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.


12 thoughts on “Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”: A Critique, Part 5

  1. Dear Robert,
    First of all, I would like to make it clear that I have no intention to take these posts down, indeed, it seems to me that your idea of elasticity is incredibly limited and is in direct contravention to your own professed belief in the “new synthesis”. Is this the limit of the “elasticity” that the solid core offers? I will let you continue to post comments but ask that you cease your current behaviour as this is trolling. Second of all, I do not think you are in any position to make demands in behalf of the ICM considering the fact that a number of Maoist parties have rejected the “new synthesis”, but are more than welcome to demand it in the name of the rcp,usa. Third of all, I am allowed to my opinion and you are more than welcome to debate the points with me, struggle out the line, but I think it is ridiculous that you would accuse me of doing this at the behest of imperialists. Indeed, I have engaged with the “new synthesis” as was asked of me, and have found it lacking. If you feel that I have erred, correct me, but you cannot simply retreat to this kind of stupidity. Indeed, I hope and believe that you are capable of better than that.

    The WD

  2. Robert, how is this in any way helping the cause of the RCP USA? There’s nothing of any substance in your comments, just more Avakian hero worship, coupled with unprincipled attacks on WD. This seems to be the default reaction of RCP USA members to any criticism of Avakian, and it goes a great distance in confirming what I’d heard about the group’s cultishness. WD was seriously engaging with the new synthesis, the least you could do is seriously engage with his criticisms.

    Great stuff, WD. I’ve been wanting a good analysis of the new synthesis, so-called, for some time, and this has fit the bill neatly. I’ve learned a lot.

  3. Considering how RCP USA members in person say they “welcome criticism”, and then go on to say things like “but no one has yet dared to provide a critique of the New Synthesis”, it is always enlightening to see what this “welcoming” of criticism actually means.

    Your own new synthesis (which is not new nor synthetic, as this series has adequately demonstrated) claims to invite critique, Robert, and yet when this critique actually comes people like you do not live up to the high level of political development you claim to possess. Instead, what I’ve observed as someone following this series, is RCP-USA members failing to respond to any of the arguments, and remaking the same dogmatic argument: 1) Bob Avakian is the greatest revolutionary in the world; 2) to criticize Bob Avakian is heresy.

    One would expect that, if Avakian’s political line is actually a “new synthesis” of revolutionary communism, then its devotees would be able to represent this new stage in a principled manner and realize that: a) people aren’t just going to accept it because you say-so; b) the masses need to be one over; c) calling critics “reactionary” and “lackeys of the imperialists” is ad hominem and undialectical thinking. So your unwillingness to actually engage shows that you don’t understand the new synthesis or this critique.

  4. This is hilariously ironic. Considering Robert’s posts have been perfect demonstrations of religious dogma, the fact he has someone reading about religious blindness and religious submission and how marxists need to be critical, shouldn’t he see how this applies to him?

  5. I can’t beleive it.
    Good thing I seen it.
    Clearly BF has demonstrated that he has indeed read Wolff with apprpriate depth.
    Clearly RCP is being masticated by those on the left.
    Althusser’s wikipedia article is not all-that’s-there, sometimes you gotta read the texts.
    The New Synthesis is clearly not this relevant to the Maoists who live in this world,
    nor do the cultists want any discussion to be heard.
    Does he still hate queers after all these years? Does he lead the proles after tales untold?
    Is it really responsible to blame the shortcomings of real life maoist people’s movements on their decision not to name drop you’re philosophical masturbation fort the purposes of emancipation of their nation?
    Do you seriously think that “Christian Facism” is as reactionary as your white nationalism in-place of internationalism?
    Jesus. Bob didn’t write it so you must not have read it, but please go through this list the next time you’re on Reddit.

  6. can you even mention another American communist leader who has had even half of the influence Avakian has had over the international communist movement, who is as beloved of the masses as Avakian, who is such as threat to the US government that he is not allowed back into the US? No, i thought not. Avakian has no competitors, and in the coming US revolution, led by the RCP USA and Chairman Avakian, we will see the new synthesis in practice. these articles pretended to engage with the new synthesis, but the outrageous last article, calling the new synthesis ‘bullshit’ and putting that stupid video of peter pan shows the level of the author and his true intentions toward revolutionary change. I am all for Bob Avakian’s work being taught in schools, in colleges, in factories, and everywhere else. also, although this article dismisses Avakian’s insights, you can be very sure that the bourgeosie take Avakian very seriously, and this is why there are a number of bourgeois articles attacking Avakian and the RCP USA. I have no doubt Obama and Clinton, Bush and Mitt Romney take Avakian and the threat of an RCP USA revolution very seriously indeed! Its a shame that articles such as this can only criticise revolutionaries, they offer nothing in the place of Avakian and the new synthesis. i ask the author? do you think you are better than Avakian? could you do what he has done? No, i didn’t think so. I am proud to say- long live Avakian!

    1. First of all, I am not limited to thinking about American communist leaders and do not think that his being an American communist leader with influence on the ICM means that we should accept the very positions that has placed him at fundamental odds to that very ICM. Second of all, there is no ban in the USA which prohibits him from speaking there or travelling there, rather, as his lectures on the East and West coast of the USA (which constitute the Revolution DVD) demonstrate that he actually can do so. Third of all, I think that I have engaged with the “new synthesis” inasmuch that I have read a fair amount of Avakian, and would like for you to explain to me where you find flaws in my argument. Fourth of all, I am glad that you think that Avakian should be taught every where, and can say you must have very low standards for education and are indeed a “hardcore Avakianist”. Fifth of all, I think your comments about Romney and Obama is delusional. Fifth of all, I do not think that I am better than Avakian, I think I am the same as him and I am not impressed that he has several books all printed by a party press. Lets see if Avakian could get published by someone else than his sycophants, I very much doubt it.

  7. what annoys about these articles is the smug complacency of the writer; he seems to think that people in the RCP USA are fools and ignoramuses and that they are brainwashed. is this what the writer thinks? that people in the RCP USA are stupid? please answer if you dare. secondly, you say you are the same as him (avakian). are you saying you think you equal to Lenin? perhaps in your fantasies you are the same as avakian, but in reality, you are not the chairman of the rcp usa and of the international proleteriat and you never will be.

  8. flaws in your argument;
    1) the writer does not grasp dialectics
    2) the writer has not grasped the new synthesis
    3) the writer is an idealist and has not grasped materialism
    i suggest that the writer read the BAsics.

  9. avakian would not get published by bourgeois publishing houses because they do not publish authentic proleterian revolutionary voices. why is it that badiou and zizek and negri are published by the bourgeois publishing houses? maybe because they are not revolutionary? why is zizek such a chicken that he is afraid to debate raymond lotta and the new synthesis?

    i am not delusional at all. avakian gave those lectures on the east and the west coast underground, they were not publicised but were kept top secret. i know, i had a hand in it. avakian is in danger because of the danger he poses to the US ruling class.

    to compare yourself to avakian is a joke. nobody has heard to you, but the masses around the world know Avakian.

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