Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”: A Critique, Part 2
I would like to thank JMP for his help in regards to this post and TB for the picture.
The first post in this series dealt with the first two philosophical “contributions” that Avakian supposedly has made to Marxist philosophy and I argued there that I do not think that the “new synthesis” is new at all, and in fact Avakian repeats a number of insights that are in fact old hat to any communist who has decided that he/she will not only read the narrowest reading list possible i.e. something more than simply Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. In this second post I will deal with the remaining two philosophical components of the “new synthesis”: 1) the critique of pragmatism and associated tendencies and 2) the apparently “radical” epistemological gesture of arguing for a conception of “objective truth” in juxtaposition to “class truths”. I must say again that I do not find any of these supposed contributions new either, and to be honest, theoretically underwhelming in the context of the really existing theoretical lacunae in contemporary communist theory.
One of the main things that the “new synthesis” is intended to challenge is the rise of pragmatic and associated idealist tendencies. I am not going to deal with empiricism, positivism and instrumentalism in my critique, not because they are unimportant, but because I think that they remain side issues of the larger critique of pragmatism as a whole and are often employed as component parts of their critique of pragmatism, and also because I think Lenin does a somewhat fair job in Materialism and Empiro-Criticisim. Indeed, I would be interested to see Avakian’s justification as to why we need the “new synthesis” in regards to the aforementioned theoretical tendencies when we already have Lenin’s text, unless Avakian wishes to argue that Lenin’s critique is insufficient and in that case he needs to explain why this is the case.
Wolff’s defines pragmastism as “a philosophy, as I said earlier, that opposes the investigation of the deeper underlying reality in the name of “what works” and which also will maintain that ideas are true insofar as they are useful. This latter point begs the question of “useful for what?” and, more important, actually denies the real criterion of truth—whether an idea corresponds to reality.” This sounds quite deep and I do not think that any communist would actually be opposed to combatting such tendencies. Indeed, it seems to be a real practical and timely philosophical intervention in the world of Marxist praxis, especially in light of the developments in the Nepalese Maoist movement at whom this pragmatist charge is most hurled by the Avakianists, perhaps? However, I still have two major qualms with this argument. First of all, the critique of pragmatism is actually not new to the communist movement. The “Asian Study Group”, a precursor to the Communist Workers’ Party, actually accused the Revolution Union, the precursor to the RCP,USA, in 1974 of engaging in right opportunism, and argued that right opportunism was in fact linked to American philosophical pragmatism. Thus, one could hypothetically say that Avakian is simply reproducing the intellectual gesture pioneered by Jerry Tung some 30 years prior. And this directly relates to my second grievance: I am unclear about how this critique of pragmatism fundamentally differs from Marx’s, Lenin’s and Mao’s attacks on “right opportunism”. Right opportunism means to liquidate one’s own principles and subordinate the working class movement in order to make short-term political gains. I understand that Avakian is fundamentally concerned with how the goal of communism and the necessity of a revolutionary strategy to achieve said goal may be completely dissolved by pragmatic concerns, especially at the level of tactics. However, it seems to me that there must be an element of pragmatic thinking in one’s politics at a tactical level which reflect the material realities in which one is and the limits on one’s possible actions imposed by said material realities, otherwise we would actually be adopting a form of “left opportunism”. Indeed, it seems to me that the pragmatic concerns of tactics have to always be gauged by the goal of revolution and the revolutionary strategy that is being employed in a given country. If the RCP,USA was to eschew any form of pragmatic thinking, I believe that they would unfortunately be akin to a form of political idealism in which the goal/demand of revolution is no longer related to empirical-realities on the ground (perhaps in a manner similar to Badiou’s “Communist Hypothesis”). Thus, although it is right for communist revolutionaries to make the demand for communism and revolution central, however, it would be idealist to assume that just because we want revolution we can make it without having done the prerequisite work necessary such as raising consciousness of the popular masses, building the necessary mass organisations and political structures (united front, dual power etc), building the party, developing the necessary military infrastructure etc. Otherwise, as seen in the case of the Spartacist Uprising, the results can be disastrous and actually push the revolutionary movement back for decades. Indeed, even in the case of Nepal one would need to carefully delineate between the right opportunism that has been employed by the party (and this is across the board), and the pragmatic limitations forced by material circumstances.
I would now like to briefly discuss Wolff’s charge about “apriorism”, and Stalin’s supposed a priori notions about socialism because it once again demonstrates Avakian’s muddle-headed use of philosophy. I would like to make it clear that I do not wish to diminish the disastrous effects of Stalin’s mistakes or act as if they do not exist, however, I think we need to criticise Stalin on the correct philosophical grounds. Wolff writes,
Or let’s take an example of apriorism, as well as positivism. Stalin had an a priori assumption that once agriculture had been mechanized and once production, in the main, had been put under socialized ownership in the ’30s, there would then no longer be antagonistic classes in Soviet society. But struggle nonetheless continued. Since Stalin’s a priori “model” of a socialist society without class antagonisms couldn’t account for this, he was led to conclude that all opposition must be the work of agents for imperialism. The results were grievous, from numerous angles.
Wolff identifies two a priori assumptions in Stalin’s thought at the time: 1) mechanization and communization of agrarian production would result in the achievement of socialism and; 2) that after having achieved socialism there would be no more antagonistic classes, and the class struggle would have ceased. I agree that this resulted in disastrous policies. Thus, he and Avakian argue that “apriorism” is a bad thing. Let us quickly define what a priori means: a priori means to know something prior to experience. Now in the case of socialism, especially in the case of the USSR, all knowledge about socialism was a priori because there had been no experience of socialism yet. Would Avakian and Wolff have preferred that Stalin make no a priori assumptions and hence do nothing to actually determine agrarian policies for the USSR? Or perhaps Avakian and his followers know of a socialist experience that Stalin should have studied which would have allowed him to have a posteriori knowledge of how to relate to agrarian mechanization and its relationship to socialism? Now it is correct to state that after having tested out these assumptions in the course of a 5-year plan or two that Stalin ought to have corrected his a priori assumptions, but it is ridiculous to suggest that Stalin was incorrect to have a priori assumptions. Mao was able to correct these incorrect assumptions because of his a posteriori knowledge (knowledge of something based on evidence or experience) of the USSR, and delineate a different line which included a stronger worker-peasant alliance and the recognition of continued class struggle under socialism. It was not because Mao was some kind of genius who could gaze into a crystal ball about the future, rather it is because he could study the Soviet experience and draw lessons from it. Something that Stalin could only partially have done, and admittedly did not do enough of. Furthermore, Mao also made a series of a priori assumptions like if the peasantry were encouraged to engage in agricultural industrialization on their own voluntary will that they would be able to sidestep the problems that Stalin faced, and this had its own mixed results during the Great Leap Forward. Thus, the problem is not that Stalin made a priori assumptions, as Wolff suggests, but rather that his a priori assumptions were in fact incorrect hypotheses and were rooted in incorrect ideological tendencies like productivism. Ironically, Wolff too make a serious a priori assumption when he claims that he knows that all struggles under socialism will no longer be violent. Should Wolff also be attacked for a priorism? Perhaps, I mocked him in my last post for doing so and perhaps slightly unfairly, but must remind him that since he has no experience of communism (except maybe in his head) that this is an a priori assumption.
On Avakian’s “radical epistemology”
I have to say that I find this point to be the most amusing insofar that the position that there is no “class truths”, but simply “objective truth”, is an old Marxist philosophical chestnut that Avakian thinks if he spits on and rubs anew will shine in such a manner that it will dazzle the reader into agreement. First of all, there is a long-standing tradition from Marx and Engels to Lenin to even contemporary philosophers like Althusser who argue that there is no such thing as “class truth” but simply “objective truth”. Indeed, Marx and Engels were so determined in their conviction about the “objective truth” about dialectics that they tried to demonstrate how the natural sciences like physics operated on the basis of dialectics, and argued that in fact that dialectics gained its scientificity due to the objectivity guaranteed by the natural sciences themselves. Indeed, the entire Althusserian critique of Lysenko is predicated on a notion of truth that is not class-based in nature.
Furthermore, I find Wolff’s quote that, “[the] insights of non-Marxists or even anti-communists can neither be dismissed nor just adopted whole; they have to be critically sifted and synthesized and often recast” to be incredibly funny because a) I do not know what neck of the philosophical and theoretical woods that Avakian and his followers have been hanging out in, but most people I know who are Marxists are more than happy to learn and use insights from bourgeois philosophers, social scientists and philosophers; and b) the RCP,USA’s treatment of contemporary Marxist and non-Marxist thinkers leaves a lot to be desired and actually contradicts Wolff’s own plea for open-mindedness. Regarding point (a) we have someone like Althusser, for example, who drew upon the theoretical insights of people like Bachelard, Lacan etc to produce a truly exciting new philosophical model and epistemological model. However, the same cannot be said for Avakian who does not seem to have read any other Marxist philosopher or social scientist, or deigns not to cite them and their influence. I would be very interested to see Avakian say what he has learned from a number of Marxist and non-Marxist philosophers and social scientists etc. This directly relates to point (b), if one is to actually look at work that the Avakianites have actually produced on contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou or even the pragmatists, one cannot see any appreciation for their work or what one could actually learn from their work, rather what we experience is complete disdain. Again I completely agree with Wolff that,
There are truths that, in a short-term and more linear sense, run counter to the struggle for communism but which, when taken up in a larger context, and with the method and approach that Avakian is bringing forward, actually contribute to that struggle. This includes the “truths that make us cringe”—truths about the negative aspects of the experience of the international communist movement, and of socialist societies led by communists—but also, more generally, truths that are discovered that reveal reality to be, in certain aspects, different than previously understood by communists, or people more generally.
I completely agree that there is a dogmatic wing to the Maoist movement that is unwilling to take up truths that make us cringe, for example, the truth that there were in fact gulags in the USSR that unfairly imprisoned (hundreds of) thousands of people, or that the Cultural Revolution was a failure in its capacity to change the relations of productions and social relations of society hence allowing for the rise of Deng Xiaoping (again it must be noted that Avakian and his followers continue to adhere to the classic Deng coup model of Chinese history that overlooks all of the inconvenient truths about the Chinese social formation). However, how is any of this new? It is indeed true that the Maoist movement around the world needs to correct their conceptions of what actually happened in the USSR and in China under Mao, and that perhaps some well-trodden truths about how to analyse one’s own society need to be overturned, but none of this is new. This is the meat of what we call criticism/self-criticism. Rather, the main task is actually doing it and I have yet to see from the RCP,USA an equivalent to Bettelheim’s study of “Class Struggles in the USSR” for the developments in China under Mao (and I am sorry Setting the Record Straight is not it, indeed, it actually is more an example of the kind of instrumentalist historical project that we are supposed to be moving away from). I have yet to see from the RCP,USA an honest reappraisal of Trotsky and his relationship to the communist movement. I have yet to see from the RCP,USA an honest appraisal of even its own history that deals with the inconvenient truths about the party’s development and elements of its own political line like that of homosexuality. I have yet to see from the RCP,USA an honest appraisal of its mistaken and ridiculous apocalyptic screeds about the rise of “Christian fascism”. Indeed, it would be a start if Avakian and his followers actually come out and admit that their “new synthesis” is actually not new at all to the majority of us. I completely agree with Wolff when he says,
Because, again, the question here is not only “going for the truth,” but doing so on the basis of a thoroughly scientific, dialectical materialist, outlook and method, and correctly grasping the link between this and the struggle for revolution and ultimately communism—and getting the full richness of what is involved in this. Recognizing the importance of and insisting on pursuing truth in this way—unfettered by narrow, pragmatic, and instrumentalist considerations of what seems most convenient at the time or what appears to be more in line with particular and immediate objectives of communists…pursuing the truth by applying the scientific outlook and method of dialectical materialism in the most sweeping, comprehensive, and consistent way in order to confront reality as it actually is and, on that basis, transform it in a revolutionary way toward the goal of communism
But cannot agree with him when he ends the above paragraph with “this is radically new and represents a key part of the richness of the new synthesis being brought forward by Bob Avakian. This is the full meaning of what is concentrated in his statement that: “Everything that is actually true is good for the proletariat, all truths can help us get to communism.”” The inconvenient truth that Avakian and his followers must come to terms with is that this is not radically new, and is not part of some imaginary “new synthesis”. In fact, all it is, for better or worse is simply a poor reflection of the basic positions of certain trends in Marxist philosophy from the 1960’s and 1970’s like Althusserianism. What is damaging is that unlike the theoretical developments of the time is that we do not see here a real reflection of the theoretical moves that have occurred since then like for example the impasse that was reached by Marxist linguistics by Michel Pecheux; or Marxist theories about consciousness by a whole host of authors like Slavoj Žižek; or Marxist theories of the State by people like Nicolas Poulantzas; or further afield contemporary philosophical debates about materialism in the philosophy of mind or in the contemporary philosophy of physics or biology (I am sorry folks but Dr. Stephen Jay Gould cannot be your answer alone). In sum the “new synthesis” simply does not do the work that is required of any “new synthesis” in the 21st century.
In the next instalment in this series I will deal with the political implications of the new synthesis on the international dimension.