Book Review: David Gilbert’s, “Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond”.
I must admit that it is difficult for me to write an honest review about Com. David Gilbert’s “Love and Struggle” (you can purchase your personal copy here), especially because of the enormous respect that I have for him and the sacrifices that he has made for the revolutionary cause, and a fear that any criticism of his work will be regarded as unfair, un-comradely and disrespectful. However, simultaneously I believe that such a review is absolutely necessary because Com. David’s life and politics have often intersected at key points in my own development as an activist, although completely unbeknownst to him. The first time was when I became involved around the anti-war movement against the second Iraq war, and some of us watched and hotly debated Sam Green’s documentary about the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), and saw me reading a lot of the existing literature at the time; the second time was during a difficult three-month strike that I was deeply involved in at my home institution during which I devoured Dan Berger’s authoritative book, Outlaws of America (which interestingly was the result of a long relationship with Com. David himself); and the third was when I returned from Nepal and became increasingly interested in the question of the universality of protracted people’s war, and the parallel between the WUO and the Jhapa Uprising. I will not discuss these points of intersection further because I think that they distract from the task at hand, but needless to say, Com. David’s politics and life experiences have been something that I have consistently wrestled with throughout my own political development, and thus I do not take this book review lightly.
Thus in frank honesty, I must admit that I did not care for the first third of the book. The first hundred and twenty pages suffer from two major problems: 1) Com. David very little new information about the development of the revolutionary movement on the campuses across the USA, except for the fact that Com. David was not as central to the SDS leadership and Weather Underground leadership as I had previously thought (although I was interested to learn about his initial theoretical work in New Left Notes which resulted in an early fall from revolutionary grace); and 2) I found it to be too pedantic, and structured through a series of lesson-plans. Indeed, often the first-third of the book, due to the little new information – especially for a reader familiar with much of the existing literature on the topic, including Dan Berger’s aforementioned excellent book – often came across as a kind of an Anti-Oppression 101 class with Com. David’s life serving as scenarios which ought to be discussed to develop a form of best practices that should orient our organizing. Indeed, this structure is replete with every sub-chapter heading being followed with a small-italicized synopsis that read like an Anti-Oppression 101 scenario, which we are supposed to collectively figure out, but without having Com. David present to debate with, which is less than ideal for any kind of revolutionary pedagogy. Furthermore, we are forced to replace such debate with Com. David’s own resolution. I am not trying to suggest that there is anything particularly wrong with anti-oppression training, although I do think that often this has replaced a critical revolutionary framework, however, the result was that the narrative became disrupted and choppy. This disrupted narrative with little new information made evident the lesson-plan structure to the reader, which in turn blunted the effectiveness of the structure itself. This unfortunately resulted in Com. David coming across as too eager to provide solutions through which to demonstrate his continued belief in a form of revolutionary humanism. I must admit that I found this to be quite annoying, partially because of my own theoretical suspiciousness about revolutionary humanism (a debate for a different place), but also became I did not want to have Com. David to serve as a revolutionary ideal type, but rather, as an interlocutor in the revolutionary struggle. However, luckily both of these problems recede to the background as the narrative becomes stronger and very interesting information is provided to the reader about Com. David’s time underground, in Denver and during the Brinks trial in the latter 2/3rds of the book.
I know the exact moment at which I became excited about the content of the book and it is on page 124 when Com. David discusses criticism/self-criticism. It was fascinating to read about the WUO’s attempts to implement criticism/self-criticism in their practice as professional revolutionaries, and Com. David’s own self-criticism about how said practice was carried out (indeed, Com. David mentions that only a few times did he feel that the self-criticism sessions were actually aiding his development as a revolutionary). Indeed, an endearing aspect of this book is how humble and self-critical Comrade David is, although as I mentioned earlier, these aspects can also be quite irritating within the best practices format. This moment is important, as it is the point in which Com. David, unlike in first part of the book, does not demonstrate that there is in fact some easy best practice that young activists can follow. Rather, it actually shows the ambiguities and difficulties that come with putting any of these political methods in practice. And reminds us about the need for us to be consistently being critical about, and bettering, organzinational practices and individual work. Furthermore, the pedantic lesson-oriented teaching plan, whilst remaining partly in place, takes more and more a backseat to the narrative and allows the reader space in which to develop his/her own critical opinions about a given matter, which is what I consider to be an absolute necessity for any revolutionary.
Additionally, it was truly eye opening to read the rudimentary methods that the WUO developed to deal with security issues, especially in the context of being underground. Com. David, himself admits that these the methods are largely outdated in our contemporary context, but demonstrate the creativity and vigilance of the WUO during their underground years, and reaffirm the possibility of actually going underground and fighting in the heart of the beast. It was also interesting to learn a little about the debates within the WUO and how, once again, Com. David was not, besides a very brief time, a central figure in the WUO. However, I would have liked to learn more about the debates inside the organization, especially about their practice and conception of their conjuncture, but was interested to learn about the summer schools that they organized to improve the ideological quality of their cadre. It was interesting to learn about the debate in the organization around its relationship to the white working class, and its liquidation of the original line of the organization regarding the relationship to nationality struggles, and the role that Com. David played in it. It was impressive to learn that Prairie Fire (of which I own a copy) had originally been produced without any fingerprints on it. But, I do wish that there had been more information about the infamous Hard Times conference, which seems to remain a truly traumatic and pivotal event in the development of the WUO, and resulted in the building of the May 19th Communist Organization which became important in the context of the Brinks Robbery.
Com. David’s life aboveground in Denver, after the dissolution of the WUO, and his involvement with Men Against Sexism and the subsequently painful experience of dealing with multiple movements that came into loggerheads with one another, was very informative and again reflective of the complexities that arise in the course of the struggle. At this point in the narrative the lesson-plan structure seems to have completely evaporated which results in the reader being left to grapple with the contradictions within the revolutionary movement, alongside Com. David. I am not sure whether this was something that Com. David intentionally wanted to do or was a byproduct of the difficulties in providing any best practices in such complicated and textured inter-group/political relationships. I found it be particularly informative to learn about this period of his life, and was surprised to learn that Comrade David too had gone aboveground with the collapse of the WUO.
In perhaps one of the shortest sections of the book, and one about which I was very eager to learn more about, Com. David discusses his second and last time underground, especially his involvement in what has come to be known as the Revolutionary Armed Task Force and the notorious Brinks robbery and trial. It was intriguing to learn more details about the actors and politics involved in the Brinks Robbery, and facts like the Black Liberation Army not having a central command thus allowing autonomous collectives in the BLA to organize actions on their own accord (something that Com. David himself only came to learn about during the Brinks Trial). However, I must admit that I hungered for more information about Com. David’s relationship with the BLA and members of the May 19th Communist Organization in this second period, but recognize that these and a number of other aspects of his second period underground is something that Com. David likely decided to omit for good reasons.
Finally, it is noteworthy that Com. David spends a good section of the last part of the book discussing his family life with his imprisoned partner and newborn son, because I too have a loving revolutionary partner and also would like to have children someday. Indeed, this aspect was particularly important as it demonstrated a ‘softness’ to which male revolutionaries are not allowed to admit to. This obviously speaks to the macho attitude in many revolutionary groups and organization about the role of the family in the struggle, especially the armed struggle. Indeed, unfortunately often the two are put into juxtaposition to one another and rendered incompatible, thus requiring the revolutionary to ‘sacrifice’ the former in favor of the latter. Indeed, I can think of several autobiographies and interviews well well-known revolutionaries in which the revolutionary figure fails to even mention that he has a partner and children! And if and when they are mentioned, it is only in passing, and always in the context of sacrificing a relationship with them in the name of the revolutionary struggles. Thus, it was particularly inspiring to read about how Com. David was able to forge a relationship with his partner and son during his time in prison, despite all of the obstacles, and how this relationship was something that was negotiated with a revolutionary politics playing a central role. The only thing that one can say that is neglected in this last section of the book is the role that Com. David has played in the prison movement, both in his correspondence with activists outside, and with prisoners and political prisoners inside the prison system.
In closing, this is not a book to be simply read, enjoyed and tucked away on some bookshelf, forgotten, although it is an enjoyable read. It is a book that simply begs to be put into practice. What aspects a given reader wants to be put into practice is something that Com. David leaves the reader to decide, but he provides us with a wealth of life experience which we should all seriously consider. He gives us both the good and the bad. Comrade David is humble about his accomplishments and readily admits to his faults, he is an honest storyteller, and eager with his lessons for a new generation of activists.
Com. Surendra Ajit Rupasinghe: Initial Response To Workers Dreadnought On Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis”
I normally do not allow other people to post on this blog however, have made notable exceptions in the past. This post is one such exception as it directly relates to this blog and the opinions expressed here, and readers may be interested in it. Recently Com. Surendra Ajit Rupasinghe, Secretart of the Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist) posted on this blog, in regards to another post, and asked why I disagreed with Bob Avakian’s “new synthesis”. In response to said question, I decided to articulate my disagreements in a series of posts dedicated to the ‘new synthesis’ (available here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Com. Surendra Rupasinghe has decided to respond with an article defending Avakian’s ‘new synthesis’ albeit with caveats and has attacked this blog. I do intend to respond to Com. Surendra Rupasinghe but will let him speak uncensored here without a response so that people can mull over his arguments on their own. It was originally published on the Colombo Telegraph.
Recently, Colombo Telegraph carried a five-part critique of the “New Synthesis’ developed by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party-USA (RCP-USA) posted by the Workers Dreadnought (WD). It carried a reference to my comments in its first posting, where I had upheld the new synthesis. This is an initial response.
The essence of the critique by WD consists of three main points: 1. That there is nothing new in the new synthesis, in that Avakian has merely repeated what had been stated before without acknowledging his sources, 2. That Avakian had not referred to any of the new developments and arguments developed by others on the topics covered by him, and 3. That Avakian has served to obfuscate and derail some of the major philosophical and theoretical principles already established as given truths.
On the contrary, Avakian has reasserted and deepened the scientific understanding of the basic principles of MLM through a radical, comprehensive and intensive critical summation of the historical experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (DOP) and the science of MLM, taking into account serious errors, limitations and deviations and learning lessons, while upholding the genuine path-breaking achievements, and taking into account the new dynamics and developments within the system of world imperialism and sharpening and reformulating revolutionary theory and strategy and thereby synthesizing this experience and the science of MLM on a whole new level. Bob Avakian has unfolded a path towards a new synthesis that needs to be further deepened and developed through revolutionary practice and engaging in struggle and debate.
Summing up experience, radically and critically breaking with obsolete assumptions, practices and methods and synthesizing new knowledge on a whole new basis is the critical essence of MLM. Lenin broke with the assumption held by Marx that Proletarian Revolution and Socialism 2
could only be accomplished first in the advanced capitalist countries. He broke with the assumption that once the economic base had been socialized and collectivized, the superstructure would mechanically follow, although he could not develop this theory fully. Mao also broke with the theory that Proletarian Revolution and Socialism could only be accomplished first in the advanced Capitalist Countries, and went on to give leadership to the Chinese Communist Party in waging the New Democratic Revolution and the Socialist Revolution in a semi-feudal/semi-colonial and colonial country. He also broke with the view that changes in the superstructure would mechanically follow revolutionizing the economic base. What was revealed that it was not sufficient to nationalize and collectivize private property, since it took new forms under the DOP, where people in positions of power would use that power to privately appropriate wealth, status and privilege and establish new social relations of exploitation, and that these persons formed a new class of Capitalists with its headquarters inside the Communist Party itself-at its highest levels of authority. Indeed, he refuted this theory by proving in theory and practice that class struggle would not only continue under the DOP, but would even become more complex and intense. Both Lenin and Mao rejected the ‘theory of the Productive Forces’ and showed that revolutions could and did occur in the weakest links of the chain of Imperialism, provided that the subjective forces were prepared to take advantage of such historic conjunctures, and demonstrated how such ruptures would serve to weaken imperialism and further the cause of revolution in the advanced Capitalist-Imperialist countries. Whether in the advanced countries or in the backward colonies, the line was to establish liberated base areas of the world revolution. These epochal breakthroughs would not have been possible unless the science of revolution had not been applied creatively, discarding what had become obsolete and applying what has become truth in the light of reality.
Marxism itself had been forged through a series of epistemological ruptures with the whole legacy of the anthropological humanism and spiritualized materialism of Feuerbach and the idealist metaphysics of Hegel. Epistemological ruptures refer to the intellectual process where an object is stripped of its ideological layers and reconstituted as an object of scientific inquiry through a new theoretical formulation. Marx did this for the object of History and for the philosophical method of materialist dialectics, which he then applied to the fields of Scientific Philosophy, Political Economy and Scientific Socialism. This Marxist scientific tradition was carried out by Lenin and Mao. To deny the need for such epistemological ruptures is to deny the status of MLM as a science and to reduce it to a religion. (Now, I should have noted that I learned this from reading Althusser, lest I be accused of borrowing ideas and knowledge without referring to sources)
No one could possibly argue that following the fall of China, there was no need for the deepest critical summation possible of the whole historical experience of the DOP, the ICM and MLM itself, and on this basis to reconstitute the science of MLM on a whole new basis. The fall of China seemed inexplicable. How could it happen? After all, the GPCR was waged on the basis of summing up the experience of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR and intended to prevent such restoration by advancing the revolution under the DOP. The GPCR represented the highest pinnacle of scientific understanding of the laws of the class struggle and Scientific Socialism. How then, could capitalist restoration take place? What then is the future of Communism? 3
The fall of China brought out an array of negative tendencies that had to be combated and overcome through the most rigorous reassertion and creative application of the MLM. This is beside the concerted onslaught directed by Imperialism and Reaction as to the death of Communism, which also had to be refuted in both theory and practice. One negative tendency was defeatism and capitulation, caving into the imperialist onslaught that Communism is not possible, that it was a terrible Utopia. The other was to give play to voluntarism and “Left” adventurism, denying the possibility of the science of revolution and the role of revolutionary theory. Guevarism and all forms of putchism and insurrectionism replaced scientific revolution- as it did in Sri Lanka at the cost of two generations of revolutionaries. Yet another tendency was to lie in the slumber of a teleological destiny as to the inevitability of Communism-something destined by Nature and History. This view was also joined by an apocalyptic vision of the general crisis of imperialism leading to its inevitable downfall, or that world war 3 had to take place for there to be a leap in the world revolution. These were- and are- real tendencies that eroded the science of revolution and the cause of Communism from within.
Genuine Communist revolutionaries had genuine and agonizing questions. Why had not Mao taken steps to found a new International? Why did he remain silent when Chinese foreign policy went to the extent of extolling the virtues of the Shah of Iran. Why did he remain silent when Chou-En-Lai congratulated Madame Sirimavo Bandaranaike for having decimated the youth uprising of 1971 and even offered economic and financial assistance to prop up her regime? Why had not Mao refuted the “Three Worlds Theory and Line” openly and publicly, instead of leaving us to grope in the dark and providing various revisionist and opportunist forces to advance, as they did in Sri Lanka-funded by the Chinese Embassy? The question is all the more vexed and agonizing given that Mao had supported the “ Spring Thunder of Naxalbari, supported the cause of the National Liberation struggle of Palestine and supported the Afro-American struggle for national liberation, even while entertaining Nixon. Mao was an outstanding proletarian internationalist, yet he made these serious errors or went along with them. It is in such a decisive subjective conjuncture in the ICM- in the context of the concerted and sustained assault on Communism by world Imperialism and Reaction, in the context of all kinds of opportunist and revisionist tendencies sprouting within the ranks of the revolution, when burning questions agonized genuine revolutionaries, when the future of Communism was at stake, that Bob Avakian rose to the task of excavating, reasserting and synthesizing the science of MLM to a whole new level by critically summing up the historical experience of the DOP from the Paris Commune, the October Revolution and the construction of Socialism in the Soviet Union to the GPCR, and MLM itself, taking into account the new dynamics and developments in the system of world imperialism and drawing the necessary theoretical and strategic implications for advancing the world revolution, by re-envisioning Communism and the cause of emancipating humankind on a whole new, vibrant and enlightened basis.
“Conquer the World” by Bob Avakian was truly world conquering in its analytical precision, philosophical depth, scope of vision, theoretical rigor and lucidity, historical impact and practical significance. It was like spring rain following a ‘winter of discontent’. The “Immortal Contributions of Mao Tse Tung” came to the defense of MLM like an inexhaustible multi-barrel rocket launcher. No one had summed up experience, drawn lessons and raised the science of revolution to new heights as had Avakian through his contributions at the most decisive hour for our generation. His analyses and evaluations of the work of other scientists and artists, even of 4
comedians and sports personalities, of art, literature and religion, his exposure of every line and agenda put out by the ruling class in the US, the analysis of the power structure, the drawing up of the philosophical basis of proletarian internationalism, the line and strategy on the National Question and the United Front, relying on the ‘real’ proletariat, his call for unleashing individual creativity and initiative under the DOP, his grappling with the concept of ‘ a solid core with elasticity- all to enrich the science of MLM, proletarian revolution and Communism in the most living and vibrant way – and this is hardly an inclusive array of his contributions. Furthermore, his leadership had provided the basis for the flowering of an incredible array of creative contributions, such as by Andrea Skybreak ( Evolution) Raymond Lotta (America in Decline, China and Mao). Under his leadership, the RCP-USA newspaper, Revolution has reached the far reaches of trenches of combat in the US and across the world.
Bob Avakian had led the Revolutionary Union (RU), the precursor to the RCP-USA, through major two-line struggles against various opportunist and revisionist trends within the RU and the Revolutionary movement in the US, published as the “Red Papers”. To my knowledge, the RCP was formed on the basis of the revolutionary communist principles established by the RU and the line and principles forged in the defense of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM) following the capitalist restoration in China. In this sense, the RCP-USA was forged in a decisive protracted two-line struggle against revisionist and opportunist lines and tendencies in confronting the major issues dealing with the world revolution, the US revolution as a subordinate component, and the goal and vision of Communism. This two-line struggle was an indispensible part of the theoretical-ideological and practical-organizational struggle to forge the RCP-USA on the scientific principles of MLM.
The Workers Dreadnought author accuses Avakian for not having produced anything like Bettleheims volumes on the Class Struggles in the USSR. This is pure academic and sectarian nonsense. The RCP-USA has publicized the work of the “Gang of Four” on the major issues and class struggles (including the two volume work on political economy) during the GPCR as no other party. It has publicized the historic and epochal achievements of the Chinese Revolution, of Mao and Chiang Ching and other heroic leaders as no other party. The WD author claims that Avakian is infected by nationalism, in spite of his avowed internationalism. This is really ridiculous, given his contributions towards raising internationalism not simply as an extension of a duty, but as the essence of the ideology and politics of the communist revolution and the mission of emancipating humankind. His refutation of the revisionist lines put out by both Comrade Venue and by the Communist Party of Nepal, and the contributions in forming the RIM, are hallmarks of internationalism.
The WD author has not produced anything new by his critique. He simply carries out a grudge against Avakian, it seems. His futile attempt to downgrade the contributions of Avakian reveals an inability and unwillingness to apply MLM to critically engage with the new synthesis and to develop it. More fundamentally, he refers to the failure of the GPCR in preventing the Capitalist Restoration and questions the whole analysis of the coup led by Deng Tsiao Peng and his gang to seize power. Well, he should provide us with a better analysis. To claim that the GPCR failed is serious. The GPCR was an epochal breakthrough in the theory and practice of the DOP representing the highest pinnacle of mass conscious revolution yet aimed at preventing Capitalist Restoration, beating back the counter revolution, defending and advancing the revolution, 5
combating revisionism and revolutionizing all of society and seeding the birth of the new Communist human being. The GPCR succeeded in preventing capitalist restoration for over a decade. It proved that Socialism had to defended against both internal and external (Imperialist) class enemies, who were in league together. It demonstrated that the proletariat and its vanguard Communist Party had the duty and the possibility to wage all-round revolutionary class struggle even in a single country, but that there would be objective and subjective limits to this possibility, and that the final victory of Communism is only possible on a world scale, where successful revolutions in the advanced imperialist-Capitalist countries would change the balance of power in favor of Socialism. To deny all these path-breaking and truly emancipating historic achievements by claiming that the GPCR was a failure is to dabble in idealist metaphysics based on a linear and mechanical view of the dynamics of the world revolution and the path to Communism.
To deny the need for an epistemological rupture with a whole legacy of errors, limitations and deviations precisely in order to defend, apply and advance the genuine scientific essence and the real historic achievements of our class so far is to deny the science of MLM itself. It is to treat MLM as a dead dogma. Everything that needs to be said has already been said, everything that needs to re-discovered and discovered anew is already on the table. Everything that needs to be reworked and re-thought has already been done. This is to turn Communism into a new religion and MLM into a Bible. Everything new comes through after waging bitter and unrelenting struggle with the old. Even in our own party, there were comrades that stubbornly rejected the new synthesis. How dare you criticize Stalin or Mao? Even Marx and Lenin? How dare you question the validity of the United Front Against Fascism. How arrogant it is to think that anyone can do better or advance beyond these immortals? And so on. The question is not whether anyone can go beyond the immortals. The question is that their immortality lies in their being human and their life and existence being driven by contradictions and conflicts, and yes necessary limitations that future generations must overcome precisely by honoring their immortality. It is time we applied materialist dialectics to MLM and advance both MLM and the scientific philosophy and method of materialist dialectics itself to ever ascending new heights and summits of experience and knowledge.
The disintegration of the RIM was due to the prevalence of revisionist and opportunist trends within it. There were theories and lines bordering on Lin Piaoism that viewed the Third World as the arena of protracted people’s war ( storm centers of the world revolution) that would finally encircle and overcome the citadels of world imperialism. A linear and mechanical view that denied the possibility of revolution in the advanced Imperialist/capitalist countries. Then there was the wholesale capitulation by the then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which turned against the RIM. Then there was the renegade, Mike Ely, who was ousted from the party who did his work to undermine the leadership of Avakian and the RIM. No doubt, there were tendencies towards over-centralisation and forms of elitism that eroded the RIM from within. Bob Avakian and the RCP-USA played a vanguard role in bringing about the unity of the Maoist forces following the fall of China and in forming and sustaining the RIM. It is simply unfair and untrue to blame the new synthesis for the collapse of the RIM. Rather than gloat about this negative development, we should seriously analyse the causes that led to the disintegration with the aim and dedication to build it on new foundations and principles. 6
It is not that we do not have differences with some of Avakians conceptions. For example, we do not believe that Communism is the end of antagonistic contradiction. Irreconcilable antagonism and violent struggle will prevail eternally and absolutely. One will split into two and it will not always be polite. But, the economic basis for such contradiction and class struggle may have given place to a whole new basis in the struggle for survival. However, these are secondary differences that should be struggled over and never constitute barricades in forming internationalist unity. In fact, we think that the whole series of questions that Avakian raises in terms of what Communism society would look like in the context of a truly globalized world without borders and states, where the real diversity of cultures would flourish freely and provide individual freedom to engage in Hip-Hop and whatever, where there would be abundance, yet unevenness, and where there would still be the need for some degree and form of centralization- that is to really engage in a living and liberating dream of freedom.
We feel strongly that the criticisms raised by WD are not a sufficient basis, whether we agree or not, to abandon our responsibility to initiate the process of building a new Maoist International Center. The WD author has not provided any evidence that the differences he had identified are fundamental to forging international unity. To place these differences over and above the need and responsibility to build a new Maoist International is to capitulate to imperialism and reaction. Let us engage in spirited debate and principled struggle over these issues even as we forge unity to build a new Maoist International Center.
This is by no means an exhaustive evaluation of the contributions by Comrade Avakian. I am sure I have not even approached ingesting the whole of the new synthesis. But, I felt compelled to respond to the rather slick and facile critique offered by the WD author, who has contributed nothing new, except carry out a diatribe, and certainly by the seriousness of the question itself.
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.
In the last few posts (Part 1, 2, and 3) I have addressed the philosophical aspects of the new synthesis and the political implications on the international situation. Indeed, I demonstrate that either Avakian has either repackaged theoretical insights put forward by earlier Marxists and claimed this as his own theoretical contributions, and at other times has actually put forward what I think is in fact an erroneous line (this is something that can be most clearly seen in the case of post 3 regarding the international situation). In this post I will deal with another political dimension that the new synthesis attempts to address, the problem of democracy and dictatorship. This topic of course has been something that Avakian has dedicated a large section of his theoretical work to, and I do not have the time to address all of it here, and as with all of my previous posts will focus solely on what Lenny Wolff, in his talk on behalf of the RCP,USA and Avakian, tells us to be the main points. However, I will likely re-read and hope to dedicate a future post to K. Venu’s The Philosophical Problem of Revolution and his article in AWTW, Avakian’s response to the Venu article and Avakian’s Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?
Summing Up The Past
The basic problem that Avakian is trying to grapple with here is how to sum up the historical experiences in the USSR and in the People’s Republic of China, especially taking into consideration “the conceptions, assumptions, methods, and approaches of the great leaders who led those revolutions.” This needless to say is incredibly important work because it is only by summing up the experiences of the past, and the methods utilised, can we avoid the mistakes of the path and delineate a new path forward. And I completely agree with Avakian when he writes,
To be clear: we are talking about changes from and ruptures with much of the approach in the societies that up to now could be said to have been genuinely socialist and genuinely revolutionary but which nonetheless had significant shortcomings. This is not, as someone humorously put it, “run the good plays, don’t run the bad plays”—this is a whole different approach, founded on the breakthroughs in communist world outlook and epistemology that I touched on earlier; a way to correctly answer the question “at what cost” and a way to lead things in a different way, and to a higher level.
The fundamental questions at the heart of this, Wolff writes are, “In short—how does the socialist state maintain itself as a power in transition to a world communist society without states—and not become an end in itself? How does it continue to advance—and not get turned back to capitalism?” I agree with Wolff that these are fundamental problems that exist at the heart of contemporary Maoism. Indeed, I further agree with Wolff that despite the successes of communists in the USSR and China, that “you can’t just leave it at that. Necessary as it is, it’s not enough to just stand firm and defend—and cherish—those achievements in the face of the endless barrage of slander and distortion. It’s not enough just to go deeply into where those revolutions were starting from, and the relentless and unspeakably vicious forces they were up against.” I also completely agree with Wolff that, “we still have to interrogate what was done, analyze the shortcomings in both practice and theory, and truly prepare ourselves—and the masses—to do better the next time.” Indeed, this is something that I think is sorely lacking in the communist movement today, especially in regards to the experiences in China, and the fact that despite the advent of the Cultural Revolution that China was still lead onto the capitalist road (and I do not think that this can be sufficiently explained by the coup narrative that has become mainstay in Maoist circles). As I have repeatedly asked before, where is our “Class Struggles in China”? However, I must admit that when I read Wolff and Avakian alike, I do not find either of them producing the kind of intellectual and theoretical work that is actually necessary. Rather, what I find is a much more general account of the GPCR, which remains almost the same as the one that Avakian put forward in the 1970’s, and does not really take into account some of the deeper problems of the GPCR like the need for a “new class analysis”.
As part of answering this central question Avakian has argued, Wolff tells us, that “it’s been necessary to make a more thorough rupture with bourgeois-democratic influences and the whole conception of “classless democracy” within the communist movement.” This has meant that one has to understand the class basis of democracy, and understand that the USA does not actually enjoy a democracy but rather, is capitalist-imperialist and has political structures that reproduce that capitalism-imperialism, and that there cannot be a “democracy for all” as the political structures must side with the exploiting classes. Thus far, Avakian has not provided any new insights and nor does he claim to have. However, what Wolff tells us next is actually quite significant, especially in the context of the debate that has been going in the international communist movement (ICM) regarding the situation in Nepal, and the claim that the Nepalese Maoists make that they can use the bourgeois state to push forward the struggle for new democracy. He says that,
To begin with, you cannot use instruments of capitalist dictatorship—the armies, prisons, courts, and bureaucracy which this system has developed and shaped to reinforce and extend exploitation and imperialism—you cannot use those very same things to abolish exploitation, uproot oppression, and defend against imperialists. And you cannot use the tools of bourgeois democracy that have been designed, first, to settle disputes among the exploiters and, second, to atomize, bamboozle, and render passive the masses of people, as a means to mobilize and unleash people to consciously understand and transform the whole world. While it is true, as Lenin put it, that socialism is a million times more democratic for the masses of people, socialism is not and cannot be an extension of bourgeois democracy (which is founded on exploitation) to the exploited.
I largely agree with what is being said here, however, think that we need to be more specific at the same time. I think the question is what does it mean to make use of these political structures? Indeed, if Avakian is arguing, for example, that we cannot use the courts to demonstrate the true nature of this bourgeois system in the case of police repression then I must disagree with him. However, if Wolff and he mean that the courts themselves cannot actually bring forward socialism, i.e. you cannot sue for socialism, that he is indeed correct. Indeed, I think that in the case of the Nepalese Maoists the more difficult question is whether the State can be temporarily used to demonstrate the limits of bourgeois right to the masses thus demonstrating the need for a revolutionary takeover, especially in a context in which the urban infrastructure of the party has been destroyed and there is a strategic equilibrium that is incapable of actually going onto a strategic advance because of the balance of forces in the given situation? As a correlative to this I would be really interested to read a summation of the RCP,USA’s own attempts to run an anti-candidate to educate the masses about revolutionary politics, and the need for a real revolutionary alternative to the faux democracy that we currently have.
What communist can disagree with Wolff and Avakian that we need to get rid of the “4 Alls” (“the abolition of antagonistic divisions between people and the relations, institutions, and ideas that grow out of and reinforce those divisions”), and even more agree that these are not divisions that can be simply be gotten rid off, and that the social relations, ideas etc will continue to persist after the revolution has occurred. Indeed, I partially agree with Wolff when he says, “So it’s not so easy as “well, we just change the economic relations, and the rest falls into place”—and to the extent communists have thought or still think like that, it does a lot of damage. Every arena of society will have to be transformed and revolutionized, over a much longer period of time than anticipated by Marx or Lenin.” Where I disagree with him is that it will take longer than what was anticipated by Marx or Lenin because I do not recall at any point Marx or Engels suggesting how long such a transition would take, but I am willing to be corrected about this. Thus, Wolff and Avakian call for a new kind of democracy that involved the initiatives and and the mass mobilization of the people. Wolff writes,
That has to mean mobilizing—and unleashing—people, leading them and learning from them, to overcome the inequalities and the social relations of the old society, all of which undermine the advance toward a new form of society. It means equipping ever broader masses of people with the theoretical tools to critically analyze society and to evaluate whether and how concretely it is moving in the direction of communism, and what needs to be done to go as far as possible in that direction at any given time.
Indeed, the reason that I have spent so much time agreeing with Wolff and Avakian, despite some caveats, is not because I have adopted the new synthesis but rather because thus far I seen nothing original or particularly innovative about any of this. However, it is true that this is in direct contravention to the idea that some have in which the dictatorship of the proletariat would more closely resemble a form of welfare state in which the masses’ economic demands are simply met, whilst sustaining the traditional division of labour, or the kind of State that was led by Stalin which saw the linchpin for social progress to be the “productive forces”. However, Avakian further argues that the masses need to be led in this direction, and that they will not arrive at such a situation spontaneously, as Wolff says,
The answer is, they CAN. But not spontaneously and not without leadership. People cannot take conscious initiative to change the world if they don’t know how it works. That takes science. And because things have been set up in such a way to lock masses out of working with ideas, they need to get that science from people who have had the opportunity to get into it. Again, they need leadership … Because of all that, you will still need an institutionalized leading role for the proletarian party in the socialist state, so long as there are antagonistic classes and the soil out of which class antagonisms can grow. (Once those classes are abolished, there will then no longer be a need for institutionalized leadership, or for a state altogether.)
Indeed, there is little to disagree here with because it closely resembles an orthodox Maoist position. However, the question that I do have is actually about the nature of this leadership because in the case of the GPCR the way that the Cultural Revolution Small Group operated in specific cases demonstrates a level of autonomy that the masses had from this institutionalised leadership, but in other cases (like for example Shanghai) they played a much more clear role? Also, I wonder about how Avakian would deal with the problem that has often been identified in regards to Mao’s role during the GPCR in which he was both the “leader” of the Red Guards AND the “leader” alike, and this dual role often resulted in him taking positions that could often be contradictory? These are questions that Avakian tries to solve with his contribution, “the solid core with a lot of elasticity”, but which I think does not tread any new ground.
The Solid Core with a Lot of Elasticity
I must admit that I have a very difficult time with this section, not because I do not understand it, but rather I cannot see how this differs from particular experiences that one can point to like the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, Avakian and Wolff consistently note that this conception was put to practice during the GPCR, but promise us that the new synthesis is
something on a far greater scale, with different elements and dynamics to it. And let’s frankly come to grips with this: after ten years of the Cultural Revolution in China—the best of the previous conception of socialism—most people did not really understand the stakes of that last battle. Well, the different character and greater dimension of ferment in the new synthesis is one big part of the answer to how to do better next time.
Rather, what seems to have changed is the terms that are being use to explain something quite old and the absolutisation of these old principles. However, ironically this absolutisation of these principle is then particularised at another moment, say in the case of war, in the same manner as they were in much of communist history (for example, the 1920 ban on factions which was meant to be in response to a particular situation, and was subsequently universalised). Thus, let us try to better understand and see whether agree whether the new synthesis actually provides a different character and greater dimension than was allowed within the context of other movements, like the GPCR. So what is the solid core? The solid core is
not identical to the Party and it’s not identical to the proletariat, in some kind of monolithic way. At any given time the solid core represents a minority—in the first phases of socialist society, it’s those firmly committed to the whole objective of getting to communism; and then you’ve got various gradations of people, from different classes and strata, grouping themselves in relation to that.
The solid core is effectively a group of people who are committed to the “whole objective of communism” i.e. the revolutionary core. Thus, at times it can be be identical with more of fewer layers of people who constitute the revolutionary pole. Thus, for example in the case of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his allies were the solid core. Or in the case of the case of the RCP,USA, Avakian’s faction was the solid core in a party that supposedly was lapsing into revisionism. This of course is predicated on a non-sociological assumption that some communists have that the proletariat is the same as the revolutionary core, and argues that there are varying relationships to the objective of communism by individuals (as I mentioned above). This non-sociological analysis of the proletariat is something that a number of theorists have been arguing for since the 1970’s including Badiou and Ranciere. This solid core will then relate to the other layers of society elastically.
The solid core will set the terms and the framework. But within that, it’s going to unleash and allow the maximum possible elasticity at any given time while still maintaining power—and maintaining it as a power that is going to communism, advancing toward the achievement of the “4 alls,” and together with the whole world struggle. Now there’s going to be constraints on the solid core at any time in doing that, including what kinds of threats you’re facing from imperialism. Sometimes you’ll be able to open up pretty wide, and sometimes you may have to pull in the reins; but strategically, overall, you’re mainly going to be trying to encourage and work with the elasticity, trying to learn from it and trying to figure out how you lead things so that it all becomes a motive force that is actually contributing—even if not so directly or immediately, in the short run—but overall contributing to where you want to go. And it’s going to be challenging and complex and full of risk figuring this out.
What I find odd here is that this is something that has been constantly practiced during the history of communism, but then has been limited under the auspices of extraordinary circumstances like “threats from imperialism”. Indeed, what I find odd is that Avakian never deals with the problem of why this happened and how it can be avoided, thus negatively reflecting on his claim to actually have summed up the experiences of the past, but rather simply repeats in essence what has been the practice of the communist movement and then axiomatises it as a principle, which then can be subsequently suspended if and when needed. The problem that I see with this ‘state of exception’ clause, which Avakian still allows for, is that has been repeatedly used by people like Stalin to turn the USSR into the politically and socially stifled place that most critical revolutionaries would not describe as communism proper (I know that there is a tendency in the Maoist movement towards a romanticised version of the Stalin period, which we must rupture from, but that means that there needs to a proper summation of that period and consciousness-raising in the revolutionary movement about it and is something I mentioned at the opening of this paper). Additionally, there seems to be a theoretical problem in this entire idea which Lenin identifies i.e. that at times a group outside of the recognised solid core is the one that actually runs ahead, and constitutes a new revolutionary solid core, and how should one relate to them? Indeed, they may actually have very different ideas about where society should go which is also informed by a new revolutionary objective truth, which may be at odds with the institutionalised former solid core’s version of the objective truth, and could then result in the “closing of the reins”. This is something I will return to throughout the rest of this section.
This idea of a “solid core with a lot of elasticity” can be more clearly seen in relation to the problem of state ideology. Avakian differs from the socialist states of the past, Wolff argues, because he recognises that despite the people’s support for a given revolution that the party remains a voluntary association, and that the majority of the people would continue to have differing relationships to communism.
It’s not the second coming, where everyone gets saved and “sees the light”—thank god! It’s a socialist society. You can lead people to do a lot of new things, a lot of important and emancipatory things, and set off a whole process in which people change society and themselves in a positive direction… but it can’t be done as if everyone has suddenly not only understood, but begun to adhere to and apply the communist method, stand, and viewpoint. And if you try to lead as if that is the case, you (a) are not going to be acting in correspondence to what is true, and (b) are going to, as a result, dam up and distort the whole process through which people come to know the truth and you will give rise to a phony, stifling, or chilled atmosphere.
There has to be a leading ideology—and the difference in socialist society is that we’ll openly express it, rather than mask it the way the capitalists do—but the people who aren’t sure they agree with it should feel free to say so and the people who don’t agree should definitely say so and it should get debated out.
Thus, Avakian argues for retaining and sustaining of a lively debate in which the communist party would spark a series of initiatives of key objectives and try to mobilise the masses around them, whilst still maintaining a leading ideology (which should be the same as or similar to the objective truth that Avakian continues to believe in). Avakian is modest enough to recognise that this was the case in the early years of the USSR, and in China. I must add a caveat here as I think we need to be more specific than Avakian is about China because we cannot say that this lively debate was allowed at all times during the life of Mao, and often became a poor parody of the kind of consciousness-raising project that is truly needed. Where Avakian thinks that he has made a real contribution is in regards to the relationship to spontaneity from below. He argues that spontaneity from below has largely been underemphasised or constricted in China and the USSR alike, where the process and goals of socialist transformation are clearly demarcated by the party and all deviations from it were considered dangerous and stifled. Indeed, Wolff argues that
you actually need intellectual ferment to understand the world. Ferment, debate, experimentation—intellectual “air”—gives you a window into all of what’s churning beneath society’s surface at any given time, and the possible roads to resolution and advance opened up by that churn; it helps you see where you may be proceeding wrongly, or one-sidedly. Without this, the dialectic between the Party and the masses—between leaders and led—would tend to be too “one-way”; the critical and creative spirit would grow blunt, on both ends.
First of all, I cannot, and neither can any of you (unless your perhaps a Hoxhaite), but agree with this and Avakian because this has been the lived experience of the communist movement in numerous times and places. Avakian of course is forced to admit, despite the fact that it seemingly contradicts his earlier claim that this has been underemphasized during the GPCR, that this actually did take place during the GPCR. second of all, I thinks that there is a problem with this however, which demonstrates a tension within Avakian’s concept of “the solid core with a lot of elasticity”, the elasticity of objective truth. On one hand the solid core is supposed to posses, according to Avakian’s radical epistemology, objective truth, not relative truth, and a deep conviction in the goal of communism. But on the other hand the civil society and other non-party political elements may actually be able to demonstrate where the solid core’s objective truth is wrong and teach the solid core something. This would mean to suggest that one actually does not posses absolute objective truth, and that the radical epistemology that Avakian has developed overlooks the necessary caveats that other Marxist theorists had to add to their own conceptions of objective truth. Indeed, this is why I think Mao’s idea of ‘mass line’ which neither absolutises objective truth as Avakian does, nor relativises it as postmodernists do, but rather partializes truth in the way that Althusser’s notion of science operates, is more correct. In Avakian’s conception of the “solid core with a lot of elasticity”, the revolutionary masses would be asked to be asked to participate in revolutionary initiatives and debate, but always whilst knowing that thy are not part of the solid core. This I believe would actually result in the kind of constriction that Althusser warns us about. Also, one must ask the correlated question as to whether the relationship of solid core to the masses would not simply reproduce the same tensions that we have seen historically in which the cadres of the solid core can actually stop listening to the masses because they are not part of the solid core?
This is then closely related to the fact that Avakian does not believe that a socialist society would have several political parties involved in this revolutionary process, and consistently describes the dictatorship of the proletariat as being based around the ideology of THE party or more narrowly, THE solid core. This of course means that Avakian is fundamentally unwilling to rupture with the experience of the USSR and China, and still advocates the single-party state. One could even go further and say that Avakian identifies a state in which a small cabal, the solid core, in effect runs the state. As Wolff says in regards to having an official state ideology, “Now, as I said, the Party does have to lead in socialist society, and the Party itself has to be unified around communist ideology, which enables it to lead people to correctly understand and transform reality.” Now I am not sure whether I actually agree with this reassertion of THE party. I think it is less and less likely in the current context that there will be a singular communist party that will actually lead the revolution on its own. Even in the case of the Bolsheviks this was not the case and the majority of people will actually belong to other organisations (Left SR’s or Mensheviks or anarchists) or no organisations at all, and the revolution will be a temporary congealment of these various trends around one political goal. Indeed, this concept lies at the heart of the United Front, which whilst being ostensibly lead by the Communist Party, allows the Communist Party to organise with other important political elements that remain outside of the Communist Party due to ideological and political differences. Avakian deals partially with this problem, for example, in the realm of ideology, but stills assumes that there is THE communist party which is leading the entire process. This I think has to actually be placed into question, not only historically, but also in the current conjuncture in which there are a multiplicity of communist organisations which agree to the broad contours of revolutionary Marxism, but may be ideologically committed to Left Communism or Trotskyism or a multiplicity of other tendencies. I definitely do not think we can return to the period of the early Russian revolution in which other parties were banned or repressed, or hollowed out in the case of China, or simply slaughtered in the case of Vietnam. And we need to think more carefully than I can do here about strengthening this concept even further. The idea of multi-party socialism that the Nepalese comrades have put forward, for example, can be interpreted to assume the existence of a new democratic constitution which provides some legal limits to the ideology of other parties i.e. anti-capitalism, anti-feudalism, anti-imperialism etc, but then allows for a number of parties to exist within this political realm that compete for the political loyalties of the masses. This tension regarding the singular nature of the party is present when Wolff argues that
part of this model the ideas of: contested elections where key issues facing the state are vigorously debated out with real stakes; a constitution (including the constraints that it puts on the Party); an expanded view of individual rights; the existence of civil society, with associations that are independent of the government; and a whole new way of tackling the contradiction between mental and manual labor, including a different view on the role of intellectuals—all of which I can only mention here, but would be eager to go into during the question period.
First of all, the similarities between Avakian’s own conception and that of the Nepalese conception of multi-party socialism are striking. However, where the differences lies is that it becomes clear that when Avakian means “contested elections”, he does not mean multi-party contest elections, but rather a much more limited electoral franchise which is limited to “issues” which can be voted on. The question of elections for heads of state is actually left out, and I think is telling. The solid core itself remains unelected, and hypothetically is even unelected by the party as the party itself is not identical to the solid core. Second of all, I am not sure how this radically differs from the experience in the USSR in the early years of the revolution where trade unions were allowed to be independent of the party, or even the active distribution of non-Bolshevik newspapers produced by other political groups, or the contestation of elections for different local level bodies. What Avakian simply seems to be doing is reasserting this limited experience, with a whole series of caveats, and once again claiming that it is something that he has pioneered.
Indeed, it becomes clear that Avakian’s “new synthesis” does not really offer a substantially new notion of democracy and dictatorship than what has experienced and theorised before before, rather all he does is absolutise the principles that Lenin and Mao advocated for but were unable to implement because of the on-the-ground realities like the misinterpretation of these principles by cadres etc. However, this absolutisation is simultaneously undercut by the capacity to suspend the elasticity principle in special cases. In effect Avakian has made the same gesture that many many others before him have made, including Stalin. The only difference remains that whereas Stalin was able to demonstrate his commitment to these principles, and their suspension, Avakian has yet to be tested. And indeed, Avakian’s idea of solid core has a troubling authoritarian potentiality in-built. Additionally, one cannot point to a proper summation of the historical experience of communism in the USSR and China (although I think Charles Bettelheim does much of the work regarding the USSR). Furthermore, unfortunately by claiming this as being an innovation of Avakian’s, the RCP,USA simply obscures the history of the communist even further for its own members and does not allow for a fuller appreciation of the historical experience of socialism around the world, and more dangerously in part assumes/adopts a bourgeois caricatured version of the past from which the RCP,USA has “ruptured” from. Finally this conception of the “solid core with a lot of elasticity” demonstrates a tension in Avakian’s radical epistemology as Avakian’s objective truth would be rendered simply a partial truth if he admits that criticisms and lessons from below may need the solid core to augment their idea of truth (hence rendering it not the objective truth) and/or result in the formation of a new solid core which may not overlap with the former solid core.
In the next post in the series I will finish this post series with a discussion of the strategic implications of the new synthesis on making revolution.
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”.
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.
In the last few years the ideological confusion and dogmatism wrought by the Revolutionary Communist Party,USA (RCP,USA) has had a disastrous effect on the international Maoist movement. The negative effect that Bob Avakian’s “new synthesis” has had is disproportionate to the size and importance of the RCP,USA itself, and can be most noticed in the demise of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM). Recently Comrade Surendra of the Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist) [CCP(M)] has commented on articles on this blog and asked:
We are interested to know more about your claim that Bob Avakian had made important contributions during the initial period of the RIM, but that he had got caught in an idealist mess after. This is an important question, and we would like to know more fully how you develop this position. In our opinion, Bob Avakian’s new synthesis is based on a profound and thoroughoing critical analysis and summation of the historical experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Mao in general, which has served to crystallize the science of revolution on a new, positive basis. This question has served to split the International Maoist Movement, and should be dealt with seriously. We propose that a Conference of Maoist Parties and Orgnanisations of South Asia be convened so we can identify the main issues and struggle to achieve a higher level of conscious, principled unity through a process of struggle -criticism -transformation, based on MLM. This is the need of the hour.
I have always hoped that I would not have to really waste my time dealing with the idealist mess that is Avakian’s “New Synthesis” however, feel that I must now do so because the CCP(M) is actually rebuilding itself, in the light of the degeneration that party experienced after the death of Com. Shanmugathasan (for whom I have enormous respect, and really hope that a Selected Works volume will be compiled of his work soon), within the ideological walls of the “new synthesis”. Unfortunately a sustained philosophical critique of the “new synthesis” really has not been forthcoming. However, the Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan has provided at least a basic critique of the “new synthesis”, and in many respects I agree with their critique but I feel like it does not go far enough and does not actually refute all of the component parts of the “new synthesis”. It can be found here. At the time I wrote about the “new synthesis”,
I must admit that I find the ‘new synthesis’ to be quite underwhelming as many of Avakian’s insights have either been heavily debated in the last 30 years and Avakian’s own insights either a) do not reflect the already existing rich debate (especially in regards to his epistemological rupture with vulgar elements of Marxist philosophy and practice, the nature of truth, or even his re-structuration of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat); b) or are simply wrong in my opinion (his recourse to morality, his erroneous understanding of proletarian internationalism which is grounded in an incorrect understanding of determinations within a given conjuncture, or even his vision of the road to revolution in imperialist countries); c) or are simply unable to actually grasp the new limits of Marxist that have been established in recent years including the appropriation of lessons from Marxist semiotics, anti-psychiatry or psycho-analysis/schizoanalsysis, gender and race analysis, contemporary sciences and maths, the fuller history of communist revolutionary practice and theory etc. Indeed, Avakian’s ‘new synthesis’ is so limited and narrow that it is far too small an intervention into the crisis that Marxism-Leninism-Maoism faces in 1) theory generally; 2) the capture of state-power in imperialist countries; 3) and the successful transition to a Stateless society. It is too little, too flawed and too late.
Nevertheless I have decided that I would deal once again with the “new synthesis”. I plan on doing so by responding to a speech given by Lenny Wolff, author of The Science of Revolution: An Introduction, who was tasked to explain the “new synthesis” in 2008. His speech remains one of the clearest explanations of what the “new synthesis” actually is. It is entitled, “Re-envisioning Revolution and Communism: WHAT IS BOB AVAKIAN’S NEW SYNTHESIS? and is available here. Also, one can purchase a CD of the talk itself. When necessary I will also turn to “COMMUNISM: THE BEGINNING OF A NEW STAGE; A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA” which has a section dedicated to the “new synthesis” as well. I must note that unlike my analysis of K.N. Ramachandran’s “Our Differences with the Maoist Trend: Genesis and Present Conditions”, I will not be analysing these documents with the same level attention i.e. paragraph by paragraph, rather I will be pointing to the key parts of the speech and sections in the Manifesto, and identifying flaws and contradictions that I see. However, most likely this analysis will be another series of approximately 4-5 posts because there is a lot of points that the “new synthesis” is trying to grapple with and fails at, and also because I want to stop writing 4000 word blog entries which are cumbersome to read. Also, if something comes up I may interrupt the series to cover it, but promise that I will deal with the “new synthesis” comprehensively over the coming weeks. So lets “grapple” with Avakian and the “new synthesis”.
Wolff explains that the “new synthesis” has four basic component parts:
Bob Avakian has identified and deeply criticized weaknesses along four different dimensions of communist philosophy. These concern: one, a fuller break with idealist, even quasi-religious, forms of thought that had found their way into the foundation of Marxism and had not been ruptured with; two, a further and qualitatively deeper grasp of the ways in which matter and consciousness mutually interpenetrate with and transform each other; three, a critique of a host of problems associated with pragmatism and related philosophical tendencies; and four, a radically different epistemology, or way of getting at the truth.
These parts then of course have a series of political and strategic implications, which I will also discuss. In this post I will deal with the first two dimensions of communist philosophy. The first dimension that Wolff addresses is the idealist quasi-religious forms of thought that argues communism is inevitable. He writes, “But communism is not inevitable. There is no “god-like” History with a “Capital H” pushing things to communism. And while communism will bring about an end to antagonistic and violent conflicts among human beings, it will still be marked by contradictions, debates, and struggles—which will be carried out without violent conflict, and which will in fact be a very good thing, since this will continually contribute to the achievement of further understanding and further advances in transforming reality in accordance with the overall interests of humanity.” I agree with Wolff and Avakian that this is truly a quasi-religious idea, however, cannot attribute this “big change” to Avakian as a whole host of Marxist theorists, from the Frankfurt School to the Althusserians/post-Althusserians to the Trotskyist-influenced Political Marxists, had already put forward this critique of orthodox forms of Marxism. However, I am glad to hear that Avakian and his supporters have actually caught up with those of us who have already incorporated this in our thinking and method of work. Furthermore, I would like to even suggest that neither Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao actually believed that communism was inevitable, and one can find copious writings in their oeuvres that backs up this point. And it is very clear to us all I think that communism is not some end of History in which there is no further development due to contradictions, but what I do find astounding is that Wolff and Avakian take this one step further by writing that these contradictions will be resolved without violence. I think it is very telling that Marx himself never wrote about what communism would like and it is because he realised that the very content of communism would change in relation to the social relations and relations of production that are the outcome of the class struggle, indeed communism can be regarded to be largely an empty signifier (indeed, how can we forget Marx’s difficulties with articulating a post-commodity form of exchange in his critical notes on the Gotha programme). However, Avakian seems to have been gifted with a crystal ball, one which Marx was never privy to, and has decided that any contradictions in communism will be resolved without violence. This is the re-introduction of idealism into the Avakianist ‘new synthesis’.
The second component of the ‘new synthesis’ is that
Avakian has developed a far deeper understanding of the potential role and power of consciousness. Put it this way: to the extent that you do scientifically and deeply grasp the complex and multi-level contradictory character of society, with all its different constraints and its many possible pathways…to that extent, your freedom to act on and to affect that situation is immeasurably magnified.
Previously, the importance of the economic base (that is, the production relations) was not just recognized—but over-emphasized. This was a tendency toward reductionism—that is, reducing complex phenomena to a single over-riding cause, flattening out processes that have different levels to them in a way that doesn’t correspond to and actually distorts reality. Yes, the political institutions, the ideas, the morality of society—in other words, the superstructure of society—all ultimately grow out of its economic relations; this is a foundational insight of Marx.
But these institutions and ideas of the superstructure have a relative life of their own; plus they operate, and affect each other, on a lot of different and interpenetrating levels.
Again I have no issue with what is stated above inasmuch that if one is actually politically conscious than one is far better suited to intervene into a given situation. However, I think it is unfair to claim that Avakian has pioneered this insight when in fact Louis Althusser had made this very insight in the early 1960’s! Althusser in his seminal work Reading Capital explains that there is semi-autonomy between the base and the superstructure, and that relation between the two is not a reflection but rather, has its own historical development and temporality. Just because Avakian only figured this out does not mean that it can be called a “new synthesis”, and perhaps speaks to the ignorance of the Avakianists. The real issue I have with Wolff’s is how he articulates this point, and I think demonstrates how Avakian and his supporters have not actually incorporated this insight into their analysis of the society in which they live in. For example, within the four walls of the essay that I am discussing we can see how this has been employed by the Avakianists in its study of the Bible and its relation to slavery. Indeed, one finds Wolff completely contradicting himself in the section entitled, “Putting the Study of Society on a Scientific Foundation”. What is astonishing is that the relationship that Avakian seems to want to establish to the ideological superstructure in regards to the Bible and its relation slavery contradicts the semi-autoomy that the two are supposed to have from one another. This relationship, for all of Avakian’s emphasis on newness, rests actually on the very outdated and outmoded reflection theory of base-superstructure in which the production relations are simply reflected in the superstructure that he wants to attack. He writes,
For example, the Bible—including the New Testament—was written during an era when an important part of production was carried out through slave relations. That’s why there is no sense anywhere in the Bible that slavery is a horrible crime against humanity—unless it happens to be done to the Israelites in the Old Testament by non-Jewish people. And the Bible was thus easily used by the slave masters of the Old South to justify slavery.
Today, when slavery no longer corresponds to the interests of the dominant class, the political and cultural consensus finds it to be horrible. But the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists, and the casting off of these workers when they can no longer be profitably exploited, is just seen as “the way things are, and human nature”—just like slavery used to be. Like the abolitionists before the U.S. Civil War, but on a much more scientific basis, we need to bring forward that this is NOT human nature any more than slavery was, but is just the result ofcapitalist relations—and we need to bring forward our different and opposed morality, based on a whole different set of production and social relations.
Indeed, it is odd to see that Avakian and his supporters, despite their desire to break from this outmoded way of thought, continue to retain this very analysis. I am not trying to defend the Bible, however, I think that we need to avoid the historicist argument that underlies Wolff’s statement as it simply assumes that there was a theoretical consensus at the time of the Bible’s writing that slavery was acceptable (Domenico Losurdo in his Counter-History of Liberalism effectively argues against a historicist explanation for slavery by showing that the French political theorist Bodin had attacked the notion of slavery a 100 years prior to the liberal defence of slavery by American liberal thought). Indeed, it becomes clear that the authors of the Bible were very aware of the cruelties of slavery when they oppose the ownership of the Israelites as slaves by non-Jews. Wolff does not reflect this nascent critique of slavery in the Old Testament in his analysis of the Bible, slavery or abolition which is incredibly problematic since the Bible itself was used by abolitionists to attack the very institution of slavery, and saw the abolitionists actually used the language regarding the Israelites in the Old Testament to argue against the enslavement of black people in North America. But all of this complexity and contradictoriness is lost in the work of the Avakianists who simply assume that the Bible is simply a reflection of the production relations at the time of its writing, and could simply be used as a justification for slavery. Also, this does not take into account how the Bible was used by the liberation theologists to make a case for socialism in Latin America, and the kinds of united front work that one must do with such elements especially in a country like the USA in which the black liberation church has a profound effect on black consciousness. Again there is a re-introduction of an outmoded package through the back door. Thus, we can see in both cases outlined above that Avakian first claims theoretical advances that are actually not his, and then is unable to theoretically sustain them in concrete analysis,
In the next post in this series I will deal with the two remaining components of Avakian’s “new synthesis”, 1) pragmatism and related philosophical tendencies and 2) Avakian’s “radical advance in epistemology”.