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Mao, more than ever
Boston communists say they want a revolution. Now they just have to agree on how to bring it about.

A pimple-faced teen with Coke-bottle glasses and a self-satisfied smirk stands near the doorway of Harvard Square’s tiny Revolution Books. He’s skinny and draped in a large black T-shirt adorned with a full-color portrait of Joseph Stalin, the iron-fisted despot responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of millions.

"Stalin is my friend," the kid says, at once cockily and geekily, as he stares at the floor.

"Yeah, yeah, but we can do better than Stalin," says the guy behind the counter who, even though it’s hot, is wearing a heavy sweater under his SERVE THE PEOPLE T-shirt. "We can do a lot better. You can have socialism without suppressing intellectualism." His name is George Bryant, and he’s a volunteer at this decades-old bastion of unabashed communist agitation, a bookstore that, amazingly, still survives in the ever-more-corporatized "People’s Republic of Cambridge." Bryant gestures toward a stack of books and DVDs from the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), whose chairman, Bob Avakian, is "really offering a deep critique of America and an in-depth defense of communism — in a sense reinventing it without throwing out the whole."

The kid and his friends, high-schoolers obviously flirting with jejune hard leftism, seem noncommittal and a little nonplussed. "What would you guys think about taking a bunch of these?" Bryant asks, offering a stack of the Maoist RCP weekly newspaper, Revolution, for them to proselytize with. The kids demur, and they leave.

As they do, two other guys walk in. Josh Koritz, gangly with a backpack and scraggly goatee, and Jesse Lessinger, long-haired with sandals and open shirt, are both 22, just out of Tufts. Before long, they too are debating with Bryant; this time it’s a vociferous back-and-forth about the merits of all-out revolution versus a more gradual socialistic approach to class equality, working through the system:

Koritz: "I don’t think we’re in any situation where the masses of people are ready to move up and actually get to a point where the ruling class feels like there are concessions they need to make."

Lessinger: "One of the first things we’d like to see is the organization of workers on a large scale, a legitimate third party. A labor party, a workers’ party, that is not part of the bourgeois bureaucracy, that is actually fighting for the needs of the vast majority of the people."

Bryant: "What makes you think the bourgeoisie would allow something like that to even exist?"

Lessinger: "You need to have a certain level of consciousness to be raised. And that’s done by small victories. By people fighting in the smaller, local areas, and the realization that they do have power in society, power over production."

Bryant: "That’s an illusion. The goal is overthrowing, not trying to get elected and to build unity. It’s a war between classes, and if you don’t prepare to get them, they’re gonna get you. Communism has to be out there again."

It may be the anarchists, agitating at World Trade Organization summits and political conventions with their bandannas and black hooded sweatshirts, who get all the press these days. But communism is still alive and well.

You’d be forgiven for being surprised. The Soviet Union long ago collapsed into dust. China, flush with its dizzying economic boom, is a different beast entirely. North Korea is a nightmare, Kim Jong Il a late-night punch line. Cuba is decrepit, Castro a senescent shell. Communism is far from the all-threatening bugaboo it was two decades ago — to most people, it’s just another discredited ideology, a failed experiment, a joke.

But still, there are believers. Most disavow the few extant communist regimes as perversions and corruptions of the doctrine. Indeed, they see the failures and dilutions of the Soviet Union and China as definitive proof that their own conception of communism is the real thing. (Not long after the USSR’s disintegration, Avakian published a book called Phony Communism Is Dead ... Long Live Real Communism.) The communists in Boston and Cambridge are a small group, numbering only a few hundred. They subscribe to different party lines, and there are fissures between them and other leftist groups. But they exist. And they believe that, despite the hard-right depredations of the Bush administration, despite the fact that present-day Cambridge is more suburban strip mall than People’s Republic, the world is ripe for revolution. The End of History? For these folks, it’s just beginning.

Commie creep-out

"I tell people, ‘Hey, three tours of duty in Vietnam earned me the right to be a communist, so you can go fuck yourself,’" says Gary Dotterman, the hard-nosed 61-year-old director of the Center for Marxist Education, in Central Square. It’s in this second-floor walk-up, closed most of the time, that a cadre of leftists from labor and community groups talk shop — Marxist economics, Chinese history — every Thursday evening. There are monthly lectures, too, and organized trips to mainland China. Dotterman also hosts a weekly television show on CCTV (Tuesdays at 5:30 pm) where he discusses communist issues and where many mainstream local pols and candidates have been guests.

Dotterman himself ran as a Communist Party USA (CPUSA) candidate for the late Brian Honan’s Boston City Council seat in 2002; he finished eighth out of 10. Unlike the Maoist RCP, which views the capitalist democratic process as an anathema, the CPUSA often fields candidates in local, state, and national elections, and it endorsed John Kerry in 2004.

He’d always been left of center, a socialist even as he was waging war against the "red menace" in Southeast Asia. ("I wasn’t fighting communists," Dotterman explains now. "I wasn’t bringing democracy to the poor people in the jungle or defending against the domino theory; I was just doing a duty. I can’t blame anybody but myself — I joined the service.") But he didn’t affiliate with communism until the 1980s. Prior to that, his political connections wouldn’t allow it. He says he worked for Bobby and Ted Kennedy, and "doing that kind of work, for various government office-holders around the country, my fear of reprisal if I had joined the Communist Party always kept me from it."

In the end, the decision made sense. "I came to acknowledge that if I were to be true to my own politics, it was more important than ever to join," he says.

There are less than 200 members of CPUSA in the Boston area, Dotterman says, but the Center for Marxist Education has a couple thousand people on its mailing list, even if only handfuls show up for meetings.

"It takes a lot of courage to walk into a room where people are identified as communists," Dotterman explains. "There’s still a fear from some people that they’re going to have their picture taken by government agencies."

Is it a valid fear? Dotterman doesn’t think so. But he points out that commies creep out the Bushies more than they did their predecessor. "In the Clinton administration, when a person applied for a green card or citizenship, they were not asked if they are or have ever been a member of the Communist Party. That phrase has been reinstated on the applications," he says.

After all, he argues, for all its failures and wretched perversions over the last century, communism, in its purest form, makes sense. "The progress that we attribute to the Roosevelt administration came out of struggles of the Communist Party."

These days, so many of those advances are being set back. Yet, at the same time, "we have a socialist society for the rich. You see Chase Manhattan and the other corporations when they get into trouble, run straight to the corporate trough and open up their suitcases. On 9/11, 3000 workers were killed in one afternoon in one worksite, and the first thing the government does is indemnify the insurance companies from having to pay, and sets up a special fund so the most wealthy can get paid off. And whose money is that? That’s our money! The working people’s money."

Dotterman is a communist because he has to be. "Too many Americans today are getting fucked. People don’t realize it, or if they do realize it, they feel frustrated that they can’t do anything about it. And then they decide to go with their hat in hand and say, ‘Oh, please, Mr. Sir, give me one more plate of shit!’"

Luckily, Dotterman sees more and more young people showing up at the Center, "looking for answers and understanding that they’re not gonna take this bullshit anymore."

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Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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