MY PROLETARIAN LIFE. I was not like Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Zinn, Avakian and Chomsky, none of whom had ever done a single day of real, back-breaking labor. Nor was I like the socialist Simone Weil, the French-Jewish writer who worked in a factory to demonstrate her commitment to the working poor; or the socialist Jack London, who, before achieving literary fame at a very young age, knocked about at different low wage jobs; or the socialist Upton Sinclair, who would snoop around various industries before sitting down to pen his latest protest novel. Instead I was working class, with little hope of ever moving beyond its clanking, heaving borders. When these authors and dictators extolled the proletariat as noble and heroic and the foundation of a glorious future, I had to give a double-take and say, along with Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver: You talkin’ to me?

Listen, I wanted to tell them, it’s understandable that you guys need a body over which to drape your ideas of social engineering, but trust me, the proletarian is not your man. He could care less for equality or universal brotherhood. Most working class Americans idolize the anti-labor Ronald Reagan. This should be all the evidence needed to prove that all they really want is to be rich so to never again have to labor in the salt mines. They want the magical end of a Dickens novel, not the depressing, chaotic grind of a revolution. Proletarians are greedy, selfish dolts, to whom inspiration comes via The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous rather than The Lives of Plutarch. They are as far from noble and heroic as you, Mao Tsetung, are from reality. To call a drone noble is to say two plus two makes five, though a drone would answer six, as in a six-pack. You predict that if the proletarian spent fewer hours on the job, he would be afforded more time with which to improve himself through art and literature. Let me tell you, assembled Chairmen, the only art and literature a working man wants to ponder is the word “Hooters” stretched over a pair of firm breasts. Trust me, I have tried to interest these people in books, even your books — and you know what?  THEY DON’T CARE. Why do you think I’m stalking the RC? And here’s the biggest news: WORK SUCKS, especially if done in a society that pays in deferred dreams, like Communism. At least you get paid for your labor in America. A workers paradise is an oxymoron. If work is so great, then how come you guys have avoided it all your lives?

On my last visit to The Revolutionary Bookstore, I repeated all this to the RC. He grew flustered and said that, if I was right about the typical American worker, then it was the fault of society, not the individual. Did you ever think, I asked, smiling for the first time in weeks, that society is the way it is because of these people, and not vice versa? And wouldn’t that make this country already a worker’s paradise?

That’s when the romantic spell broke in me, and, once the winds of real life experience blew away the utopian mist, I saw the RC as a very ordinary man. Gone was his intellectual mystique. In fact, I now considered him kind of stupid to not realize that blue collar work is pure torture. What did I ever see in him in the first place? Then I asked him one final question: Will you ever be happy? I could not imagine any joy in being forever saturated with Avakian prose and Maoist absurdity – it sure had darkened my life of late. In answer, he raised his eyes toward the window, as though gazing into the elusive distance, and said: I’ll be happy when the revolution comes and sweeps away all the world’s injustice. Well, I returned, with the smile now gone from my face, I guess you’ll never be happy.

At last, commonsense intervened and told me that even the brilliant Noam Chomsky could not be right all the time, and nor could the U.S. always be in the moral wrong. The Professor, as an expert on language, wanted to hold America to the letter of the U.N. Charter. But life was not a document. There was no better proof of this than the true Christian trying and failing every minute of every day to conform to Biblical scripture. If an individual could not measure up to the printed word, then what hope was there for a teeming, multi-voiced nation of former immigrants to do the same? Besides, if we, as entire people, ever did succeed in marching in lock-step unison to a legal brief, that would be orthodoxy, and that has never led to any good – just look at the historical, real-life evidence.

When George Orwell wrote that Henry Miller’s desire to remain in the belly of the whale was “the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility,” he was not done mulling over his subject. Later in the essay, he admits that the “atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel,” and that Miller is a novelist during a time, the nineteen-thirties, when one cannot walk around the corner without smacking into dogma. Perhaps, then, Miller is justified in “fiddling while Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face toward the flames.” Miller knows that fanatics like Chomsky have a point — but so what? He would rather stop fighting against the world-process “or pretending that you control it,” and “simply accept it, endure it, record it.” Was this what prompted Orwell, at the close of his life, to retreat to a rocky island and write Nineteen Eighty-Four?

At the beginning of Tropic of Cancer, Miller writes – nay, celebrates – that “there will be more calamities, more death, more despair…The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness…I am the happiest man alive.”

I left the RC to continue despairing over capitalist society while I walked outside onto Mass Ave. in the middle of the Republic of Cambridge. It was a magnificent autumn day. The windows of my mind were now thrown open to allow the fresh breeze of acceptance. I felt the disorienting radical dream world, or nightmare, subside into an interesting memory. I observed the many different kinds of people milling about Harvard Square, none of whom seemed worried over America’s failure to live up to the Declaration of Independence or the U.N. Charter. Students discussed grades and teachers and the party this coming weekend. Shoppers lugged around their capitalist goods, unconcerned about whether they had been manufactured in horrid Third World conditions. A professor and his mate held hands, and said nothing, as even they were taking time off from meditating of the fate of Man. Somerville boys elbowed one another to check out the kid with the orange Mohawk. Everyone avoided the bum asking for spare change. A block away came the muffled song of a street performer, the subject of which had nothing to do with leftist dogma. I breathed deep the rich New England air. I was totally passive, letting real life wash over me. Two plus two made four.

I walked around the corner to a semi-biker bar. Here there were no intellectuals scheming to save the proletariat. Instead there was a messy gang of actual proletarians scheming to get drunk. This was the working class I knew and they made me feel right at home. I ordered my first of many beers that day, then walked over to the jukebox. I may have been an intellectual in progress, but, underneath, I would always be a white trash punk from the Seventies who, in a pinch, would look to rock music for the last word. I played a song to fit the moment:

Say you wanna a revolution,

Well I don’t wanna see the plans…

And if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,

You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow…

Don’t you know it’s gonna be – all right…

(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

 

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