Amiri Baraka and Adolfo Olaechea both died on January 9, 2014, Baraka of an undisclosed illness at the age of 79 and Olaechea of pancreatic cancer at the age of 70. Besides dying on the same day, the two shared Maoist politics. Baraka was a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist) that dissolved in 1990 while Olaechea was the most prominent spokesman for the Communist Party of Peru, better known as Shining Path. And perhaps as a bit of a surprise, both were subscribers at one point to Marxism listservs that are now based at the University of Utah. I never knew Baraka personally but his career had a significant impact on my own political development. I knew Olaechea as a bitter adversary on the Marxism lists but grew closer to him after offering my support when he was in danger of becoming a victim of Peru’s repressive judicial system. And long after that, he became a Facebook friend, where I learned of his death.
In 1961 I was a sixteen-year-old freshman at Bard College, having skipped my senior year of high school. I was about as confused as any teenager, in my case a member of the Young Americans for Freedom and an aspiring “beatnik”. Maybe that wasn’t so strange a combination since this was just around the time that Jack Kerouac was drifting to the right in an alcoholic haze.
When I discovered that Robert Kelly was giving a writer’s workshop, I signed up since he was pretty well known as a “new poet”. Kelly was committed to bringing kindred spirits up to Bard for readings, including Robert Duncan. When I discovered that Leroi Jones was going to give a reading from his novel-in-progress “The System of Dante’s Inferno”, I was really excited since Jones was becoming a star of the new poetry movement.
Nothing prepared me for “The System of Dante’s Inferno”. This was one of the first expressions of Black outrage at the time. Inferno was nothing less than American society and Jones’s protagonist was its victim. The reading was so powerful that I became an early convert to the Black struggle even though on all other fronts my consciousness lagged.
A year after Jones’s reading, I had dumped the conservatism of my high school years and subscribed to the Camus-influenced liberal existentialism that was in vogue at Bard and other “hip” colleges. But it was Black nationalism that intrigued me, not so much the “integrationism” of the student movement. Bard was the kind of place where “prejudice” was unheard of but I never heard any white students trying to figure out why only 2 percent of the student body was Black.
In my senior year, when I was in New York for the weekend I found out that there was going to be a debate on Black nationalism between Jones and Nat Hentoff at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate. This I would not miss for the world. The Village Voice reported on the event:
Village Voice March 18, 1965, Vol. X, No. 22
Gig at Gate: Return of the White Liberal Stompers
By Jack Newfield
Goateed, immaculately dressed Negroes looking for a pogrom, carefully coifed Hadassah ladies looking for a lynching and impassive hipsters looking for a “happening” jammed the Village Gate last Wednesday night. The marquee proclaimed blues singer Paul Butterfield, but the magnet was LeRoi Jones and his White Liberal Stompers.
The Stompers had made a spectacular debut at the Village Vanguard two weeks ago when they refused to play a dirge for the slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and for the six million Jews incinerated by Hitler.
“Those boys were just artifacts, man,” poet-playwright-polemicist Jones had said of the dead integrationists. “They weren’t real. If they went (to Mississippi) to assuage their leaking consciences that’s their business. I won’t mourn for them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”
Even if I weren’t more sympathetic to Jones to begin with, I would have supported him no matter what Hentoff had to say. I always found him an insufferable Pecksniff and never understood how he became such an authority on jazz, let alone politics.
Two years later I found myself at the New School working on a PhD in philosophy, mostly as a way of staying out of the army. By day I was working for the welfare department in Harlem and becoming radicalized by the injustice that my clients faced and on a personal level facing the draft.
On July 12, 1967 the Newark ghetto exploded. I reacted to it with jubilation. People inside the U.S. were resisting the same rotten system that the Vietnamese were. Six weeks later I would join the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the SWP.
Amiri Baraka, Newark, July 1967
During the Newark riots, the cops ganged up on Jones, who had changed his name to Amiri Baraka by this point. The charge was carrying an illegal weapon and resisting arrest that was later dropped. His real crime was being a Black militant.
As Amiri Baraka became more of an activist than an artist, his poetry suffered. I pretty much stopped paying any attention to him until he forsook Black nationalism for Maoism when he joined the League for Revolutionary Struggle. The LRS was the result of a fusion in 1978 of a number of Asian, Chicano and Black groups including Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League (Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse-tung Thought). By 1990 the group was a spent force and dissolved itself, with a number of members joining the Freedom Road Socialist Party that staggers on, although divided into two rival sects.
I never paid much attention to what Baraka was writing as a member of the LRS but decided to have a look today to help put his Marxism into context. On the Marxist Internet Archives, you can read his polemic with the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWQ), a group that has like so many of these Maoist currents disappeared from the face of the earth. Baraka is anxious to take on the “workerism” of the RWQ that he evidently regards as too much influenced by their origins in Bob Avakian’s RCP. He lectures them:
RWH does not understand that black capitalism is the cry of the black bourgeoisie for self-determination!! And black capitalism can help the Black Nation at this point. We should encourage the black national bourgeoisie to be bigger and better capitalists (at present their whole gross income is about that of General Electric). We must, as Mao said in his classic work on the United Front, “respect the interests” of the black national bourgeoisie as well as all the other classes in the front. But obviously, as communists, we struggle for the leadership of the working class within the black united front. And even though we encourage black capitalists to become bigger and better capitalists, we do so urging that this proposed expansion of black capitalism be done in the interests of the Afro-American Nation.
I guess this sort of explains Baraka’s eventual embrace of Barack Obama (their names means “blessed” in Arabic and is obviously related to the Hebrew word “baruch”.)
The most interesting sentences in the polemic are those that evoke the incandescent imagery of “The System of Dante’s Hell” that I first heard 52 years ago:
But what is also overwhelming is RWH’s consistent upholding of these RU / RCP lines, in spire of themselves. Sometimes it is like an old junkie one has known a long time who now tells you he is going to “clean up” and bores a hole in your head with this Christmas tree fantasy, but at the same time still speaks so lovingly and hungrily about “scag” that one is certain he is never going to kick. In fact, while he is talking to you, you can still see a trace of spittle in the corners of the mouth, the eyes begin to sag just a bit, and the telltale hand starts to scratch ubiquitously at the dried skin the drug has made.
An old friend who graduated Bard the year I came in as a freshman started out preferring my non-political writings, especially ones that referred to birds. He would rebuke me: “more birds…” If I knew Amiri Baraka better, I would have told him “more junkies…”
In 1998 Adolfo Olaechea showed up on the Marxism-International mailing list that gave birth to Marxmail after he and Louis Godena, a CP’er who had become converted to Maoism, hijacked the moderation board and began expelling people right and left.
Like Amiri Baraka, he was capable of some truly bombastic “Marxist-Leninist” rhetoric:
Today’s social-fascists are the direct descendants of the Menshevik social-chauvinists who led the working masses into the butchery of the First Imperialist War, who later PAVED the way for FASCISM and nurtured and provided “intellectual muscle” for Mussolini’s anti-bolshevik “Fascios die Combattimento”, the same “white-gloved butchers” who showed Hitler and his brown shirts the road and methods for assassinating the working masses and the proletarian leaders by means of the Social Democrat revisionist “Frei-Korps” organised by the social-fascist regime of Ebert in Germany.
Within a year of “capturing” Marxism-International, the list was dead. And within another year, the Communist Party of Peru was also dead. Its founder Comrade Gonzalo had been captured in 1992 and by the late 90s, the group began to splinter—partly out of state repression but also out of its own sectarian logic.
Adolfo was out of sight and out of mind until 2004 when Louis Godena asked me to publicize efforts to prevent his being extradited to Peru, where he would face the firing squad or life imprisonment if he were lucky. When he was in Spain doing some consulting for his corporate employer, the Spanish cops arrested him.
Three years after being arrested, he stood trial and was cleared of all charges:
“CHANCELLOR OF TERROR” TRIAL COMES TO AN END IN PERU
In Lima’s National Criminal High Court, on Tuesday October 23, 2007, and after 4 years and 3 months of what started as one of the most internationally trumpeted “terrorism” extraditions and trials of recent times, these proceedings come to the end of the juridical road completely transformed into a purely political and ideological test of the essential democratic values of freedom of thought and freedom of expression.
Adolfo Olaechea was arrested July 3, 2003 in the Spanish town of Almeria, while on a consultancy assignment for the British firm Spectrum International Research Ltd. on behalf of a top Japanese vehicle manufacturer. The then Spanish govrenment of Jose Maria Aznar, involved to the hilt on Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’, had decided to enforce an extradition request from the Peruvian government. This extradition order had originally been issued in 1993 by the now himself extradited former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori. Ironically, Fujimori himself is now in Lima too, awaiting trial for the same crimes against humanity that Olaechea had first denounced in a “war crimes trial” sponsored by the Secretariat of the late Lord Bertrand Russell in London back in 1992. This action of Olaechea’s has been revealed to be at the centre of the charges of “terrorism” brought illegally against this long standing British resident on the instructions of Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s spy chief.
Dubbed by the international press as the case of “Shining Path’s Chancellor”, the “ambassador of terror”, etc., the proceedings against Mr. Olaechea have involved international campaigns on his behalf by prominent personalities, among which several members of the House of Lords and the British parliament-. Among them Lords Eric Avebury and Lord Nicolas Rea, statement on his behalf by prominent intellectuals and writers, including Tony Benn and Mario Vargas Llosa, the famous Peruvian novelists, as well as writers, journalists and activists in many countries. Lord Nicolas Rea, the hereditary peer member of the All Party Human Rights Group of the British parliament, appeared in Lima’s High Court back in April 2007, as a witness for the defense, a totally unprecedented event in Peruvian juridical history. In the pre-trial stages of the proceedings, the famous Peruvian jurist, Javier Valle Riestra – now a member of the Peruvian Parliament again, and therefore unable by law to defend cases in which the Peruvian state is involved – took a prominent role, and even wrote a chapter dedicated to the case in his celebrated Treaty on Extradition, published in 4 volumes. Valle Riestra therefore, gets frequently quoted and mentioned during the closing stages of the proceedings. The case, also reached the Spanish Constitutional Court, that decided that Spain had violated Mr. Olaechea right to legality. In the European Court of Human Rights Spain was condemned and ordered to pay a fine for having extradited Olaechea in defiance of a directive from the Human Rights Directorate to have the case examined at Strasburg first.
Then, six years later, I got a Facebook friend request from Adolfo—of all people. In the first few months he was very warm and gracious even promising that I would be his guest of honor if I ever made it down to Lima.
The tone changed somewhat after he figured out that I was behind the Syrian armed struggle against the Baathists. As might be obvious, rallying around Bashar al-Assad comes easy for those who were trained in Stalinist politics.
I didn’t pay much attention to the sparks that flew when some of my pro-revolution FB friends began to take issue with him, but somewhere along the line I discovered that he was ill. When I found out how seriously ill he was, I urged my friends to avoid using invective with him. Even though he claimed that he had beaten the disease, I knew that pancreatic cancer had the lowest survival rate of all cancers.
This was the last conversation we had on September 14, 2013. I will really miss Adolfo.
Me: Adolfo, are you sick? What is going on?
Adolfo: I have been diagnosed last year (September) with cancer to the páncreas. Was given 3-6 months and dubbed a terminal case stage 4. However after undergoing a heavy chemio (against the advice of some doctors).the cáncer markers started giving negative results (no cancer) and the tomographies and magnetic resonances could´t visualise the tumour at all. Sincé then I have been put in an only pills chemiotherapy that actually does have as one of its side effects to empty my bowels in a full manner every morning at 6.00 am like clock work. Another side effect is losing my toenails due to swollen feet and therefore must spend a few hours of the day with my feet high up. Can´t complain. A leader of the Peruvian parliamentary “left” was disgnosed with the same cancer around the same time as mine. He died in less tan 4 months despite the most expensive treatments and private clinics. I am having treatment in the Social Security services, that even though seems more like a nuthouse, has evidently good doctors!
Me: I am so sorry to hear this. I am sure you know that pancreatic cancer is very deadly. I am an atheist but my thoughts are with you.
Adolfo: Well, I am an atheist too, however my family is not, and they are now trying to get my experience with pancreatic cancer declared a “miracle” and ascribe it to my mother or my aunt, both now diseadsed but with the last one, my aunt having died. – as the clerics like to say – in “odour of sanctity”. Don´t worry too much and remeber DEmocritus way of dealing with death: “When I am here, death is not. When death is there, I am not. We will never meet”.}
Me: Stay in remission, comrade.
Adolfo: I will. Thanks for your concern Louis!