Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”: A Critique, Part 3
In this post I will be shifting away from a philosophical critique of the supposed innovativeness of Bob Avakian’s ‘new synthesis’ (available here and here) and look at its political implications on the ‘international dimensions’. This of course is particularly important in light of the collapse of the RIM, which Avakian’s ‘new synthesis’ played a considerable part, and contemporary attempts to rebuild a new RIM (for more discussion see my post about it here). Lenny Wolff points to two key texts by Avakian which ground this analysis, “Conquer the World” and “Advancing the World Revolutionary Movement: Questions of Strategic Orientation”, and I hope that in the future (perhaps this summer) to re-read those two texts and provide a more detailed analysis of them, however, for now I plan on dealing with the arguments that Wolff makes in his summation of the ‘new synthesis’. It is interesting, albeit not surprising, that Wolff actually makes no reference in this section of his presentation to either a) the RIM or b) more recent protracted peoples’ wars in Peru, Nepal and India. This is interesting because it is clear that some aspects of the line advanced by Avakian and Wolff are completely theoretically antithetical to the revolutionary attempts in those countries, and because in fact one could find some of the causes for the demise for the RIM in the theses advanced here. However, lets really get into it. “Warp speed, Mr. Sulu. Engage!”
Wolff claims that Avakian, like a number of Marxist theorists around the world (Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire being the most famous), “led in deepening Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, and the model that I just laid out also ruptured with what had become the dominant line in the communist movement”. Before I discuss what he claims to have ruptured with, and his brand spanking new theoretical solution, I just wanted to say this grandiose claim is not new and in fact a new theory of imperialism is kind of a holy grail in Marxist theory. However, what is odd is that Wolff’s account of how imperialism functions in the world, which I have not reproduced here but encourage you all to read, is simply a restatement of the classical Leninist view of imperialism; indeed, it does not even benefit from any additional analyses about settler-colonialism or financialization of markets etc. that other theorists have been developing from the 1970’s on. Indeed, simply Wolff claims that
Avakian upheld and deepened Lenin’s understanding that the division of the world between imperialist powers and oppressed nations had given rise within the imperialist powers to a section of the working class, and an even bigger section of the middle class, that not only benefitted materially from the parasitism and plunder of imperialism, but came to politically identify with their imperialist masters.
However, let us give Wolff and Avakian the benefit of the doubt and permit that perhaps the deepening of Lenin’s analysis actually has nothing to do with deepening our understanding of the nature of imperialism itself, as I assumed (and perhaps the task most necessary today, but nevertheless), but simply the manner in which the Leninist theory of imperialism is reconciled with over-accumulationist theories of capitalism in contradistinction to the dominant line. The dominant line that Avakian ruptured with was “a view that imperialism was in a general crisis and was headed straight to collapse”. I would like to quickly explain the dominant line and what I mean by over-accumulationist theories: the reason that imperialism was in general crisis, the dominant line argued, is because there was an over accumulation of capital by imperialists and the incapacity to re-invest their accumulated surplus value in the world market with a greater rate of return on their investment. The imperialists were unable to get a greater rate of return on their re-investment of surplus value because of the devaluation of capital in general due to the excessive amount of capital in the world market, thus leading imperialism into a general crisis. This indeed was a dominant line in the 1970’s, largely because of pronouncements by notable Marxist theoreticians and leaders like Mao Zedong saying so, and was indeed erroneous. It in fact overlooked the capacity of capital to constantly revolutionise itself through revolutions in different aspects of the production process (the digital revolution is one such radical revolution that dealt with the problem of over-accumulation in the late 1980’s and 90’s) through either extensive or intensive means. This dominant line is something that has been a number of parties have rejected, independent of Avakian, although some parties continue to argue that we are in the terminal stage of the general crisis (a position that I find to be too apocalyptic). However, Avakian does not make his intervention here on the plane of international political economy i.e. through a rupturing from over accumulationist theories or by studying the either extensive or intensive means through which over-accumulation can be temporarily resolved, but rather by arguing that, “these wars performed the function of “classical crises” under capitalism: the destruction of the old framework of capitalist accumulation, which had become too fettering, and the forging of a new one.” This truly is baffling, unless I am really missing something here, as there is nothing new about this argument as this is over-accumulation theory 101. However, perhaps Avakian was unable to enrol in over-accumulation theory 201 the following semester, or does not read contemporary Marxist theory journals (what I am saying, of course he doesn’t, they don’t print his speeches after all).
However, Avakian, Wolff and his compatriots feel that this new “innovation” in theory leads Avakian to another insight,
Avakian developed the principle that the class struggle in any particular country was more determined on the international plane than by the unfolding of contradictions within a given country somehow outside of, or divorced from, that context. The revolutionary situation that enabled Lenin to lead the Bolsheviks to seize power arose out of an international conjuncture of world war that radically affected the situation in Russia and enabled a breakthrough to be made; Lenin’s internationalism and his qualitatively deeper grasp of materialism and dialectics enabled him to see this possibility when, initially at least, everyone else in the leadership opposed the idea of going for revolution. Similarly, the Chinese Revolution occurred in a specific international context of World War 2 and invasion from Japan.
Now you can pervert this to mean that you can’t do anything if the international “balance of forces is unfavorable.” That’s not true—and revolution, or even revolutionary attempts, within specific countries can radically affect that balance of forces. But you are playing in an international arena, and you have to understand the dynamics on that level; the “whole” of the imperialist system is greater than the sum of the separate nations that make up its individual parts.
This truly is the first genuinely new argument that Avakian has made (finally!) as I know of no other group that argues this line. First of all, I appreciate that Wolff quickly dispels the most obvious criticism of the line is that it leads to a kind of pessimism which simply pushes revolution always to an undetermined future because the international “balance of forces is unfavourable”, and recognises that revolutions in a given country will actually change the balance of forces, sometimes radically. Furthermore, I do agree that revolutionaries around the world should be cognisant of the fact that they are playing in an international arena and need to understand the dynamics at that level (thus it is telling that organisations like the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Communist Party of the Philippines have both signed onto international laws regarding the modality of guerrilla warfare). But what I am not sure about, and am truly uncomfortable with, is the first proposition that he establishes i.e. “that the class struggle in any particular country was more determined on the international plane than by the unfolding of contradictions within a given country somehow outside of, or divorced from, that context.” I agree with Avakian that all domestic politics are partially determined by the international plane, indeed, that is the nature of imperialism. But it seems to me that Avakian overstates the case and underestimates the semi-autonomy between domestic and international planes, thus effectively allowing the international plane to simply determine the class struggle in any given country which results in him believing “that the class struggle in any particular country was more determined on the international plane”. There in fact seems to be an unconscious theoretical slip from “more determined” (which I think needs to be contested itself) to simply “determined by”. Indeed, I believe that Wolff in his both of his examples regarding Russia and China overdetermines the role of the international conjuncture in relation to the developing national contradictions partially determined by said international conjuncture. It is very telling for example in Lenin’s “April Theses” that WW1 does not figure as a prominent reason for the transition from the first stage to the second stage of the revolution, rather, the provisional government formed under Kerensky remained part of the imperialist war effort not due to the international situation, but rather due to the capitalist character of the Kerensky government itself!
In rather an omniscient and omnipresent manner Wolff argues that,
So you can’t understand it from “my country out”—and doing it that way is another example of positivism, by the way. And you can’t see internationalism as something that you “extend” to other countries; the whole world has to be your point of departure. You have to come at revolution in “your” country as your share of the world revolution. Communists do NOT represent this or that nation; we’re (supposed to be) about eliminating all nations, even as we know we’re going to have to “work through” a world where there will be nations for a long time yet to come, even socialist nations, and where there will have to be a whole period of first achieving equality between nations in order to transcend them.
I completely agree with Wolff and Avakian that one of the problems with the “my country out” politics is that there develops an over-emphasis on one’s national considerations which can actually lead to a form of reactionary international politics that results in the betrayal of the world revolution, and the associated incapacity to develop the revolution in one’s own country (thus, for example the lack of support for the Greek partisans by the USSR, or the lack of support by the Nepalese Maoists for the Indian comrades). But would like to note that Avakian is hardly the first person to make this point, as entire traditions of Marxism have repeatedly made this point (like the left communists or the Trotskyists, oh oh, I used the L and T words). Furthermore, I agree with Wolff and Avakian that communists ought not represent any given nation, and rather should see themselves as part of a world revolutionary movement, but again fail to see how this is a radical departure from the left communist position for example. I say “omniscient and omnipresent way” because Wolff seems to suggest that communists are actually able to subtract themselves from the particular situation in which they find themselves in the given country in which they live, and universalise themselves through the capacity to see the entire playing board, and then make decisions from that universalist position about their own (sub)national politics. I must admit that I do not completely understand what it means to say that communists should see the whole world as their point of departure, rather, than extending internationalism from one given particular situation to another as concrete internationalism seems to be predicated on the fact that one should be able to give solidarity from one particular situation to another. This was the same problem that the left communists have repeatedly faced in their espousal of the same position. Indeed, it seems to suggest or imply that like a national situation which can in fact be seen as one’s point of departure (so a communist based in Andhra Pradesh is told to go to West Bengal because she is needed there more or to move her battalion to Orissa to provide support to a prison raid there), the RIM should be able to similarly coordinate itself in such a manner, which in fact seems to resuscitate the old Comintern notion of the “world party” in which individual parties in nations were simply national sections of said “world party”. Thus, the CoRIM, constituted in whatever manner, would be better able to understand the conditions in which the Indian revolution will take place regardless of the fact that it may or may not have any Indian comrades on its body, and that comrades from national situations in which the revolutionary class struggle is comparably low (say the USA) are able to fully understand and appreciate the demands and needs of the class struggle in Nepal which is at a much more developed stage. Furthermore, it seems to me that an international body because of its international scope would be unable to appreciate, understandably, how a really micro-level interaction (lets say between class and caste in one village in West Bengal) may have a serious impact on the revolutionary movement in that given district, state, and then the national level as a whole.
The problem I see is that whilst it is laudatory that Avakian and the RCP,USA think that they have been able to fully universalise themselves and are no longer caught inside the four walls of being Americans, and are able to become fully internationally cosmopolitan, that they in fact remain American communists looking from “outside into” the revolutionary movement of a given country which may be radically different from their own. It is interesting to note that Avakian for example does not really draw upon cultural or historical references from the international body in his talks and remains largely within an American idiom (which he undoubtedly knows better). Also, it is interesting to note that despite the fact that Avakian apparently was living in Europe for numerous years due to his self-imposed exile from the USA, he and the team that undoubtedly surrounded him did not contribute to the building of any European Maoist organisations. The problem I am identifying here is the parading of a nationalism under the guise of an internationalism which was exactly the problem with the Comintern and the USSR, in which Stalin paraded the particular national concerns of the USSR as international concerns. Indeed, Avakian and co. seem to believe that to avoid being “mentally landlocked” one should simply push an international outlook that is subtracted from a national situation, but seem to be unaware that this position is the very false Enlightenment position that was advanced by people like Immanuel Kant. Thus, it is much easier to say that our point of departure should be the international and then move towards the national, and much more likely that one is actually simply universalising their national attributes to the international. Thus, if you had asked Stalin about his internationalist policies, I have no doubt that he would have said that he had a world outlook that did not privilege the revolution in the USSR over that of other countries, but in practice we all know this is not how it played out. Indeed, it is these very kinds of assumptions that actually resulted in the collapse of the RIM, and I think it is very important to see how this line actually contains the intellectual seeds for the disastrous line that was followed in the RIM.
And finally I would like to close by dealing with Wolff’s last substantive claim regarding the political implications of the ‘new synthesis’ on the international dimension by examining his claim that,
Avakian developed the principle that the proletariat in power must “put the advance of the world revolution above everything, even above the advance of the revolution in the particular country—build the socialist state as above all a base area for the world revolution.” He also very importantly formulated the principle that revolutionaries have to at one and the same time seek to make the greatest advances possible in building the revolutionary movement and preparing for a revolutionary situation in all countries, while also being alert “to particular situations which at any given point become concentration points of world contradictions and potential weak links…and where therefore the attention and the energy of the proletariat internationally should be especially concentrated.”
I cannot but agree more with this. One of the biggest problems in the communist movement is that communists have often over-determined their own national problems and considerations to the detriment of the world revolution, and that socialist governments should use their states as a base area for the world revolution. Furthermore, I agree that revolutionaries should seek to make advances in building the revolutionary movement and preparing the revolutionary situation in all countries whilst being alert to particular situations in which the contradictions become sharpened and energies concentrated upon. However, I do not think that these are new principles that Avakian has actually come up with, and thus he cannot claim that they are part of his new synthesis. Just because this principle has not been put into practice time and time again does not mean that Avakian has developed something new, indeed, such principles can be found in the works of Marx and Lenin alike, and was often (but not always) put into practice by Mao. Furthermore, I would like to know why Avakian and the team around him. did not actually practice these politics by helping form revolutionary parties in Europe? I would like to know why the RCP,USA has not actually formed a committee to support the people’s war in India or even participated in the international week in support of the people’s war in India?
In the next post in this series I will deal with the next political implication of the ‘new synthesis’, democracy and dictatorship. The will likely include a discussion of Avakian’s conception of a “solid core with a lot of elasticity”.