Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”: A Critique, Part 4
In the last few posts (Part 1, 2, and 3) I have addressed the philosophical aspects of the new synthesis and the political implications on the international situation. Indeed, I demonstrate that either Avakian has either repackaged theoretical insights put forward by earlier Marxists and claimed this as his own theoretical contributions, and at other times has actually put forward what I think is in fact an erroneous line (this is something that can be most clearly seen in the case of post 3 regarding the international situation). In this post I will deal with another political dimension that the new synthesis attempts to address, the problem of democracy and dictatorship. This topic of course has been something that Avakian has dedicated a large section of his theoretical work to, and I do not have the time to address all of it here, and as with all of my previous posts will focus solely on what Lenny Wolff, in his talk on behalf of the RCP,USA and Avakian, tells us to be the main points. However, I will likely re-read and hope to dedicate a future post to K. Venu’s The Philosophical Problem of Revolution and his article in AWTW, Avakian’s response to the Venu article and Avakian’s Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?
Summing Up The Past
The basic problem that Avakian is trying to grapple with here is how to sum up the historical experiences in the USSR and in the People’s Republic of China, especially taking into consideration “the conceptions, assumptions, methods, and approaches of the great leaders who led those revolutions.” This needless to say is incredibly important work because it is only by summing up the experiences of the past, and the methods utilised, can we avoid the mistakes of the path and delineate a new path forward. And I completely agree with Avakian when he writes,
To be clear: we are talking about changes from and ruptures with much of the approach in the societies that up to now could be said to have been genuinely socialist and genuinely revolutionary but which nonetheless had significant shortcomings. This is not, as someone humorously put it, “run the good plays, don’t run the bad plays”—this is a whole different approach, founded on the breakthroughs in communist world outlook and epistemology that I touched on earlier; a way to correctly answer the question “at what cost” and a way to lead things in a different way, and to a higher level.
The fundamental questions at the heart of this, Wolff writes are, “In short—how does the socialist state maintain itself as a power in transition to a world communist society without states—and not become an end in itself? How does it continue to advance—and not get turned back to capitalism?” I agree with Wolff that these are fundamental problems that exist at the heart of contemporary Maoism. Indeed, I further agree with Wolff that despite the successes of communists in the USSR and China, that “you can’t just leave it at that. Necessary as it is, it’s not enough to just stand firm and defend—and cherish—those achievements in the face of the endless barrage of slander and distortion. It’s not enough just to go deeply into where those revolutions were starting from, and the relentless and unspeakably vicious forces they were up against.” I also completely agree with Wolff that, “we still have to interrogate what was done, analyze the shortcomings in both practice and theory, and truly prepare ourselves—and the masses—to do better the next time.” Indeed, this is something that I think is sorely lacking in the communist movement today, especially in regards to the experiences in China, and the fact that despite the advent of the Cultural Revolution that China was still lead onto the capitalist road (and I do not think that this can be sufficiently explained by the coup narrative that has become mainstay in Maoist circles). As I have repeatedly asked before, where is our “Class Struggles in China”? However, I must admit that when I read Wolff and Avakian alike, I do not find either of them producing the kind of intellectual and theoretical work that is actually necessary. Rather, what I find is a much more general account of the GPCR, which remains almost the same as the one that Avakian put forward in the 1970′s, and does not really take into account some of the deeper problems of the GPCR like the need for a “new class analysis”.
As part of answering this central question Avakian has argued, Wolff tells us, that “it’s been necessary to make a more thorough rupture with bourgeois-democratic influences and the whole conception of “classless democracy” within the communist movement.” This has meant that one has to understand the class basis of democracy, and understand that the USA does not actually enjoy a democracy but rather, is capitalist-imperialist and has political structures that reproduce that capitalism-imperialism, and that there cannot be a “democracy for all” as the political structures must side with the exploiting classes. Thus far, Avakian has not provided any new insights and nor does he claim to have. However, what Wolff tells us next is actually quite significant, especially in the context of the debate that has been going in the international communist movement (ICM) regarding the situation in Nepal, and the claim that the Nepalese Maoists make that they can use the bourgeois state to push forward the struggle for new democracy. He says that,
To begin with, you cannot use instruments of capitalist dictatorship—the armies, prisons, courts, and bureaucracy which this system has developed and shaped to reinforce and extend exploitation and imperialism—you cannot use those very same things to abolish exploitation, uproot oppression, and defend against imperialists. And you cannot use the tools of bourgeois democracy that have been designed, first, to settle disputes among the exploiters and, second, to atomize, bamboozle, and render passive the masses of people, as a means to mobilize and unleash people to consciously understand and transform the whole world. While it is true, as Lenin put it, that socialism is a million times more democratic for the masses of people, socialism is not and cannot be an extension of bourgeois democracy (which is founded on exploitation) to the exploited.
I largely agree with what is being said here, however, think that we need to be more specific at the same time. I think the question is what does it mean to make use of these political structures? Indeed, if Avakian is arguing, for example, that we cannot use the courts to demonstrate the true nature of this bourgeois system in the case of police repression then I must disagree with him. However, if Wolff and he mean that the courts themselves cannot actually bring forward socialism, i.e. you cannot sue for socialism, that he is indeed correct. Indeed, I think that in the case of the Nepalese Maoists the more difficult question is whether the State can be temporarily used to demonstrate the limits of bourgeois right to the masses thus demonstrating the need for a revolutionary takeover, especially in a context in which the urban infrastructure of the party has been destroyed and there is a strategic equilibrium that is incapable of actually going onto a strategic advance because of the balance of forces in the given situation? As a correlative to this I would be really interested to read a summation of the RCP,USA’s own attempts to run an anti-candidate to educate the masses about revolutionary politics, and the need for a real revolutionary alternative to the faux democracy that we currently have.
What communist can disagree with Wolff and Avakian that we need to get rid of the “4 Alls” (“the abolition of antagonistic divisions between people and the relations, institutions, and ideas that grow out of and reinforce those divisions”), and even more agree that these are not divisions that can be simply be gotten rid off, and that the social relations, ideas etc will continue to persist after the revolution has occurred. Indeed, I partially agree with Wolff when he says, “So it’s not so easy as “well, we just change the economic relations, and the rest falls into place”—and to the extent communists have thought or still think like that, it does a lot of damage. Every arena of society will have to be transformed and revolutionized, over a much longer period of time than anticipated by Marx or Lenin.” Where I disagree with him is that it will take longer than what was anticipated by Marx or Lenin because I do not recall at any point Marx or Engels suggesting how long such a transition would take, but I am willing to be corrected about this. Thus, Wolff and Avakian call for a new kind of democracy that involved the initiatives and and the mass mobilization of the people. Wolff writes,
That has to mean mobilizing—and unleashing—people, leading them and learning from them, to overcome the inequalities and the social relations of the old society, all of which undermine the advance toward a new form of society. It means equipping ever broader masses of people with the theoretical tools to critically analyze society and to evaluate whether and how concretely it is moving in the direction of communism, and what needs to be done to go as far as possible in that direction at any given time.
Indeed, the reason that I have spent so much time agreeing with Wolff and Avakian, despite some caveats, is not because I have adopted the new synthesis but rather because thus far I seen nothing original or particularly innovative about any of this. However, it is true that this is in direct contravention to the idea that some have in which the dictatorship of the proletariat would more closely resemble a form of welfare state in which the masses’ economic demands are simply met, whilst sustaining the traditional division of labour, or the kind of State that was led by Stalin which saw the linchpin for social progress to be the “productive forces”. However, Avakian further argues that the masses need to be led in this direction, and that they will not arrive at such a situation spontaneously, as Wolff says,
The answer is, they CAN. But not spontaneously and not without leadership. People cannot take conscious initiative to change the world if they don’t know how it works. That takes science. And because things have been set up in such a way to lock masses out of working with ideas, they need to get that science from people who have had the opportunity to get into it. Again, they need leadership … Because of all that, you will still need an institutionalized leading role for the proletarian party in the socialist state, so long as there are antagonistic classes and the soil out of which class antagonisms can grow. (Once those classes are abolished, there will then no longer be a need for institutionalized leadership, or for a state altogether.)
Indeed, there is little to disagree here with because it closely resembles an orthodox Maoist position. However, the question that I do have is actually about the nature of this leadership because in the case of the GPCR the way that the Cultural Revolution Small Group operated in specific cases demonstrates a level of autonomy that the masses had from this institutionalised leadership, but in other cases (like for example Shanghai) they played a much more clear role? Also, I wonder about how Avakian would deal with the problem that has often been identified in regards to Mao’s role during the GPCR in which he was both the “leader” of the Red Guards AND the “leader” alike, and this dual role often resulted in him taking positions that could often be contradictory? These are questions that Avakian tries to solve with his contribution, “the solid core with a lot of elasticity”, but which I think does not tread any new ground.
The Solid Core with a Lot of Elasticity
I must admit that I have a very difficult time with this section, not because I do not understand it, but rather I cannot see how this differs from particular experiences that one can point to like the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, Avakian and Wolff consistently note that this conception was put to practice during the GPCR, but promise us that the new synthesis is
something on a far greater scale, with different elements and dynamics to it. And let’s frankly come to grips with this: after ten years of the Cultural Revolution in China—the best of the previous conception of socialism—most people did not really understand the stakes of that last battle. Well, the different character and greater dimension of ferment in the new synthesis is one big part of the answer to how to do better next time.
Rather, what seems to have changed is the terms that are being use to explain something quite old and the absolutisation of these old principles. However, ironically this absolutisation of these principle is then particularised at another moment, say in the case of war, in the same manner as they were in much of communist history (for example, the 1920 ban on factions which was meant to be in response to a particular situation, and was subsequently universalised). Thus, let us try to better understand and see whether agree whether the new synthesis actually provides a different character and greater dimension than was allowed within the context of other movements, like the GPCR. So what is the solid core? The solid core is
not identical to the Party and it’s not identical to the proletariat, in some kind of monolithic way. At any given time the solid core represents a minority—in the first phases of socialist society, it’s those firmly committed to the whole objective of getting to communism; and then you’ve got various gradations of people, from different classes and strata, grouping themselves in relation to that.
The solid core is effectively a group of people who are committed to the “whole objective of communism” i.e. the revolutionary core. Thus, at times it can be be identical with more of fewer layers of people who constitute the revolutionary pole. Thus, for example in the case of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his allies were the solid core. Or in the case of the case of the RCP,USA, Avakian’s faction was the solid core in a party that supposedly was lapsing into revisionism. This of course is predicated on a non-sociological assumption that some communists have that the proletariat is the same as the revolutionary core, and argues that there are varying relationships to the objective of communism by individuals (as I mentioned above). This non-sociological analysis of the proletariat is something that a number of theorists have been arguing for since the 1970′s including Badiou and Ranciere. This solid core will then relate to the other layers of society elastically.
The solid core will set the terms and the framework. But within that, it’s going to unleash and allow the maximum possible elasticity at any given time while still maintaining power—and maintaining it as a power that is going to communism, advancing toward the achievement of the “4 alls,” and together with the whole world struggle. Now there’s going to be constraints on the solid core at any time in doing that, including what kinds of threats you’re facing from imperialism. Sometimes you’ll be able to open up pretty wide, and sometimes you may have to pull in the reins; but strategically, overall, you’re mainly going to be trying to encourage and work with the elasticity, trying to learn from it and trying to figure out how you lead things so that it all becomes a motive force that is actually contributing—even if not so directly or immediately, in the short run—but overall contributing to where you want to go. And it’s going to be challenging and complex and full of risk figuring this out.
What I find odd here is that this is something that has been constantly practiced during the history of communism, but then has been limited under the auspices of extraordinary circumstances like “threats from imperialism”. Indeed, what I find odd is that Avakian never deals with the problem of why this happened and how it can be avoided, thus negatively reflecting on his claim to actually have summed up the experiences of the past, but rather simply repeats in essence what has been the practice of the communist movement and then axiomatises it as a principle, which then can be subsequently suspended if and when needed. The problem that I see with this ‘state of exception’ clause, which Avakian still allows for, is that has been repeatedly used by people like Stalin to turn the USSR into the politically and socially stifled place that most critical revolutionaries would not describe as communism proper (I know that there is a tendency in the Maoist movement towards a romanticised version of the Stalin period, which we must rupture from, but that means that there needs to a proper summation of that period and consciousness-raising in the revolutionary movement about it and is something I mentioned at the opening of this paper). Additionally, there seems to be a theoretical problem in this entire idea which Lenin identifies i.e. that at times a group outside of the recognised solid core is the one that actually runs ahead, and constitutes a new revolutionary solid core, and how should one relate to them? Indeed, they may actually have very different ideas about where society should go which is also informed by a new revolutionary objective truth, which may be at odds with the institutionalised former solid core’s version of the objective truth, and could then result in the “closing of the reins”. This is something I will return to throughout the rest of this section.
This idea of a “solid core with a lot of elasticity” can be more clearly seen in relation to the problem of state ideology. Avakian differs from the socialist states of the past, Wolff argues, because he recognises that despite the people’s support for a given revolution that the party remains a voluntary association, and that the majority of the people would continue to have differing relationships to communism.
It’s not the second coming, where everyone gets saved and “sees the light”—thank god! It’s a socialist society. You can lead people to do a lot of new things, a lot of important and emancipatory things, and set off a whole process in which people change society and themselves in a positive direction… but it can’t be done as if everyone has suddenly not only understood, but begun to adhere to and apply the communist method, stand, and viewpoint. And if you try to lead as if that is the case, you (a) are not going to be acting in correspondence to what is true, and (b) are going to, as a result, dam up and distort the whole process through which people come to know the truth and you will give rise to a phony, stifling, or chilled atmosphere.
There has to be a leading ideology—and the difference in socialist society is that we’ll openly express it, rather than mask it the way the capitalists do—but the people who aren’t sure they agree with it should feel free to say so and the people who don’t agree should definitely say so and it should get debated out.
Thus, Avakian argues for retaining and sustaining of a lively debate in which the communist party would spark a series of initiatives of key objectives and try to mobilise the masses around them, whilst still maintaining a leading ideology (which should be the same as or similar to the objective truth that Avakian continues to believe in). Avakian is modest enough to recognise that this was the case in the early years of the USSR, and in China. I must add a caveat here as I think we need to be more specific than Avakian is about China because we cannot say that this lively debate was allowed at all times during the life of Mao, and often became a poor parody of the kind of consciousness-raising project that is truly needed. Where Avakian thinks that he has made a real contribution is in regards to the relationship to spontaneity from below. He argues that spontaneity from below has largely been underemphasised or constricted in China and the USSR alike, where the process and goals of socialist transformation are clearly demarcated by the party and all deviations from it were considered dangerous and stifled. Indeed, Wolff argues that
you actually need intellectual ferment to understand the world. Ferment, debate, experimentation—intellectual “air”—gives you a window into all of what’s churning beneath society’s surface at any given time, and the possible roads to resolution and advance opened up by that churn; it helps you see where you may be proceeding wrongly, or one-sidedly. Without this, the dialectic between the Party and the masses—between leaders and led—would tend to be too “one-way”; the critical and creative spirit would grow blunt, on both ends.
First of all, I cannot, and neither can any of you (unless your perhaps a Hoxhaite), but agree with this and Avakian because this has been the lived experience of the communist movement in numerous times and places. Avakian of course is forced to admit, despite the fact that it seemingly contradicts his earlier claim that this has been underemphasized during the GPCR, that this actually did take place during the GPCR. second of all, I thinks that there is a problem with this however, which demonstrates a tension within Avakian’s concept of “the solid core with a lot of elasticity”, the elasticity of objective truth. On one hand the solid core is supposed to posses, according to Avakian’s radical epistemology, objective truth, not relative truth, and a deep conviction in the goal of communism. But on the other hand the civil society and other non-party political elements may actually be able to demonstrate where the solid core’s objective truth is wrong and teach the solid core something. This would mean to suggest that one actually does not posses absolute objective truth, and that the radical epistemology that Avakian has developed overlooks the necessary caveats that other Marxist theorists had to add to their own conceptions of objective truth. Indeed, this is why I think Mao’s idea of ‘mass line’ which neither absolutises objective truth as Avakian does, nor relativises it as postmodernists do, but rather partializes truth in the way that Althusser’s notion of science operates, is more correct. In Avakian’s conception of the “solid core with a lot of elasticity”, the revolutionary masses would be asked to be asked to participate in revolutionary initiatives and debate, but always whilst knowing that thy are not part of the solid core. This I believe would actually result in the kind of constriction that Althusser warns us about. Also, one must ask the correlated question as to whether the relationship of solid core to the masses would not simply reproduce the same tensions that we have seen historically in which the cadres of the solid core can actually stop listening to the masses because they are not part of the solid core?
This is then closely related to the fact that Avakian does not believe that a socialist society would have several political parties involved in this revolutionary process, and consistently describes the dictatorship of the proletariat as being based around the ideology of THE party or more narrowly, THE solid core. This of course means that Avakian is fundamentally unwilling to rupture with the experience of the USSR and China, and still advocates the single-party state. One could even go further and say that Avakian identifies a state in which a small cabal, the solid core, in effect runs the state. As Wolff says in regards to having an official state ideology, “Now, as I said, the Party does have to lead in socialist society, and the Party itself has to be unified around communist ideology, which enables it to lead people to correctly understand and transform reality.” Now I am not sure whether I actually agree with this reassertion of THE party. I think it is less and less likely in the current context that there will be a singular communist party that will actually lead the revolution on its own. Even in the case of the Bolsheviks this was not the case and the majority of people will actually belong to other organisations (Left SR’s or Mensheviks or anarchists) or no organisations at all, and the revolution will be a temporary congealment of these various trends around one political goal. Indeed, this concept lies at the heart of the United Front, which whilst being ostensibly lead by the Communist Party, allows the Communist Party to organise with other important political elements that remain outside of the Communist Party due to ideological and political differences. Avakian deals partially with this problem, for example, in the realm of ideology, but stills assumes that there is THE communist party which is leading the entire process. This I think has to actually be placed into question, not only historically, but also in the current conjuncture in which there are a multiplicity of communist organisations which agree to the broad contours of revolutionary Marxism, but may be ideologically committed to Left Communism or Trotskyism or a multiplicity of other tendencies. I definitely do not think we can return to the period of the early Russian revolution in which other parties were banned or repressed, or hollowed out in the case of China, or simply slaughtered in the case of Vietnam. And we need to think more carefully than I can do here about strengthening this concept even further. The idea of multi-party socialism that the Nepalese comrades have put forward, for example, can be interpreted to assume the existence of a new democratic constitution which provides some legal limits to the ideology of other parties i.e. anti-capitalism, anti-feudalism, anti-imperialism etc, but then allows for a number of parties to exist within this political realm that compete for the political loyalties of the masses. This tension regarding the singular nature of the party is present when Wolff argues that
part of this model the ideas of: contested elections where key issues facing the state are vigorously debated out with real stakes; a constitution (including the constraints that it puts on the Party); an expanded view of individual rights; the existence of civil society, with associations that are independent of the government; and a whole new way of tackling the contradiction between mental and manual labor, including a different view on the role of intellectuals—all of which I can only mention here, but would be eager to go into during the question period.
First of all, the similarities between Avakian’s own conception and that of the Nepalese conception of multi-party socialism are striking. However, where the differences lies is that it becomes clear that when Avakian means “contested elections”, he does not mean multi-party contest elections, but rather a much more limited electoral franchise which is limited to “issues” which can be voted on. The question of elections for heads of state is actually left out, and I think is telling. The solid core itself remains unelected, and hypothetically is even unelected by the party as the party itself is not identical to the solid core. Second of all, I am not sure how this radically differs from the experience in the USSR in the early years of the revolution where trade unions were allowed to be independent of the party, or even the active distribution of non-Bolshevik newspapers produced by other political groups, or the contestation of elections for different local level bodies. What Avakian simply seems to be doing is reasserting this limited experience, with a whole series of caveats, and once again claiming that it is something that he has pioneered.
Indeed, it becomes clear that Avakian’s “new synthesis” does not really offer a substantially new notion of democracy and dictatorship than what has experienced and theorised before before, rather all he does is absolutise the principles that Lenin and Mao advocated for but were unable to implement because of the on-the-ground realities like the misinterpretation of these principles by cadres etc. However, this absolutisation is simultaneously undercut by the capacity to suspend the elasticity principle in special cases. In effect Avakian has made the same gesture that many many others before him have made, including Stalin. The only difference remains that whereas Stalin was able to demonstrate his commitment to these principles, and their suspension, Avakian has yet to be tested. And indeed, Avakian’s idea of solid core has a troubling authoritarian potentiality in-built. Additionally, one cannot point to a proper summation of the historical experience of communism in the USSR and China (although I think Charles Bettelheim does much of the work regarding the USSR). Furthermore, unfortunately by claiming this as being an innovation of Avakian’s, the RCP,USA simply obscures the history of the communist even further for its own members and does not allow for a fuller appreciation of the historical experience of socialism around the world, and more dangerously in part assumes/adopts a bourgeois caricatured version of the past from which the RCP,USA has “ruptured” from. Finally this conception of the “solid core with a lot of elasticity” demonstrates a tension in Avakian’s radical epistemology as Avakian’s objective truth would be rendered simply a partial truth if he admits that criticisms and lessons from below may need the solid core to augment their idea of truth (hence rendering it not the objective truth) and/or result in the formation of a new solid core which may not overlap with the former solid core.
In the next post in the series I will finish this post series with a discussion of the strategic implications of the new synthesis on making revolution.