The Workers Dreadnought

For International Socialism

Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”: A Critique, Part 1

with 20 comments

In the last few years the ideological confusion and dogmatism wrought by the Revolutionary Communist Party,USA (RCP,USA) has had a disastrous effect on the international Maoist movement. The negative effect that Bob Avakian’s “new synthesis” has had is disproportionate to the size and importance of the RCP,USA itself, and can be most noticed in the demise of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM). Recently Comrade Surendra of the Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist) [CCP(M)] has commented on articles on this blog and asked:

We are interested to know more about your claim that Bob Avakian had made important contributions during the initial period of the RIM, but that he had got caught in an idealist mess after. This is an important question, and we would like to know more fully how you develop this position. In our opinion, Bob Avakian’s new synthesis is based on a profound and thoroughoing critical analysis and summation of the historical experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Mao in general, which has served to crystallize the science of revolution on a new, positive basis. This question has served to split the International Maoist Movement, and should be dealt with seriously. We propose that a Conference of Maoist Parties and Orgnanisations of South Asia be convened so we can identify the main issues and struggle to achieve a higher level of conscious, principled unity through a process of struggle -criticism -transformation, based on MLM. This is the need of the hour.

I have always hoped that I would not have to really waste my time dealing with the idealist mess that is Avakian’s “New Synthesis” however, feel that I must now do so because the CCP(M) is actually rebuilding itself, in the light of the degeneration that party experienced after the death of Com. Shanmugathasan (for whom I have enormous respect, and really hope that a Selected Works volume will be compiled of his work soon), within the ideological walls of the “new synthesis”. Unfortunately a sustained philosophical critique of the “new synthesis” really has not been forthcoming. However, the Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan has provided at least a basic critique of the “new synthesis”, and in many respects I agree with their critique but I feel like it does not go far enough and does not actually refute all of the component parts of the “new synthesis”. It can be found here. At the time I wrote about the “new synthesis”,

I must admit that I find the ‘new synthesis’ to be quite underwhelming as many of Avakian’s insights have either been heavily debated in the last 30 years and Avakian’s own insights either a) do not reflect the already existing rich debate (especially in regards to his epistemological rupture with vulgar elements of Marxist philosophy and practice, the nature of truth, or even his re-structuration of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat); b) or are simply wrong in my opinion (his recourse to morality, his erroneous understanding of proletarian internationalism which is grounded in an incorrect understanding of determinations within a given conjuncture, or even his vision of the road to revolution in imperialist countries); c) or are simply unable to actually grasp the new limits of Marxist that have been established in recent years including the appropriation of lessons from Marxist semiotics, anti-psychiatry or psycho-analysis/schizoanalsysis, gender and race analysis, contemporary sciences and maths, the fuller history of communist revolutionary practice and theory etc. Indeed, Avakian’s ‘new synthesis’ is so limited and narrow that it is far too small an intervention into the crisis that Marxism-Leninism-Maoism faces in 1) theory generally; 2) the capture of state-power in imperialist countries; 3) and the successful transition to a Stateless society. It is too little, too flawed and too late.

Nevertheless I have decided that I would deal once again with the “new synthesis”. I plan on doing so by responding to a speech given by  Lenny Wolff, author of The Science of Revolution: An Introduction, who was tasked to explain the “new synthesis” in 2008. His speech remains one of the clearest explanations of what the “new synthesis” actually is. It is entitled, “Re-envisioning Revolution and Communism: WHAT IS BOB AVAKIAN’S NEW SYNTHESIS? and is available here. Also, one can purchase a CD of the talk itself. When necessary I will also turn to “COMMUNISM: THE BEGINNING OF A NEW STAGE; A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA” which has a section dedicated to the “new synthesis” as well. I must note that unlike my analysis of K.N. Ramachandran’s “Our Differences with the Maoist Trend: Genesis and Present Conditions”, I will not be analysing these documents with the same level attention i.e. paragraph by paragraph, rather I will be pointing to the key parts of the speech and sections in the Manifesto, and identifying flaws and contradictions that I see. However, most likely this analysis will be another series of approximately 4-5 posts because there is a lot of points that the “new synthesis” is trying to grapple with and fails at, and also because I want to stop writing 4000 word blog entries which are cumbersome to read. Also, if something comes up I may interrupt the series to cover it, but promise that I will deal with the “new synthesis” comprehensively over the coming weeks. So lets “grapple” with Avakian and the “new synthesis”.

Wolff explains that the “new synthesis” has four basic component parts:

Bob Avakian has identified and deeply criticized weaknesses along four different dimensions of communist philosophy. These concern: one, a fuller break with idealist, even quasi-religious, forms of thought that had found their way into the foundation of Marxism and had not been ruptured with; two, a further and qualitatively deeper grasp of the ways in which matter and consciousness mutually interpenetrate with and transform each other; three, a critique of a host of problems associated with pragmatism and related philosophical tendencies; and four, a radically different epistemology, or way of getting at the truth.

These parts then of course have a series of political and strategic implications, which I will also discuss. In this post I will deal with the first two dimensions of communist philosophy. The first dimension that Wolff addresses is the idealist quasi-religious forms of thought that argues communism is inevitable. He writes, “But communism is not inevitable. There is no “god-like” History with a “Capital H” pushing things to communism. And while communism will bring about an end to antagonistic and violent conflicts among human beings, it will still be marked by contradictions, debates, and struggles—which will be carried out without violent conflict, and which will in fact be a very good thing, since this will continually contribute to the achievement of further understanding and further advances in transforming reality in accordance with the overall interests of humanity.” I agree with Wolff and Avakian that this is truly a quasi-religious idea, however, cannot attribute this “big change” to Avakian as a whole host of Marxist theorists, from the Frankfurt School to the Althusserians/post-Althusserians to the Trotskyist-influenced Political Marxists,  had already put forward this critique of orthodox forms of Marxism. However, I am glad to hear that Avakian and his supporters have actually caught up with those of us who have already incorporated this in our thinking and method of work. Furthermore, I would like to even suggest that neither Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao actually believed that communism was inevitable, and one can find copious writings in their oeuvres that backs up this point. And it is very clear to us all I think that communism is not some end of History in which there is no further development due to contradictions, but what I do find astounding is that Wolff and Avakian take this one step further by writing that these contradictions will be resolved without violence. I think it is very telling that Marx himself never wrote about what communism would like and it is because he realised that the very content of communism would change in relation to the social relations and relations of production that are the outcome of the class struggle, indeed communism can be regarded to be largely an empty signifier (indeed, how can we forget Marx’s difficulties with articulating a post-commodity form of exchange in his critical notes on the Gotha programme). However, Avakian seems to have been gifted with a crystal ball, one which Marx was never privy to, and has decided that any contradictions in communism will be resolved without violence. This is the re-introduction of idealism into the Avakianist ‘new synthesis’.

The second component of the ‘new synthesis’ is that

Avakian has developed a far deeper understanding of the potential role and power of consciousness. Put it this way: to the extent that you do scientifically and deeply grasp the complex and multi-level contradictory character of society, with all its different constraints and its many possible pathways…to that extent, your freedom to act on and to affect that situation is immeasurably magnified.

Previously, the importance of the economic base (that is, the production relations) was not just recognized—but over-emphasized. This was a tendency toward reductionism—that is, reducing complex phenomena to a single over-riding cause, flattening out processes that have different levels to them in a way that doesn’t correspond to and actually distorts reality. Yes, the political institutions, the ideas, the morality of society—in other words, the superstructure of society—all ultimately grow out of its economic relations; this is a foundational insight of Marx.

But these institutions and ideas of the superstructure have a relative life of their own; plus they operate, and affect each other, on a lot of different and interpenetrating levels.

Again I have no issue with what is stated above inasmuch that if one is actually politically conscious than one is far better suited to intervene into a given situation. However, I think it is unfair to claim that Avakian has pioneered this insight when in fact Louis Althusser had made this very insight in the early 1960′s! Althusser in his seminal work Reading Capital explains that there is semi-autonomy between the base and the superstructure, and that relation between the two is not a reflection but rather, has its own historical development and temporality. Just because Avakian only figured this out does not mean that it can be called a “new synthesis”, and perhaps speaks to the ignorance of the Avakianists. The real issue I have with Wolff’s is how he articulates this point, and I think demonstrates how Avakian and his supporters have not actually incorporated  this insight into their analysis of the society in which they live in. For example, within the four walls of the essay that I am discussing we can see how this has been employed by the Avakianists in its study of the Bible and its relation to slavery. Indeed, one finds Wolff completely contradicting himself in the section entitled, “Putting the Study of Society on a Scientific Foundation”. What is astonishing is that the relationship that Avakian seems to want to establish to the ideological superstructure in regards to the Bible and its relation slavery contradicts the semi-autoomy that the two are supposed to have from one another. This relationship, for all of Avakian’s emphasis on newness, rests actually on the very outdated and outmoded reflection theory of base-superstructure in which the production relations are simply reflected in the superstructure that he wants to attack. He writes,

For example, the Bible—including the New Testament—was written during an era when an important part of production was carried out through slave relations. That’s why there is no sense anywhere in the Bible that slavery is a horrible crime against humanity—unless it happens to be done to the Israelites in the Old Testament by non-Jewish people. And the Bible was thus easily used by the slave masters of the Old South to justify slavery.

Today, when slavery no longer corresponds to the interests of the dominant class, the political and cultural consensus finds it to be horrible. But the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists, and the casting off of these workers when they can no longer be profitably exploited, is just seen as “the way things are, and human nature”—just like slavery used to be. Like the abolitionists before the U.S. Civil War, but on a much more scientific basis, we need to bring forward that this is NOT human nature any more than slavery was, but is just the result ofcapitalist relations—and we need to bring forward our different and opposed morality, based on a whole different set of production and social relations.

Indeed, it is odd to see that Avakian and his supporters, despite their desire to break from this outmoded way of thought, continue to retain this very analysis. I am not trying to defend the Bible, however, I think that we need to avoid the historicist argument that underlies Wolff’s statement as it simply assumes that there was a theoretical consensus at the time of the Bible’s writing that slavery was acceptable (Domenico Losurdo in his Counter-History of Liberalism effectively argues against a historicist explanation for slavery by showing that the French political theorist Bodin had attacked the notion of slavery a 100 years prior to the liberal defence of slavery by American liberal thought). Indeed, it becomes clear that the authors of the Bible were very aware of the cruelties of slavery when they oppose the ownership of the Israelites as slaves by non-Jews. Wolff does not reflect this nascent critique of slavery in the Old Testament in his analysis of the Bible, slavery or abolition which is incredibly problematic since the Bible itself was used by abolitionists to attack the very institution of slavery, and saw the abolitionists actually used the language regarding the Israelites in the Old Testament to argue against the enslavement of black people in North America. But all of this complexity and contradictoriness is lost in the work of the Avakianists who simply assume that the Bible is simply a reflection of the production relations at the time of its writing, and could simply be used as a justification for slavery. Also, this does not take into account how the Bible was used by the liberation theologists to make a case for socialism in Latin America, and the kinds of united front work that one must do with such elements especially in a country like the USA in which the black liberation church has a profound effect on black consciousness. Again there is a re-introduction of an outmoded package through the back door. Thus, we can see in both cases outlined above that Avakian first claims theoretical advances that are actually not his, and then is unable to theoretically sustain them in concrete analysis,

 In the next post in this series I will deal with the two remaining components of Avakian’s “new synthesis”, 1) pragmatism and related philosophical tendencies and 2) Avakian’s “radical advance in epistemology”.

Written by theworkersdreadnought

March 22, 2012 at 1:39 PM

Posted in Maoist Philosophy

20 Responses

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  1. Interestingly, I recall reading a discussion on Kasama some time ago (as in a few years ago) that dealt with the RCP,USA’s unacknowledged theoretical debt to Althusser.

    In fact, as I dug through that site this morning to find it (as I almost never visit it anymore) I found that the article I was thinking off one in a series that Ely wrote.

    The one I was thinking off was called “The RCP’s Debt to Louis Althusser: Why It Matters” (http://kasamaproject.org/2009/01/13/sidenote-on-the-rcps-intellectual-debt-to-louis-althusser/)

    The later ones in the series were:

    On Althusser and the RCP in Decline (http://kasamaproject.org/2009/01/14/on-althusser-and-the-rcp-in-decline/)

    On Althusser’s Contributions and the Origins of Communist Insights (http://kasamaproject.org/2009/01/23/from-althusser-to-the-origins-of-new-communist-insights/)

    Now I’m not trying to say that Ely himself makes any kind of Earth shaking insights in these articles, but it’s worth noting that you aren’t the first to notice that the RCP,USA seems to owe a debt in it’s thought to Althusser, and that they have tried to simply say that in fact Avakian was one the one who pioneered said insights.

    • Dear Rowland,
      Thanks for your comments and I am aware of the articles you mentioned in your comment, however, I think that the purpose of this series and those by Mike Ely are quite different. First of all I do not claim that I am making some innovative claim that Althusser influenced the RCP,USA or Avakian’s new synthesis. If that is the impression you gathered from my post, I must apologise to you and other readers as that is not my intention, however, I do continue to hold that no one – to the best of my knowledge – has really philosophically refuted the “new synthesis” as a whole. Even Ely’s “Nine Letters” does not do so sufficiently. Second, the point that Mike was making in those articles, which I found interesting at the time, are an attempt to philologically study the RCP,USA’s larger theoretical output and the influence that Althusser had on it, whereas I am trying to argue that the “new synthesis” is in fact not new at all and actually tries to pass off ideas that have been in common intellectual and political circulation for a while as Avakian’s own (so for example an anti-teleogical Marxism cannot be claimed by Althusser and his students alone either, as other competing anti-telological Marxisms predate Althusser’s own interventions). Furthermore, I am trying to argue that Avakian and his supporters are not even aware of how far their own ideological positions on things like the Bible differ from their professed adherence to the philosophical components that comprise the “new synthesis”, and that there is a re-introduction of erroneous philosophical positions.

      theworkersdreadnought

      March 22, 2012 at 5:51 PM

  2. Also, excuse the typos. When I said ” the article I was thinking off one in a series” I was trying to say ” the article I was thinking of was one in a series.”

  3. Be curious what Comrades think of Chairman Avakian’s spoken word/rap; is this a groundbreaking peice of music or what? Avakian denounces those who deny the new synthesis

    http://soundcloud.com/allplayedout/all-played-out-avakian-and-parker

    bobby A

    March 23, 2012 at 3:48 AM

    • Dear Bobby,
      Thanks for posting on the blog and your question. To be honest I am not all that impressed by his attempts, and definitely do not that it is a groundbreaking piece of music but respect the desire to use rap/spoken word as a method by which to build cultural hegemony. However, I think that Avakian and the RCP,USA may have been better served working with artists who are actually talented hip hop artists rather than promoting Avakian himself, whose own attempts are amateurish at best. Although I must admit it is pretty cool that they got William Parker to perform the music, but I would be interested to know how much of the music was his own composition. It would be interesting to look at more popular pro-Maoist hip hop artists like The Blue Scholars, or the rap-metal group, Rage Against the Machine. But I also think that we need to recover an entire tradition of pro-communist avant-garde music like Luigi Nono and Iannis Xenakis. And we are all aware that Avakian denounces anyone who does not accept his “new synthesis”, but dogmatists will be dogmatists.

      theworkersdreadnought

      March 23, 2012 at 11:35 AM

  4. Bob Avakian has also turned his considerable talents to country/folk with his excellent cover of ‘across the borderline’. any analysis of Bob Avakian must take into account his considerable musical accomplishments in addition to this theoretical accomplishments. unlike Badiou, who champions elitist avant garde music but is not himself a musician, Avakian not only talks the talk but walks the walk. i bet neither Badiou nor Zizek, nor Prachanda or Gonzalo, nor could do what Avakian has done.

    http://outernational.bandcamp.com/track/across-the-borderline-featuring-bob-avakian

    Bobby A

    March 23, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    • Dear Bobby,
      First of all, I do not think that avant-garde music is elitist and think that you would need to explain why you think it is, and how would you deal with communist avant-garde composers like those I mentioned above. Second, Badiou has never claimed to be a musician and thus unlike Avakian does not make amateurish attempts to do so but Badiou has written several plays and novels, does that mean Badiou wins your pissing competition? Third of all, a cover of a country/folk tune does not make one musically talented or suggest that one has “considerable musical accomplishments”. Fourth, Badiou and Zizek are actually respected intellectuals, unlike Avakian. Prachanda and Gonzalo actually built up parties that lead people’s wars in their respective countries, unlike Avakian who leads a sect that inspires a few people like yourself. And finally this post is about the “new synthesis” and examining its philosophical pronouncements and claims. I suggest that you start dealing with the post or I will consider your posts spam here on out.

      theworkersdreadnought

      March 23, 2012 at 7:46 PM

      • Oh, come on! Bobby A is clearly being ironic and making some jokes at the expense of Avakian: the name itself is most probably a joke. Unless it is an Avakianist… these days they sometimes are self-satirical.

        JMP

        March 24, 2012 at 1:58 AM

      • Yeah, I definitely fell for it. Shit! Oh well, time to start working on the next instalment. Ever polemicize against apriorism JMP?

        theworkersdreadnought

        March 24, 2012 at 11:37 AM

  5. here is an image of Avakian that is truly motivational to me, i hope you find it also, it is an image that brings hope to the masses in the glorious chairman Bob. this is the image of the new synthesis:

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=320166448006978&set=a.246918948665062.69859.246918758665081&type=3&theater

    further, how can Zizek diss Avakian and the entire revolutionary movement, and then be so cowardly to avoid a public debate with Raymond Lotta about the new synthesis? we demand a public debate between Lotta and Zizek!

    http://revcom.us/a/260/lotta-challenge-to-zizek-en.html

    Bobby A

    March 25, 2012 at 6:21 PM

    • Zizek doesn’t do that kind of shit free y’know. He gots to get paid. You want to play with Zizek, you got to pay Zizek.

      theworkersdreadnought

      March 26, 2012 at 9:47 PM

  6. [...] first post in this series dealt with the first two philosophical “contributions” that Avakian [...]

  7. [...] of the supposed innovativeness of Bob Avakian’s ‘new synthesis’ (available here and here) and look at its political implications on the ‘international dimensions’. [...]

  8. [...] first post in this series dealt with the first two philosophical “contributions” that Avakian supposedly [...]

  9. [...] the last few posts (Part 1, 2, and 3) I have addressed the philosophical aspects of the new synthesis and the political [...]

  10. [...] “new synthesis” as summarised by Lenny Wolff (readers can read the earlier posts here: 1, 2, 3 and 4). In this last post I will discuss probably the most important aspect of the “new [...]

  11. I take special offense to avante garde music being elitist, specifically because of it’s takedown of western tonality by way of valuing harmonic, melodic and timral concepts outside of the Vienna/France/England/Germany realm.

    Further I’d be interested in how Bobby would refute EVERYTHING ADORNO HAS EVER WRITTEN ABOUT MUSIC, becuause I’m not that fond of Adorno’s musicology myself, but I have faith that these Avakianists have a very serious musicological engagement; otherwise they’d be engaging in petty apologetics for an artistic failure, and I doubt that they’d ever do something like that, as a revolutionary communist group no less.

    Chuck Finale

    April 14, 2012 at 2:48 AM

  12. [...] my disagreements in a series of posts dedicated to the ‘new synthesis’ (available here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Com. Surendra Rupasinghe has decided to respond with an article defending [...]

  13. This is a fantastic read thank you, do you have a facebook account will follow? Cheers read, cannot get ample wish there were more like this kind of. will like this specific post on facebook.


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