Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”: The Overlooked Importance of the Critique of Apriorism

user18970_pic7852_1302745895One aspect of Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis” that I briefly addressed in the first part of my critique was Lenny Wolff’s argument that Avakian’s “new synthesis” was a break from a form of apriorism that existed in the International Communist Movement (ICM). Wolff defined apriorism as, “imposing categories on the world, rather than drawing these concepts from the world itself, in a complex interplay between practice and theory”. Wolff then provided a historical example of this apriorism: Stalin’s agricultural policies. I argued at the time that Stalin’s agricultural policies, whilst incorrect, were being somewhat unfairly critiqued for apriorism because Stalin could not have any a posteriori knowledge of socialist agricultural policy, and thus necessary needed to rely on an a priori understanding of the problem. Indeed, it was only after the first 5-year plan that it was possible for Stalin to then have a posteriori knowledge about socialist agrarian policy. However, I was encouraged to reflect more Wolff’s discussion of apriorism in Wolff’s speech in the context of a book on the Lin Biao incident that I recently finished reading. Having read the book it became evident to me that Avakian’s critique of ‘apriorism’ was in fact referring to two more historical experiences: the Lin Biao incident and the experience of the Communist Party of Peru. The latter is particularly important inasmuch that one of the main categories that the PCP put forward was “Maoism”, in contradistinction to “Mao Zedong Thought”. Other categories suggested by the PCP proved more controversial, including the “militarised party”, “Gonzalo Thought” and the “universality of people’s war”. Indeed, it becomes clear that the RCP,USA in attacking apriorism seeks to distance the RCP,USA not only from the negative aspects embodied in the example of Peru, but from the entire Maoist process embodied in the historical experience of the RIM.

The book, “Lin Biao and the Gang of Four: Contra-Confucianism in Historical and Intellectual Perspective”, authored by Tien-wei Wu, chronicles the intellectual debates that broke out in the aftermath of the Lin Biao incident. The book is truly unique in the existing literature on Chinese Maoism inasmuch that it is probably the only monograph-length study of the ideological struggles in the social sciences during the Cultural Revolution period. Tien-wien Wu, when providing a general account of the contra-Confucian campaign and Com. Mao Zedong’s basic principles for the forthcoming campaign (the Three Musts and Three Must Nots), writes,

In the spirit of these three basic principles, efforts were made to transform the world outlook of the people – from bourgeois idealism and metaphysics to the dialectical and materialistic historical world outlook of the proletariat – by means of studying Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

The initial criticism of the bourgeois idealism centered around “apriorism,” which was opposed to materialistic “reflectionism.” This led to a total attack on the theory of genius, which Lin Biao supposedly had used as a counterrevolutionary platform. In a length article entitled, “The Reactionary Nature of the Theory of Genius Viewed from the History of Philosophy,” Zhe Jun pointed out that in China from Confucius and Mecius to Wang Yang-ming and in the West from Plato to Nietzsche, all reactionary classes promoted a theory of genius, which was nothing but apriorism, the foundation of the idealistic view that heroes created history and of the philosophy used by the exploiting classes to dupe the people. The significance of this article probably lies not so much in its criticism of Confucius as in its revelation, which will be discussed later, that Lin Biao was the staunch proponent of the theory of genius. (21)

It is first evident that the spirit of the anti-Confucius campaign animates the current “cultural revolution” that the RCP,USA internally has undergone and is trying to expand to the larger ICM. For the RCP,USA the study of Avakian’s “new synthesis”, in a manner akin to Mao Zedong Thought in the 1960’s and 70’s, has become vital for any proper communist understanding and serves effectively as a dividing line. However, more importantly, in the context of the Lin Biao incident, apriorism is connected not only to a philosophical tendency that imposes pre-conceived categories onto the world, but also one that is connected to a theory of genius and political authority. This connection between the two aspects of the critique of apriorism are necessary to fully understand because this is a vital step in understanding how Avakian wishes to apply it in our contemporary conjuncture. Effectively, heroes or geniuses could impose, using political or philosophical authority, categories onto the world which were not of the world itself and thus reflected a bourgeois idealist outlook. This in turn has to be opposed by the correct materialist outlook. To do so meant to not only critique the very concept of genius itself, but also the categories that the genius had deployed. Chairman Gonzalo is likely the contemporary target of the charge of apriorism, and perhaps to a lesser extent Prachanda in Nepal (although he is likely more a negative example of pragmatism), because of the PCP’s advocacy of the ‘jefatura’ line. But what is precisely important about the case of Peru and Chairman Gonzalo is that a number of categories are at stake, most importantly “Maoism” itself. It must be noted that this line of argument is not unique, K.N. Ramachandran of the CPI(ML)[Red Star]/[K.N. Ramachandran] has made this very argument. In the RCP,USA’s response to Mike Ely’s “9 Letters” they write:

Yes, in response to Mike Ely’s question, “Can anyone point out any real difference,” we can point to at
least two decisive differences: 1) The PCP actually argued that, although Gonzalo might be capable of
making minor mistakes, he had developed to the point where it was not possible that he could make a
major error that would touch on the course of the whole revolutionary struggle – and specifically that it was impossible that he could be calling for a peace accord to end the people’s war in Peru when that would amount to a defeat for the revolution. For the RCP’s part, not only have we never argued, or suggested, or believed, anything of the kind with regard to Bob Avakian – that he is incapable of making a major, strategic error, bearing on the whole course of the revolutionary struggle – but, as a matter of basic worldview and principle, we regard this kind of thinking, as applied to anyone, as fundamentally wrong and in fact reflective of a metaphysical and idealist, and in effect a religious, view of leadership. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of the line of the RCP and the body of work and method and approach of Avakian in particular, is opposition to, and struggle against, this kind of religious tendency, including as this takes shape among communists …

And 2) The “jefatura” line of the PCP actually articulated as an organizational principle that someone who had reached the stature of Gonzalo occupied a position that was in fact above the collectivity of the rest of the Party and its organizational structure – something which, again, the RCP’s line not only does not agree with, and does not apply to Bob Avakian, but which once more Bob Avakian has argued and polemicized against.

In this regard, Avakian is correct. The “jefatura line” indeed is modelled upon Lin Biao’s theory of genius and ought to be rejected. Indeed, the incapacity of some very marginal sections of the PCP’s milieu (in particular the Peru People’s Movement (MPP), but also some fraternal organisations) to accept that Chairman Gonzalo was the author of the peace-accords was predicated on the notion that Chairman Gonzalo, as the embodiment of the party’s whole historical experience, could not have reneged on the people’s war because it was in direct contradiction to the entire line of the party. This is despite the fact that Chairman Gonzalo has helped serve as the titular head for the new PCP, or MOVADEF (which is accused of being the Right-Opportunist Line (ROL) by the MPP. Recently a website claiming to represent the PCP and upholds Chairman Gonzalo has been publishing about the PCP’s 4th stage). The rejection of the “jefatura line” is necessary for a thriving revolutionary movement and it is noteworthy that the CPI(Maoist) came to this conclusion in 1980. If it was sufficient to end here, all would be well. However, the accusation of apriorism has another element: it puts into question all of the categories that it had imposed upon the world. I will focus on the category of Maoism.

It is well-known that Avakian and the RCP,USA were never particularly keen on the term, “Maoism”, and that it was imposed upon them by the PCP. The PCP had adopted the line of “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, principally Maoism” in 1988 and demanded, as a precondition to their joining the RIM, that the RIM similarly accept the term. The RIM would formally do so in 1993, after a period of line-struggle within the RIM which dovetailed with the split in the CPN(Masal) and the TKP/ML. However, part of the difficulty in the debate has been that many, including the Communist Party of the Philippines and the CPI(Maoist) have both argued that there is little semantic difference between “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Maoism”, but had often adopted the latter as a means by which to demarcate an existing military practice. The Avakian and the RCP,USA had been wanting to go a different direction. The RCP,USA have often gestured towards this different direction when they trace a theoretical thread through the oeuvre of Avakian, starting particularly with the document “Conquer the World” and spanning till date, of that alternate line within the RIM. “Maoism”, in effect, becomes a preconceived category that is imposed upon the revolutionary movement by a false “genius”, Chariman Gonzalo, which in turn inhibits the revolutionary movement from realising the truly proletarian outlook.

The Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan notes that the term “Maoism” has disappeared from the lexicon of the RCP,USA and that this is the sign of a “post-Maoism”, however, the RCP,USA had not become post-Maoist it has in fact gone alter-Maoist. They seek to serve as two things at once: 1) the unfortunately neglected cipher for the understandings the defeats of “Maoism” since 1968; and 2) the true charters of the unchartered course and the founders of a new stage of communism. I will admit that I think that the RCP,USA’s emphasis on decoupling “Maoism” from the PCP to be useful inasmuch that it allows us to have a discussion about the category and its content in a manner that is not straightjacketed by one narrow definition.


11 thoughts on “Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”: The Overlooked Importance of the Critique of Apriorism

  1. hi there,
    you say’ The “jefatura line” indeed is modelled upon Lin Biao’s theory of genius and ought to be rejected’
    so it should be, but the rcp usa has not really rejected it, because they apply the theory of genius to Avakian. this seems a contradiction in their theory and practice.

    if they really reject it, then they should also drop the idea that Avakian is a ‘cardinal question’.

    1. Hi Johnson,
      I agree. The RCP,USA definitely does adhere to a version of the “jefatura line”. However, the distinction that they would draw is that the “jefatura line” is an a priori version of leadership and categories (effectively a form of commandism, which is combined with a militarist tendency), whereas the Avakian’s special leadership is the result of a posteriori knowledge that he has synthesised and produced in his work. Having said that, I definitely think that the RCP,USA should reject the leadership aspect of the “jefatura line” that the RCP,USA had indeed adopted in regards to Avakian i.e. as a “cardinal question.”


      1. i hope so too. that is, there are aspects of Avakian’s work which are interesting, but he blows it by the personality cult, which distracts from the work. ie what is the point of writing an article such as ‘ bob avakian the jimi hendrix of revolution’? Hendrix is, we may all agree, a genius musician, and if Avakian is the Hendrix of revolution, then Avakian is also a genius.

        as it goes, i dont accept ‘maoism’ as a third higher category either ( altho i support such movements), because Leninism is the marxism in the age of imperialism, and as we have not passed imperialism, we cannot pass Leninism. as such, Mao Zedong Thought is a correct term which has indeed provided much to the marxist arsenal.

      2. Hi Johnson,
        Agreed. I think Avakian may be taken more seriously if they got rid of the personality cult. However, I have a feeling that he would necessarily need to be engaged in a more meaningful manner with both larger debates in the Marxist theoretical universe outside of the more narrow confines of the Maoist world, and debates more particular to the situation in which he lives. Indeed, I think that the entire ML/MZT/Maoist milieu must engage more fully with a larger swathe of Marxist intellectual production. Also, we need to be engaging with new ideas that are being developed outside of Marxism.

        I am personally not wedded to the idea that the stages of Marxism are necessarily historically linked to different “ages” of the historical development of capitalism (so the age of imperialism), but speaks to the stages in the development of a science. Thus I have little issue with the use of the word, “Maoism”. However, I do think that the content of Maoism, if it simply not the same as Mao Zedong Thought, needs to be more fully articulated and that this places on the table a series of political questions that need answering. I was wondering what you considered the “certain definite political line” that the more “colourful names” expressed?


  2. as such, i dont think there is any such thing as ‘gonzalo thought’ or ‘prachanda path’ other than colorful names for a certain definite political line. a definite and clear political line that works is no small thing however.

  3. by definite political line, i mean the line that started and led the ppw in nepal/peru. this is not an easy thing to do, and so i can understand why it may be called after the name of a leader in particular in that it is distinguished from the political line of the other parties. this does not make a new stage however.

    1. Ahhh ok, I see what you mean. I am not convinced about naming the political line after the leader, however, can understand why it is sometimes politically useful/expedient. I agree with you regarding that none of these political lines constitute a new stage, but think its worth noting that none of these parties ever claimed that they had arrived at a new stage. The Peruvians likely got closest to such a claim, before Avakian and the RCP,USA of course, with their claim that Gonzalo was the 4th sword. I have always preferred the Indian position regards this.

    1. I think the question becomes what is meant by the term “Maoism”. If “Maoism” means a unreasonable attachment to the historical figure bearing that name (or for another historical figure who originated the term) it is of course an obstacle to the rigorous and critical analysis we need to firmly ground our work today.
      On the other hand if Maoism merely names a trajectory of political practice informed by the lessons (many of them negative to be sure) of the Chinese Revolution, the CR (1966-68), the long aftermath of the CR in China (1968-76) and other revolutionary movements inspired by the CR while also grounding itself in a diversity of other historical experiences then it remains a useful point of departure.
      And of course similar distinctions could be applied to Marxism and Leninism.

      1. Dear Tom,
        Thank you for your comment. I completely agree with your statement. I would also include, as you may know from reading this blog, movements like the Shengwulien who were putting forward interesting and competing understandings of Maoism while Mao was alive during the GPCR. But thank you for your comment.


  4. I knew Jimi Hendrix and Bob – your’e no Jimi Hendrix. The only difference between Bob and Jim Jones is that Jim Jones is dead. I misheard when they said California was the home of the biggest American cults. Rapper, poet, theoretician, is there no beginning to Bob’s talents? Like he says ‘it’s all very well in practice, but will it work in theory?’ Charlie don’t surf but Bob does. Just hope he doesn’t notice comet heading for ML Gate on nearest gas giant. ‘New Synthesis’ magic formula will make those old ML stains disappear – contains big words like ‘if’ and ‘because’. Don’t underestimate Bob – he’s not as stupid as he appears.

    Avanti Popolo

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