Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”: A Critique, Part 5
This is the fifth and final post in a series dedicated to Bob Avakian’s “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 synthesis” i.e. the strategic implications of the “new synthesis” on making revolution. These strategic implications of making revolution in a “country like this”, an advanced imperialist country, centre on two key issues: 1) the relationship between the subjective and objective i.e. “hastening while waiting” and; 2) “enriched what is to be done-ism”. I will be skipping over the section about whether a revolution is actually possible in “a country like this” because I believe that it is possible to make a revolution in an advanced imperialist country, however, the question is how? This section is particularly important because of the theoretical work that groups like the RCP(Canada) and (n)PCI have been doing in putting forward the concept of “protracted people’s war” in advanced imperialist countries (it must be noted however, that there are real qualitative differences between the two parties about how to conceptualise the protracted people’s war). Readers who are interested in studying further strategy that the RCP,USA proposes should read, “Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation“. Now that I have done the pitch, lets get into what Wolff has to say.
Hastening While Awaiting
Wolff starts by addressing the classical problem at the heart of organising a revolution in any country, by analysing the dialectical relationship between the objective and subjective factors. Wolff does not provide any new insight into the relationship between the two and simply reaffirms the classical Marxist-Leninist analysis which states that the objective factor is the situation in which the subjective element (the party and the mass movement) finds itself, and this objective-subjective relationship is co-determining one another in a dialectical manner. Thus, the intervention of the subjective factor into the objective situation will change the objective and the subjective factor alike, whilst the objective situation establishes the framework of a given subjective intervention. As Wolff says,
Now this is a dialectical relation: the objective and subjective are different, but they interpenetrate and mutually transform each other. The objective factor is like the field on which the Party is playing, and it overall sets the terms and framework. But that framework is not fixed and determined—the field is constantly changing dimensions—and the objective factor can be influenced by the subjective factor. Sometimes the Party itself is a big part of the objective situation—it can be leading a big struggle, or the focus of an attack, or making a big impact with an ideological initiative. People will be talking about it because of that, so you’ve got the subjective factor as part of the objective factor. And at the same time, the objective factor enters into the subjective—the Party is influenced in different ways by the moods and thinking of the masses and the people who come around and work with and join the Party.
Thus far we see nothing new about any of this as neither Wolff nor Avakian seem to diverge or contribute anything to the classical Marxist-Leninist analysis. The question that immediately arises from this analysis is what should be the nature of a given intervention into the objective situation. The first danger that Wolff correctly identifies is that the initiatives undertaken by the subjective element, in light of the restrictions of the objective situation, begin to simply reflect the objective situation itself and internalise the limits established at that given juncture. This of course results in economism and trade union consciousness. Wolff argues that,
Bob Avakian has pointed to the “determinist realism” at the root of this—the idea that the parameters of revolutionary work are very narrowly determined and hemmed in by what already exists and the assumption that it will indefinitely continue in the same direction, without radical breaks or sudden changes, without anything impinging on that direction, and without the possibility of new things emerging in unexpected ways out of existing contradictions.
This indeed, leads to a form of political defeatism which regards the possibility of revolution as being impossible, and in turn to a form of political reformism. Rather, and I think correctly, one should recognise that, “History, like nature, is full of sudden leaps. Because of that, very bold initiatives undertaken by the subjective factor (so long as they are founded on the real dynamics of material reality) can have a galvanic and electrifying effect; they can be “game-changing,” to use an extremely overworked but still expressive cliche.” On the other hand one has to be careful to ensure that one does not engage in voluntarism, otherwise one will be caught in a form of political adventurism. I do not think that there is much one can disagree with here because much of this is boiler plate revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. However, what I do think that is important to emphasis here is a problem that I see in this account is that Wolff seem to simply juxtapose political reformism, caused by “determinist realism”, to “very bold initiatives” that are simultaneously not characterised by adventurism. I agree that there is definitely a role for that, and that is a necessary component of any revolutionary process, but these very bold initiatives have to be accompanied with the daily work of building the revolutionary movement. Indeed, a very bold initiative could be the expansion of party cells into new areas of a given country, but unless it is accompanied with the daily work of actually building a solid foundation in those new areas of work in the long run, those cells are unlikely to take hold and the bold initiative will have been for nought. Thus, what I see as a problem in Wolff’s account is a neglect for the patient “organizing” of people around their own issues, which if led by revolutionary communists will also necessarily include a component of political-ideological challenge to preconceived ideas and an expansion of that struggle to political struggles. Indeed, Wolff argues, as we will shall see in the next section, that if one “organizes” people around their own concerns, be it police brutality or trade union struggles, that one necessarily resurrects the walls between the objective and subjective factors, and lapse into a political reformism.
However, it is on this foundation that Wolff claims that Avakian has provided a new insight. He says,
hastening the development of the revolution, while awaiting favorable developments in the objective situation—those times in which everything goes up for grabs. But this too is dialectical and not mechanical—you are working on conditions with the expectation and understanding that this becomes part of not just preparing for major changes in the objective situation, but bringing about, and to the greatest extent possible shaping, those changes when they do come. You’re straining against the limits, straining against the framework. And you’re doing it all with an awareness that the sharp contradictions of this system find expression from many different and unexpected directions.
The hastening of the revolutionary situation is the acting upon the revolutionary situation by the subjective elements helps to do two things: 1) produce a situation in which when the objective situation experiences major turmoil, for example an economic or political crisis, is even more favourable to the revolutionary elements so that they may seize most effectively on the situation and 2) actually produce the political crisis itself. This is always done in antagonism to the limits that exist at any given moment, and requires an appreciation that these sharp contradictions necessarily within the capitalist may express themselves in a myriad of unexpected ways. So what is my problem with this? Well, the fact that this is actually not new. I know, I know, I sound like a broken record, but this is not new. Perhaps I am missing something, but this does not sound any different than what most revolutionary communists around the world believe. This is why they engage themselves in the active class struggle and are not simply content to be Blanquists who wait for a crisis, upon which they will pounce and capture power. Indeed, this understanding of the partially determinant role that a given subjective force plays in any given situation, and the necessity of actually playing that role, is something that goes back all the way to Marx. All that Avakian seems to have added to the mix is a catchy slogan, which whilst useful, does not actually do any theoretical work. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that Avakian thinks that this should be applied to all terrains of struggle including “the realm of morals”. Quoting Avakian,
But fundamentally (and, so to speak, underneath all this) freedom does lie in the recognition and transformation of necessity. The point is that this recognition and the ability to carry out that transformation goes through a lot of different “channels,” and is not tied in a positivist or reductionist or linear way to however the main social contradictions are posing themselves at a given time. If that were the case—or if we approached it that way—we would liquidate the role of art and much of the superstructure in general. Why do we battle in the realm of morals? It is because there is relative initiative and autonomy in the superstructure. And the more correctly that’s given expression, the better it will be, in terms of the kind of society we have at a given time and in terms of our ability to recognize necessity and carry out the struggle to transform necessity.
Fair enough (by the way just to clarify one term above, necessity means objective situation in Avakian’s philosophical system). However, I fail to see how this is new either, especially in the context of Althusser’s declaration that philosophy is a battlefield which must be won by Marxist science in Lenin and Philosophy. However, it seems to me that if we are not to fall into the theoreticist deviation that Althusser self-criticised himself for, Avakian would need to reaffirm that this “battle in the realm of morals” must be accompanied with a battle in the realm of economic and politics as well, which he seems to neglect as I mentioned abive. Indeed, if we are to take Marx’s comments in “On the Jewish Question” seriously, we need to see morals as being partially determined by the objective situation as a means by which to mediate social relations, and that a transformation of social relations is needed, but of course is not sufficient, to win the “battle in the realm of morals”. Indeed, one has to be careful not to liquidate the “battle in the realm of morals” simply in favour of the battle in the realm of economics otherwise we will be guilty of economism, and will loose the important semi-autonomous relationship between base and superstructure, but we must be equally cautious not to liquidate the battle in the realm of economics either in favour of a one-sided “battle in the realm of morals”.
Enriched What Is To Be Done-ism
This ‘hastening while awaiting’ is a central component of Avakian’s claim to have enriched Lenin’s ‘What Is To Be Done’. Wolff defines it as,
“Enriched” What Is To Be Done-ism is called that because, in addition to rescuing and reviving all the crucial principles developed by Lenin, Avakian has emphasized the importance of enabling the masses to engage with all spheres of society from the angle of knowing and transforming the whole world, as well as the need to “break down” to the extent possible the barriers to that engagement; and, very critically, he’s emphasized the importance of boldly promoting communism itself and of putting before the masses the biggest questions of the revolution—the questions that we’ve been getting into here.
Indeed, a key aspect of this enriched “what is to be done”-ism is a an active movement against economism, and a call to boldly promote communism. However, I do not think that this is enriched “what is to be done”-ism but rather, is simply what I regard to be Leninism. Wolff correctly juxtaposes this to the revisionist position put forward by some that, “now is not the time,” and that “the battle around immediate demands is the best way to get in position to do that…later on.” But where I disagree with Wolff and Avakian is where they expand the definition of economism itself (and this relates to the issue of neglecting daily struggle that I mentioned earlier). Wolff says, “Economism originally meant confining the attention of the workers to battles around wages, working conditions, unions, and so on but has come to encompass any sort of strategy that focuses on mobilizing the masses to fight for “palpable results.”” This I think is an erroneous position and is far too broad a definition. Indeed, I think one can and should mobilise the masses for palpable results, but recognise that any such mobilisation must be accompanied by a conscious attempt to raise the consciousness of the masses being mobilised towards a revolutionary programme, even if it may initially alienate some elements of those very masses. I think to simply rule out any kind of mobilisation around palpable results because it is somehow juxtaposed to the development of revolutionary consciousness is simply mechanistic and undialectical. It is true that Lenin opposed simply limiting oneself to trade union consciousness, but that does not mean that he called for complete non-participation in unions or strikes. Indeed, how can we forget that Lenin and Mao mobilized the masses time and again around palpable results whilst always reminding those very workers that the reforms won were insufficient in of themselves, and that the only way that the misery of the working classes could come to an end was through the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat! I agree with Avakian and Wolff that there needs to be a leadership and a conscious initiative of the masses for there to be a revolution, and that this cannot occur as long as one simply hides one’s own politics or simply sits on one’s ‘secret knowledge’ in hope of becoming palatable to the masses, but at the same time we need to expose the masses to our politics and to our knowledge in the midst of the class struggle in whatever form it may take, including economic struggles. I mean it is Avakian who keeps on reminding us that the objective situation that will throw up a whole host of struggles, including economic struggles, that we must take up and enrich with revolutionary consciousness. The goal of communists should be to elevate economic struggles into political struggles, this is the true sign of revolutionary leadership.
One cannot but wonder what are the implications of this on the practice of the RCP,USA and Wolff makes them clear,
In brief, though, while coming from the orientation of hastening while awaiting a revolutionary situation, it encompasses the pivotal role of the revolutionary newspaper; the need to boldly spread communism in everything we do; the importance of promoting the works of Bob Avakian; the need to organize people around the slogan “Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution,” to spread revolution and build resistance to the key ways that the system comes down on the masses; recruiting people into the Party; and undertaking political initiatives around societal “fault lines” that concentrate key social contradictions at any given time—like the struggle to drive out the Bush regime.
Again, there is nothing new here except that the promotion of Avakian has been raised as an important aspect of the work of the RCP,USA, and there is a neglect of any kind of economic struggle. I do not wish to get into an argument about whether the promotion of Avakian is necessary or not, and will leave it to the RCP,USA to do it if they so please, but I do wish to point out that there is nothing enriched here. This is simply Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done” summarised and is the already existing practice of any revolutionary party. This also is the case of Avakian’s call for “United Front Under Proletarian Leadership”, which is simply known to most communists as the “United Front”. Wolff explains it as,
a strategic approach to realigning different class forces in a way that the goal of revolution and the revolutionary communist outlook that we’ve been discussing today are brought to the forefront and established in the leading position. This takes place through a complex process of what we call unity-struggle-unity—that is, forging unity with people of very diverse backgrounds and outlooks around key social questions, both critical “fault lines” of the system and a wider range besides; carrying out struggle within that unity over questions of how to see the world, ideologically and politically; and through that process of serious engagement developing that unity to a higher and more deeply founded level.
What Wolff and Avakian wish to juxtapose the “United Front” to is the “Popular Front”. The “Popular Front” was practised by the communist parties around the world during WW2 and saw the liquidation of the communist line in favour of complete class collaborationism, all under the auspices of “fighting fascism”. I do not wish to get into a debate about whether Dimitrov’s notion of the “Popular Front” actually corresponds to this conception of it as put forward principally by the CPUSA, or whether the problem was actually the interpretation of the “Popular Front” by parties like the CPUSA which were already infected with Browderism (as Fergus McKean argues in his invaluable study of the Communist Party of Canada), but wish to point out that once again this is not new and is what most communists (including Trotskyists) understand to be the definition of the “United Front”.
In closing, I have tried to engage with Avakian’s “new synthesis” as fairly as I possibly can, and apologise for any errors in reasoning that may exist in my argument. I must conclude that I think that Avakian’s “new synthesis” is in fact often not “new”, and often simply repeats earlier truths with different kinds of window-dressing and terminology. However, we should not confuse advertising with new insights. As Avakian himself told us, “bullshit is bullshit”. And I am calling bullshit. At key junctures where Avakian does differ from Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, he fumbles and provides incorrect and metaphysical analyses of the problems at hand and the solutions that are necessary to deal with them. A number of commentators have admitted, begrudgingly, that Avakian has indeed taken theoretical work that already exists, without ever citing it, but argue that he has synthesised these theoretical developments with the historical experience of communism since the death of Mao to produce a ‘new synthesis’. However, this is not true either. Avakian does not touch on huge bodies of Marxist or bourgeois theory that has been produced in the last three decades, and does not provide the kind of historical summation of the failures of the GPCR, the Peruvian or Nepalese people’s war etc. necessary to actually claim a “new synthesis”. Furthermore, unlike Marx who was able to identify new theoretical concepts hence provoking a new set of theoretical questions altogether, what Althusser called an “epistemological break”, Avakian’s new “concepts” do not do the theoretical work necessary to elicit such a break. One cannot locate any new object of study per se, and all that one is left with is Avakian’s rebranding of classical objects of study. I must apologise if this may seem excessively harsh, however, I think that we need to remember to weigh these ‘positive contributions’ that Avakian has made in the last decade against the negative consequences i.e. the fact that today the USA is without a Maoist party and the RIM has collapsed. I recognise that Avakian and the RCP,USA have made many actual positive contributions in their long careers like upholding Mao in a time when there was complete confusion in the international communist movement (especially the publication of Avakian’s Mao Tse-Tung’s Immortal Contributions which I recommend you all buy and read), or the re-coalescing of the international communist movement into an embryonic core, but the “new synthesis” will always be a dark mark on that record. Avakian is the solid core inside the RCP,USA and I think he has led them into a dead end, politically and theoretically. But it is not his fault alone. They followed. And I cannot but wonder whether they will follow him wherever he may go.