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”.