H. Bruce Franklin was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 28, 1934. After earning a BA from Amherst College in 1955, and a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Stanford University in 1961, he served as an assistant/associate professor of English and American Literature at Stanford (1961-72); an assistant professor of English and American Literature at Johns Hopkins University (1964-65); a lecturer at the Free University of Paris (1967); a lecturer at Venceremos College in Redwood City, California (1971); a visiting lecturer in American Studies at Yale University (1974-75); a visiting associate professor of English at Wesleyan University (1974-75); and a professor of English at Rutgers University from 1975 until his retirement in 2015.
Before becoming an academic, Franklin worked in factories (1953-54), was a tugboat mate and deckhand (1955-56), and flew for three years (1956-59) in the United States Air Force as a Strategic Air Command navigator and intelligence officer.
In 1966 Franklin resigned his commission in the Strategic Air Command as a protest against the Vietnam War, and went on to become a prominent activist in the peace movement.
In 1969 Franklin collaborated with Robert Avakian and Progressive Labor Party member Stephen Charles Hamilton to establish the Bay Area Revolutionary Union (BARU) as a Maoist vanguard. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area and drawing many of its members from Stanford University, Franklin’s group embraced the ideal of armed struggle as a means of establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the United States.
In 1971 a factional dispute caused Franklin to leave BARU and take about half of its 500-odd members with him. At issue was the fact that Franklin and his followers wanted to commence immediately with a communist revolution featuring violent acts of terror across the United States, while an opposing faction led by Robert Avakian maintained that the violent phase of the revolution should not begin for another fifteen years or so.
Whereas Avakian eventually renamed BARU as the Revolutionary Communist Party, Franklin, for his own part, in 1972 established a new organization called Venceremos (a Spanish slogan of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, meaning “We will win”). Calling for the supremacy of Maoism everywhere, Venceremos demanded that its members maintain a passionate commitment to armed struggle; it supported the victory of the North Vietnamese Communists in Southeast Asia; and it firmly endorsed acts of violence to support the Communist side in the war. A San Francisco Examiner reporter who interviewed Franklin at that time, summarized the Venceremos agenda, which modeled itself on that of the Black Panthers, as Franklin described it to him: “[Encourage young men] not to fight the draft. Go to Vietnam and shoot your commanding officer. Become an airplane mechanic and learn to sabotage planes. . . . [A]ll police and members of their families must be killed and law enforcement demoralized. All jails and prisons must be opened and inmates liberated.” According to some accounts, one Venceremos directive instructed members to carry at least four kinds of firearms, including automatic weapons, a pistol, a rifle, and a shotgun; other reports suggested that Franklin went so far as to supply plastic explosives to the Black Panthers.
In 1972, Franklin, who openly celebrated the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, was dismissed from his teaching post at Stanford University after inciting a large number of student rioters to attack, on at least two occasions, several buildings on the campus.
Also in 1972, Franklin edited a book titled The Essential Stalin. “I used to think of Joseph Stalin as a tyrant and butcher who jailed and killed millions,” he wrote. “… But, to about a billion people today, Stalin is the opposite of what we in the capitalist world have been programmed to believe…. If we are to understand Stalin at all, and evaluate him from the point of view of either of the two major opposing classes, we must see him, like all historical figures, as a being created by his times and containing the contradictions of those times…. From a Communist point of view, Stalin was certainly one of the greatest of revolutionary leaders….” To the Communists, Franklin added, Stalin was “one of the great heroes of modern history, a man who personally helped win their [the people of China,Vietnam, Korea and Albania] liberation.”
Later in the ’70s, Franklin filed suit seeking reinstatement at Stanford. In 1978, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge John Flaherty upheld Franklin’s dismissal, but then returned the case to Stanford for a second hearing over one particular speech that Franklin had made. The faculty advisory board voted unanimously to uphold the ’78 decision, and Flaherty concurred in 1981. Franklin subsequently enlisted the help of an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in continuing to press his appeal for back pay, damages, and reinstatement. But in 1985 a state appeals court ruled against him and put the matter permanently to rest.
In October 1998 at New York’s Cooper Union, Franklin participated in a Brecht Forum commemoration of the “150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.” There, he helped to present a workshop titled “Prisons: Repression and Class War.”
That same year, Franklin published a book titled Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, which, according to one enthusiastic reviewer, was “the product of [Franklin’s] long history of critical analysis of the United States’ imperial arrogance.”
In a 2000 article for The Nation, Franklin conceded that the pullout of the United States from Vietnam had spelled devastation for the latter. In keeping with his standard practice, however, Franklin reposed the blame not with the invading Communist forces, but with the U.S., chiding Americans for having “forgotten our government’s pledge to help rebuild the country it destroyed despite all our opposition.”
In 2000 as well, Franklin delivered a speech at the Modern Language Association Convention in Washington, DC. There, he insisted that the so-called “culture war” of modern America was in reality a systematic effort by whites to strip nonwhite minorities of their civil rights. “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been effectively repealed by the criminalization of the poor, especially people of color, through the so-called war on drugs, racial profiling, unleashed police, and felony disenfranchisement,” Franklin raged, adding: “Make no mistake about it. The prison-industrial complex is a major component of a strategy in the culture wars. While disintegrating Black and Latin communities, it attracts the white working class with a carrot – prison-related jobs – and a stick – fear of people of color, imaged as a criminal underclass.” Franklin then inveighed against maximum-security prisons by claiming that their very existence was evidence of their treachery: “Grotesque experiments in dehumanization are being conducted in the form of ‘supermax’ prisons,” he intoned. Alleging, further, that American prisons were being built with money that had been wrongfully diverted away from school budgets, Franklin said: “[W]e are beginning to become aware that, in the words of Ho Chi Minh eighty years ago, one of the great ‘atrocities’ of the ‘predatory capitalists’ is substituting prisons for schools.”
In the March-April 2002 edition of the International Socialist Review: Quarterly Journal of Revolutionary Marxism, Franklin wrote an article titled “Vietnam: The Antiwar Movement We Are Supposed To Forget.” Therein, the professor glorified the highly “admirable” peace movement of the 1960s for having played a major role in bringing about an American defeat and a Communist victory in the “shameful,” protracted “abomination” known as the Vietnam War. Lauding the movement as “one legitimate source of great national pride about American culture and behavior during the war,” Franklin added: “In most wars, a nation dehumanizes and demonizes the people on the other side. Almost the opposite happened during the Vietnam War. Countless Americans came to see the people of Vietnam fighting against U.S. forces as anything but an enemy to be feared and hated. Tens of millions sympathized with their suffering, many came to identify with their 2,000-year struggle for independence, and some even found them an inspiration for their own lives.”
Franklin has long had a great enthusiasm for Cuba’s Communist dictatorship. When a Miami court in June 2002 convicted the so-called “Cuban Five” for their participation in a brutal Castro spy ring that had infiltrated an American naval base in Florida, Franklin immediately denounced the decision. Scoffing at the notion that the “rogue state” of America had any right to judge Castro’s agents, Franklin hailed those agents as heroes. “I don’t think there’s any question these people were here to try [to] protect Cuba from various acts of terrorism carried out by people from Florida,” he told one radio interviewer. Franklin further contended that the Cubans were perfectly justified in spying on the United States: “The issue has come back to the fact that the United States government has been engaged in and complicit with decades of acts of terrorism against Cuba. What exactly are the Cubans supposed to protect against this?”
In 2003 Franklin was a signatory to a petition composed by Historians Against the War, denouncing America’s invasion of Iraq. Moreover, he praised anti-war protesters for courageously demonstrating against what the professor viewed as a corrupt and illegitimate U.S. foreign policy. “It is now commonplace knowledge that our government and its foreign policy are controlled by multinational corporations,” said Franklin, “and this consciousness was widely shared only in the very late stages of the movement against the Vietnam War.” Adding that “no sensible person could possibly believe that the aim of war in Iraq is the welfare of the people of that country,” Franklin declared: “Our government’s motives are blatantly clear. Hence the apt slogan, ‘No blood for oil.’”
Along with his anti-war stance, Franklin was also among the most prominent critics of the American criminal-justice system. In a December 2004 contribution to the Historians Against The War website, he claimed that the “torture” which had taken place at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison was actually “commonplace” in U.S. penitentiaries. Indeed, he argued that “imprisonment itself, even when relatively benign, is arguably a form of torture.” Then, proceeding to tick off a damning rap sheet of charges against the American penal system, Franklin wrote: “Beatings, electric shock, prolonged exposure to heat and even immersion in scalding water, sodomy with riot batons, nightsticks, flashlights, and broom handles, shackled prisoners forced to lie in their own excrement for hours or even days, months of solitary confinement, rape and murder by guards or prisoners instructed by guards—all are everyday occurrences in the American prison system.”
In October 2008, Franklin was one of several thousand college professors, students, and academic staff who signed their names to a statement titled “Support Bill Ayers.” The purpose of this declaration was to express solidarity with the former Weather Underground terrorist who had recently come under considerable media scrutiny because of his longstanding relationship with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
In March 2014, Franklin called on Rutgers University to rescind its invitation asking former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to serve as the keynote speaker at the school’s upcoming commencement ceremony. Characterizing Rice as a “war criminal,” Franklin also objected to the honorary degree that she was slated to receive from the university before delivering her address.
Franklin has been an outspoken critic of the American penal system, depicting it as a bastion of racism and as an egregious violator of human rights. In a 2015 interview with the Mehr News Agency, he made the following statements:
In the same interview, Franklin portrayed criminality as a phenomenon that was largely a consequence of societal “dysfunction,” and he identified political and economic elites as the real “criminals” who posed the greatest danger to mankind as a whole: “Drug use should be decriminalized, and drug addiction should be treated as a personal and social disease. This alone would drastically reduce the number of prisoners. More fundamentally, all people should be given full opportunities for gainful and meaningful employment, first-class education, and necessary social support. Most common crimes are symptoms of a dysfunctional society. After all, the most dangerous criminals in U.S. society are our war makers and exploiters of poor and working people.”
Franklin is the author or editor of nineteen books, and of more than 300 articles on culture and history. He has given over five hundred addresses on college campuses, on radio and television programs, and at academic conferences, museums, and libraries.