Speaking freely, demanding revolution

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“I think the FSM expressed the general feeling that students wanted to be treated as adults and citizens,” Bob Avakian, a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, explains in his memoir. His book, titled “From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist,” chronicles Avakian’s life from childhood to the present in rich, anecdotal detail.

As one of the students who participated in the Free Speech Movement, Avakian’s abhorrence of political repression and desire to belong to a society in which people are endowed with rights regardless of one’s age, gender or socioeconomic class led him down the path to become a full-time political activist.

“From Ike to Mao” is full of introspection on events that occurred through Avakian’s life from childhood to adulthood — no incident goes unanalyzed. Avakian reflects upon his childhood naivete with a clear acknowledgment of his past ignorance and weaves in an awareness of the extensive gender conditioning he received as a child in the 1950s, middle-class United States. Growing up in Berkeley, he describes his frustration with segregation and gender inequality and how Freud influenced him to reject religion. Avakian colors in his past with retrospective analysis, elevating seemingly individual struggles to a collective, societal level. From Avakian’s childhood, one can draw the conclusion that an arbitrary authority may be one worth questioning.

“From Ike to Mao” spends a great deal of time elaborating upon the political clime of the 1950s and ’60s, explaining the motives of various political figures and events in great detail, like a history textbook for those unfamiliar with U.S. history or the global social politics of the time. While the discourse is insightful, thorough and generally objective, all the information can be overwhelming in one sitting. Large chunks of the memoir read more like a history textbook with political commentary than a self-centered story — which is actually a good thing. Instead of being about a single person, the memoir emphasizes collectivity and the revelations one can derive from Avakian’s personal experiences about race, gender, politics and war in the United States that shaped him into a political activist.

While Avakian’s memoir spends a great deal of time trying to educate and provide historical context, it also offers intimate personal stories of bonding with other students at UC Berkeley and what it was like to be sitting in Sproul Hall during the FSM occupations. Discussing the police brutality against students during the occupation of the inside of Sproul Hall, Avakian writes, “A lot of people were thrown down the stairs, and the women in particular were grabbed by the hair and thrown down the stairs.” Avakian’s account of the FSM arrests are chilling and visceral, his writing of places on the UC Berkeley campus evocative for any current student or alumnus.

Through personal examples, Avakian addresses misconceptions surrounding the FSM. He asserts that the majority of the movement’s participants were indeed UC Berkeley students — students with “higher grade point averages than students in the university overall,” as a matter of fact. Not all students were on board with the movement at first, however. Avakian recalls that when protesters were sitting around the police car, “500 fraternity boys came to throw things at the people sitting in and shouting insults at them.”

Although Avakian attended the FSM rallies “from the beginning,” “From Ike to Mao” presents the FSM as but a starting point in his life as a full-time revolutionary. Avakian’s road to becoming the leader of the U.S. Revolutionary Communist Party is overflowing with stories of arrests, protests, gunfights and, eventually, exile. The memoir lingers too long, however, on fleshing out the assembling of a political party and Avakian’s conflicts experienced between himself and other communists. While it is interesting to learn the strong distinctions in ideology between men of seemingly similar political orientations, such lengthy discussions do little to propel the overarching narrative of the memoir forward.

“From Ike to Mao” is true to its title, providing readers with the maturation and parallel political self-actualization of an American who discovers political repression in his own country. As he rejects the standards of earlier generations, Avakian reflects upon his loss of innocence during events like the FSM with a tone both somber and proud.