Bob Avakian’s ‘The New Communism’: A New Synthesis?

Bob Avakian has been Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA ever since its foundation in 1975. It has to be said that he has stuck to his guns. Most of the people in America and the other imperialist countries who became Maoists in the nineteen sixties and seventies have long since faded from the revolutionary political scene. Almost immediately after the foundation of the RCP (USA) the revisionist coup in China following the death of Mao threw the Maoists into confusion but Avakian and the RCP (USA) thoroughly denounced the Chinese revisionists and fought to uphold a revolutionary line. Most of the Maoists in the Western world fell in behind the Chinese counter-revolutionary revisionists and it wasn’t long before these people were denouncing the whole communist political project.

The RCP (USA) took the lead in the nineteen eighties in struggling to pull together and regroup the remaining Maoist organisations left in the world. This led to the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) in 1984. RIM achieved a certain amount of co-operation and co-ordination between Maoist groupings on an international scale but fell apart in the late noughties especially over irreconcilable differences over the course of the revolutionary struggle in Nepal.

It has to be recognised that Bob Avakian and the RCP (USA) have tried to keep the Red Flag flying when reactionary forces in the world have been on the advance and revolutionary forces have in the main been on the defensive and in retreat. If the history is ever written of the struggles of the communist movement during this period then Avakian and his comrades deserve prominent mention.

A NEW SYNTHESIS?

For some years now Avakian and his comrades have been claiming that he has brought about a “new synthesis”, a qualitative step forward in the struggle to advance Marxist theory and practice so as to bring about the revolutionary transformation of society towards communism. The fullest expression of Bob’s thinking in this vein is contained in the book The New Communism, (Insight Press, Chicago, 2016). Here in an oral presentation he gave to a gathering convened by the RCP (USA) he explains and discusses his thoughts on the theory and practice of the revolutionary communist struggle.

There is much of interest in this exposition. After all, Avakian is drawing upon fifty years of active involvement in revolutionary politics. Despite its rather rambling character this text should be read and thought about by people of a revolutionary outlook. In particular Bob discusses the problems involved in trying to build a revolutionary organisation in largely unfavourable objective conditions. This is a problem facing all of the Maoists in the imperialist countries and we can learn something from Chairman Bob’s experiences and observations.

But is The New Communism a “new synthesis”? Is it a qualitative breakthrough in Marxist theory and practice in the way that Leninism and Maoism were? Unfortunately, I think not. There are a lot, probably most, of the ideas put forward here about which I agree. I have tried to be an active Maoist revolutionary for over forty years and I have learnt the hard way some of the conclusions reached by Avakian.

A synthesis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the process or result of building up separate elements, especially ideas, into a connected whole, especially into a theory or system”. I suggest that further to the above definition an essential feature of a synthesis is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that the entity created by the bringing together of separate parts is qualitatively different from the properties of the parts considered in isolation from each other. To take a simple example, if hydrogen and oxygen are brought together then the outcome is water which has qualitatively different properties from each element observed separately. On this definition The New Communism does not constitute a “new synthesis”. Nor could it be.

If we consider the genesis of the revolutionary theory and practice we now call “Leninism” and “Maoism” then we must recognise that these systems of thought grew out of struggles taking place in periods when the countries of their origin were undergoing great social, economic and political upheavals brought about by large scale objective changes occurring at both national and international levels. Outstanding personalities as they undoubtedly were, the political ideas of Lenin and Mao did not spontaneously spring fully formed out of their individual consciousnesses. Rather they developed out of sustained personal involvement together with many comrades in a protracted period of intense political struggle taking place within the context of objectively revolutionary conditions. Mao, in particular, was at pains to stress that his political development and consciousness arose out of the particular circumstances in which he lived. He said that if the times had been different then he would have remained an obscure school teacher unnoticed by historical records. The Chinese comrades went to great pains to stress that ‘Mao Tse-tung Thought’, as they called it, was not the personal creation of Chairman Mao, but rather the concentrated expression of the whole struggle of the Chinese people to make revolution against reaction and to advance towards communism. As Marx taught us, it is not consciousness that determines social being but rather social being that determines consciousness.

It has been the misfortune of Bob Avakian and the other Maoists of his generation to have lived through a historical period during which in the imperialist countries the objective conditions favourable for revolutionary upsurges have been largely absent. If conditions had been otherwise then today there would be substantial Maoist revolutionary parties existing in at least some of the imperialist countries but this is not the case. Although some of us have been trying to keep the Red Flag flying we have, as Chairman Mao would have put it, been “swimming against against the tide”. But he also said “Don’t be afraid of swimming against the tide”. Revolutionaries usually do oppose the dominant, prevailing ethos. Otherwise they would not be revolutionaries. And this is what the RCP(USA), under the leadership of Bob Avakian, have been trying to do. Nonetheless, regardless of the undoubted abilities of Avakian, they have not been able to make a qualitative breakthrough, create a “new synthesis”, not because of their personal shortcomings, but because the times have not been on their side. Just like the emperor’s new clothes, the only people able to see the New Synthesis are Bob’s courtiers inside the RCP (USA).

A TEST OF THE NEW SYNTHESIS: THE CASE OF TRUMP

As Mao said, “Marxism is not a dogma but a guide to action”. So a test of the validity of the New Synthesis is to examine what it can produce in terms of examining a particular political phenomenon and the action it recommends. A current example is the RCP (USA)’s position on the rise of Donald Trump.

The RCP (USA) is very clear about their assessment of Trump. He is a fascist and wants to impose a fascist regime on America. But is this analysis correct? There is no doubt that Trump is extremely reactionary. He is racist, misogynist, militarist, homophobic, imperialist and quite a number of other nasty things as well. He is an odious, right wing populist who must be thoroughly opposed. But from a scientific point of view, which the New Synthesis claims to be, is it accurate to describe Trump as a “fascist”. Will such a characterisation provide us with useful guidance in struggling to oppose and block his reactionary policies?

The term “fascist” has been bandied around by various leftists in a rather casual way. There have been and are plenty of political regimes of a very reactionary character, e.g. the British Empire in the past, the United States of America now, of which it is inaccurate to describe them as fascist. As a political movement fascism emerged in response to the Great October Revolution of 1917 and the revolutionary ripples it spread around the world. It arose in Italy as a strategy adopted by the capitalist ruling class when its rule by “normal” bourgeois, liberal democratic means was under challenge and faltering. The Italian ruling class turned to fascist ideology developed under the leadership of Benito Mussolini as a way of heading off and defeating an increasingly revolutionary working class. The same was true in the cases of Germany and Spain.

But what about America now? Is there a dissatisfied, increasingly restive working class gravitating towards a revolutionary outlook and action? Obviously not. There are large sections of the working class in America which have been under economic pressure for many years. Their adherence to the American political system has weakened and Trump has taken advantage of this with his populist appeal to “bring back jobs to America”. Some of these people, including middle strata elements, were drawn towards mildly social democratic Bernie Sanders but this hardly constituted a serious threat to the stability of the American political system. Also at present there are no significant revolutionary organisations in America, including the RCP (USA), capable of winning over significant sections of the working class in America to a revolutionary outlook. Unfortunately the rule of capital is not under serious threat in America today. For this reason alone, the American ruling class have no need to turn to fascism to maintain their dominance. While Trump is supported by some elements in the American ruling class the great majority of them see no reason to bring in outright fascist dictatorship to maintain their rule. Indeed, many of the leading elements in the Republicans, the political party most closely associated with the monopoly capitalists, tried to prevent Trump becoming the Republican candidate. Probably they did not want a candidate who would stir up and antagonise black people, ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, etc. and thus create a stronger opposition to the status quo than previously existed. So one important factor that historically led to the rise of fascism is not present in America today.

A distinct characteristic of fascist leaders is that they are the unquestioned head of a highly disciplined political movement containing a paramilitary force. Trump has not even got an organised political party let alone phalanxes of storm troopers. Although he became the Republican presidential candidate a lot of leading Republicans did not want him and it remains to be seen how far they will go along with his policies. The Republicans control both the Senate and the House of Representatives but this does not mean that these politicians will simply rubber stamp whatever Trump wants. Many of Trump’s proposed measures would require the members of Congress to vote for the necessary financial appropriations and these people have a record of being rather stingy in shelling out whatever expenditures any president requires.

Unlike what was the case in Italy, Germany and Spain, the American state is a strong state with great authority in the USA. Its constituent parts function with some degree of autonomy from its political element. The courts, the military and the administrative apparatus will resist some of the more outlandish and controversial measures Trump wishes to take. They have a vested interest in doing so. Furthermore, a very large section of the American people are vehemently opposed to Trump and are willing to assert themselves – as they have been doing in their hundreds of thousands. Perhaps most importantly many prominent members of the American capitalist ruling class have openly expressed their opposition to much of what Trump stands for.

It simply is not accurate to describe Trump as a “fascist” in any meaningful sense. If the RCP (USA)’s characterisation of Trump as a fascist flows from the application of Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis to this political development then it brings into serious question the validity of this political doctrine.

So what is Trump? He is a populist and a concise definition of populism is provided by Wikipedia: ‘Populism is a political style of action that mobilizes a large alienated element of a population against a government which is seen as controlled by an out-of-touch closed elite that acts on behalf of its own interests. The underlying ideology of Populists can be leftright, or middle. Its goal is to unite the uncorrupt and the unsophisticated (the ‘little man’) against the corrupt dominant elites (usually the orthodox politicians) and their camp followers (usually the rich and the intellectuals). ‘ This fits the current situation in America very well with the white working class feeling that they have been neglected by the liberal elites who control the state apparatus. This is not to deny that Trump is very reactionary, right-wing racist, nationalist and imperialist populist. He must be most vigorously opposed.

But how to oppose and frustrate the policies Trump is seeking to impose upon America? The RCP (USA) and some other elements called upon the American people to stage a mass uprising to prevent Trump taking presidential office. Given the level of political consciousness among the American people today this is an ultra-leftist demand. If many people became aware of this demand then they have ignored it. Trying to get the masses to take revolutionary actions for which they have not been prepared simply discredits the organisation making the unrealistic demand. Communists should always be pressing against the limits of the status quo but we must not leave the people behind us.

The RCP (USA) has always held a somewhat blasé attitude towards fascism. I remember at a gathering many years ago in France Bob Avakian holding forth on this matter. He claimed that the differences between British imperialist rule and German fascist rule were fairly minimal. Of course, Americans have never lived under fascist rule but many millions of Europeans who had done so could have put Bob right on this one. There is more space for the working class to defend itself and get politically organised under bourgeois liberal “democracy” than there is under outright fascist dictatorship. In the early nineteen thirties in Germany when the Nazis were on the rise the German communists made the mistake of claiming that increasingly right-wing governments were fascist. They weren’t and when the Nazis took governmental office the KPD was caught on the hop and didn’t know what to do. We must learn from this mistake.

COMMUNIST ORGANISATION AND LEADERSHIP

In discussing the organisation of a revolutionary party Bob Avakian describes it as having a “vertical” structure and a “top leadership”. The implicit model of party organisation here seems rather like the organisational structures which have been generated within the context of capitalist society, the business firm being archetypal, i.e. one that is hierarchical and authoritarian. And it is clear who is at the top of it: Chairman Avakian.

The model of revolutionary party organisation which developed within the communist movement is democratic centralism. In this model the elected leadership of the party, the Central Committee, is at the centre of the party organisation and not at the “top”. Around this core are located party branches and organisations operating in a two-way dialectical relationship with the centre. The overall political line of the party is determined at its periodic congresses and it is the task of the Central Committee to lead the party in implementing this line on a day-to-day basis. This can only be done effectively if this leadership is genuinely attentive to the feedback from the membership at large. Otherwise the Central Committee will lose touch with the changing particularities of the continuing class struggle and will become unable to provide effective guidance.

For the party to operate effectively there must be tight communist discipline and self-discipline on the part of its members. The party is not a loose anarchist type of collective. The members must sincerely and strenuously strive to implement the party line even when they have personal reservations about its effectiveness. This is not to say that within the party the members continuously assess the correctness of the line and feedback their conclusions to the Central Committee accordingly. Nonetheless it is only appropriate to convene a party congress to review and possibly change the line when it is clearly no longer in congruence with a changing social reality. There must be discussion and debate within the party but it is not a debating society.

All too often within the history of our communist movement democratic centralism has not been properly practised. Rather, what is sometimes called bureaucratic centralism has been the actual organisational reality of communist organisations and parties. The democratic centralist model has often been interpreted and applied in an authoritarian and hierarchical way. I experienced this distortion as a member of the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), the original Maoist party in Britain. It had been founded by defectors from the revisionist Communist Party of Great Britain and inevitably they brought along a lot of revisionist baggage with them. The membership as a whole did not really participate in the formulation of the party line. Rather it was simply handed down from the Central Committee and expected to be unquestioningly obeyed. When the Central Committee was up for re-election at a Party congress the delegates were simply presented by the existing CC with a list of candidates for the new CC. Delegates could vote for the list as a whole or vote against it. The latter would of course be a vote of no confidence in the Party as a whole. Thus the Central Committee was an undemocratic self-perpetuating elite. It is hardly surprising that after only eight years of existence the organisation started to disintegrate.

As Bob Avakian points out, given that we are living under capitalism there is a contradiction between a bourgeois outlook and a proletarian outlook within the consciousness of us all, including those of us who are committed communists. The bourgeois side of our consciousness is often the predominant side so we communists have to consciously and continuously study to try to ensure that the proletarian, revolutionary side predominates in guiding our political actions. When it comes to setting up and operating within a communist political organisation experience shows that all too often it is bourgeois ideas and attitudes that tend to predominate.

So what about the organisational functioning of the RCP (USA)? The Constitution of the RCP (USA) states that Party Congresses will be held roughly every seven years and that the Central Committee is elected by delegates to a congress. The CC exercises overall authority between congresses. The Constitution does not make it clear how delegates to congresses are selected nor just what procedure is followed to elect the CC members. Why does not the Constitution make these matters explicitly clear? I wonder as to what extent democratic centralism is really the modus operandi of the RCP (USA).

One reason I raise this question is because of the predominant position of Bob Avakian in the organisation. Within the RCP (USA) he has been elevated into holding a guru-like status. His word seems to be law. In The New Communism references to his own writings predominate. There are a few mentions of the writings of veteran leading figures in the Party, Raymond Lotta and Carl Dix, but in the main it is “BAasics” which is taken as the key text. Neither is there any explicit suggestion that the political line being put forward has developed dialectically out of the political struggles of the members of the RCP (USA) as a whole. No, it seems to have sprung fully formed straight out of the head of BA.

This is worrying. Bob himself criticises the Communist Party of Peru (Sendero Luminoso) for elevating their leader Chairman Gonzalo (Abimael Guzman) into a god-like status. He also points out that when Gonzalo was captured by the Peruvian state the CPP (SL) fell into disarray, especially when in gaol the Chairman started to call upon his comrades to abandon the armed struggle and enter into peace talks with the Peruvian Government. There is a lesson to be learnt here. We communists have placed too much emphasis on the significance and importance of single leaders.

In the Soviet Union following the death of Stalin revisionists quickly came to dominate the Soviet state and start the process of unravelling the socialist system. Immediately following Mao’s death in China the revisionists staged a coup d’etat and vigorously set about restoring capitalism. A splendid and highly successful armed revolutionary struggle in Nepal was derailed by the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Chairman Prachandra, taking a sharply revisionist turn by abandoning the goal of establishing a New Democratic regime. This threw the Party into confusion and the revolutionary struggle in Nepal collapsed. I think that we can imagine what would happen to the RCP (USA) if Avakian were to suddenly die. Given the dependence of the whole organisation on him it would quickly fall apart.

The communists must grow up! We should have learnt by now that building a personality cult around one leading member of a communist organisation gives rise to great problems. Yes, we do need revolutionary leaders. Indeed all communists should aspire to provide revolutionary leadership for oppressed people, leadership that is of a democratic kind and not a commandist kind. It is inevitable that some comrades, for various reasons, will be more effective political leaders than others. Even so, we should aspire to create collective rather than individual leadership in our communist organisations. While it is true that revolutionary communist organisations cannot be some sort of microcosm of a socialist society it is also so true that unless they consciously reject bourgeois organisational models they will not succeed in achieving their objectives.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

For those of us in the imperialist countries who came to adopt a revolutionary outlook during the nineteen sixties and seventies and a Maoist one in particular it has been a long and eventually dispiriting haul. The counter-revolution in China was a massive blow and then our hopes were raised by the revolutionary struggles in Peru and Nepal only to be dashed again. Our forces in the Western imperialist countries were always small, far less adherents than the Trotskyites, but now we are reduced to a scattering of small groups of which the RCP (USA) is probably one of the more substantial in a world of dwarves.

Our plight is highlighted by a remark which Bob makes about a situation in Baltimore concerning racist police attacks on black people. At some protest where reformist elements were diverting the occasion away from serious confrontation with the police, Bob says that if only there had been more revolutionaries present then things could have worked out differently. But there weren’t. I know about it because I’ve been there myself, occasions when revisionists and Trotskyites are able to divert protesters away from the enemy because there are too few revolutionaries present to effectively counteract these misleaders. The truth is that we Maoists in the imperialist countries are virtually at ground zero.

So is this the end? Is revolutionary Marxism in the imperialist countries finished? It will be unless those of us who are conscious, committed communist revolutionaries don’t do something about it. The RCP (USA) is horrified by the rise of Trump to be President of the USA. So am I. Yet one thing I learnt from Mao is that however bad a situation may seem, if one examines it carefully then you will find something positive in it which, with correct handling, can be turned to the advantage of the people. In the Western imperialist countries the confidence of the mass of the people in the existing political systems has been in decline for some time. There is a legitimation crisis. The liberal “centre” in bourgeois politics has been failing to adequately handle the very real problems the majority of the people face, especially since the financial crisis in 2008. This is the objective basis upon which new, right-wing political forces have arisen, both in America and Europe.

The nationalism, chauvinism and racism being propagated by elements such as UKIP in Britain is very dangerous and must be vigorously opposed. But also this weakening of the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie presents opportunities for revolutionaries. The growing disintegration of the Democratic-Republican consensus in America and that of the Consrvative/Liberal Democratic/Labour consensus in Britain, “centrist” politics, means that some people will be more receptive to revolutionary perspectives than they were previously. Maoists must seize upon this opportunity and reach out to disaffected elements in the working class and middle strata. In America there is fertile ground because millions of people have publicly expressed their opposition to Trump. This task is very urgent because far right elements such as Trump and the Front National in France are making inroads among what should be the natural constituency for Maoists. The developing political situation in the Western world is a dangerous one for the rights and welfare of the great mass of people. But the same objective conditions present new opportunities for revolutionary communists.

If the Maoists seriously engage with the rapidly changing political conditions we face then we will be able to make qualitative advances in our theory and practice. Only in this way can a truly “new synthesis” emerge.

                                                                                                         February 2017