Revolution#135, July 13, 2008
Observations by a Reader on the RCP’s Response to Mike Ely’s Nine Letters
Earlier this year we posted on our website a polemic titled: “Stuck in the ‘Awful Capitalist Present’ or Forging a Path to the Communist Future?” written by a writing group of the RCP in response to “Mike Ely’s Nine Letters: Getting Beyond Avakian’s New Synthesis.”
The following opening paragraphs of the polemic give a good sense of the main issues focused up in it:
Recently we received some observations on our polemic, which were posted on our website as well. These observations were sent by a reader of Revolution who is familiar with the history of the RCP, USA and the international movement more broadly. They help to highlight the main points in the polemic and, for the benefit of our readers, we are now publishing them in our print edition. Footnotes have been added by Revolution newspaper. (The observations make reference to points that are discussed in Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity Part 1 and Part 2 by Bob Avakian, and the response to Mike Ely and the Nine Letters, “Stuck in the ‘Awful Capitalist Present’ or Forging a Path to the Communist Future,” both of which are available on revcom.us.)
First of all, this is truly another round with Menshevism1 —outraging capitulation and reactionary rebellion against an even more thoroughly revolutionary communist line, vision, and leadership than 30 years ago, at a time when the horrors of this system and the need to get rid of it are being manifested and felt in even more bloody and devastating ways than then (e.g., the “food crisis” and growing famine in many countries, which is in the headlines now) and when crucial advances in the theory for communist revolution, for breaking through toward a whole new world, are there to be taken up (and further developed) and the fight to arm the masses and lead them to transform this into a material force is underway—and some initial new breakthroughs (even if still far from what is needed) are being made. Your response is really a crucial new weapon in this life-and-death struggle. It is very true that he [Mike Ely] (and his cohorts) are and will continue to be compelled to keep attacking and do all they can to destroy the RCP, to try to “knock down” and discredit Bob Avakian and drive a wedge between him and the masses, because their whole project depends on there not being any communist line and force in the field, forging a really revolutionary way forward. This is Mike Ely’s whole purpose. This is nothing new, but an attempt to be more “sophisticated,” more able to disguise the essence of their line and road (at least for a time) with eclectics2 and playing on anti-communist prejudices, post-modern relativism, bourgeois democratic illusions, and dressing up capitulation as a “revolutionary alternative” that can “work.”
Your response is excellent for exposing and defeating this call to turn and run into the marsh, and for carrying through further ruptures with economism3 and eclecticism (which is revisionism) in our ranks, forging more clarity and unity around the new synthesis of communist theory and methodology (including potentially, with a lot of struggle and learning to wield the science better, among new forces who are so sorely needed). It is very important that you have written it—it contributes a lot to further arguing out many of the key points in Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity, and doing this straight up against Mike Ely’s formulations in fact sharpens and deepens the rupture with economism (and eclecticism) which is an on-going struggle for the whole communist movement in the world today, as well as for those new advanced forces who need to be brought into it.
For instance, the response shows the reformism of his formulation: “A revolutionary organization has to be integrated into the struggles of the people—directly in its own name while connecting with (or initiating) a variety of other organizations. And it has to draw the thinking activity of people toward creatively-conceived communist solutions to this awful capitalist present....” It isn’t immediately obvious, just reading the formulation, that this is talking about “solutions” short of revolution, within this system, rather than starting by overthrowing it. And you cut through the eclectics to lay bare this is the essence, and how and why this is exactly the opposite of leading the masses to make communist revolution.
The same with the formulation about “communists need a culture of organizing people to wage sharp struggle over major questions of society. And we need a deeply creative new sense of how to bring revolutionary understandings to those who want to change the world.” You summarize the essence, that at best it means communists being “generators and leaders of mass struggles—with communist and revolutionary principles and goals unfolded out of that” (which is a conception that still influences many people). Then you pose the two lines on how to determine what the “major struggles” are: a scientific assessment of what things concentrate the nature of the system and “an analysis of how this all fits into a strategy of repolarizing society for revolution”; or by seeing whatever struggles are attracting the biggest mass following at a particular time.
Then you get into the two lines on what “revolutionary understandings” are to be brought, and from there show how this is classic economism—building struggles to attract forces, cutting this off from revolution and communism, it becomes an end in itself, and the only criterion is the number of forces attracted, and ultimately it becomes “the movement is everything, the final aim nothing.” You make very clear what the real difference is, and is not: it is not whether or not communists need to lead movements and struggles around key questions—but whether this is to be done as an end in itself (and only to the degree large numbers are already moving around particular questions) or “to lead those movements with ideological and political work that contributes to communist revolution...and with methods of leadership that rely on and unleash the masses.” The point you make about the need to “combat the spontaneous striving of the masses to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie,” and the example from the anti-war movement about “support the troops” is very good. Then, the more overall demarcation: approaching all this from the standpoint of serving the struggle for revolution and communism vs. subordinating and burying these goals beneath the particular struggles, or promoting the illusion that they will be brought forth spontaneously—or somehow emerge organically—out of such struggles...“the essence of an economist revisionist line.”
The further argumentation from several angles of how and why the leap to communist consciousness cannot be spontaneous is very good: the one-sided insistence that people become conscious in the course of political struggle is false (Mike Ely’s distortion of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution [GPCR], liquidating the role of line and leadership of a communist vanguard); how a scientific understanding of the fundamental contradiction, the nature of the state, breaking out of the bourgeois democratic framework, and the need for revolution and communism, cannot come about spontaneously, and represents a radical rupture in relation to mass struggles. Then you show how Mike Ely gives the wrong answer to grappling with the problems involved in attracting people to a revolutionary communist pole today (he opposes going deeply into the questions and lessons of the first wave of communist revolutions), how the supposed “linear approach” of the RCP is an invention of his and not the RCP’s, and that in fact it is his view of the relationship between struggle and consciousness that is linear and extremely simplistic. The analysis of the role of the objective and subjective in the ripening of a revolutionary people is very important, and the analysis of what happened in the ‘60s to illustrate that “strands of opposition and revolutionary sentiments” didn’t (and never do) “go over to communist consciousness” spontaneously (a point that needs to be grappled with, understood, and applied much more correctly and consciously in our movement generally). In the criticism of Mike Ely’s negation of ideology, opposition to waging ideological struggle with the masses, and to the greater emphasis “Enriched What is to Be Done-ism” gives to involving the masses in working with ideas, discussion, and controversies in art, science, philosophy, culture, etc. and in grappling with the big ideological and political questions of communism, dictatorship of the proletariat, and revolution, the document makes clear in a very concentrated way why this is so crucial, why there can be no proletarian revolution without this, and the crucial role of an advanced force, a core with the vision of emancipating humanity, which must fight to lead and set different terms in a revolutionary situation (up against a petty bourgeois wave), divert the struggle toward the seizure of power, and make the new power actually communist in character, and to change the terrain to the greatest degree possible now. Grasping and acting on this necessity is attacked and dismissed as “idealism” [by Mike Ely]. This whole criticism does a lot to make it clear that there is no revolution or communism on the agenda with this line.
The two-line struggle around religion is very sharp and very important. This is a fierce struggle with the masses, and exactly related to that there is often vacillation within the core about taking this up and out boldly and really breaking open the debate (and/or confusion about how to do this). In this response, Mike Ely’s eclecticism is revealed and demolished theoretically with very good argumentation, and this has larger importance and application: it’s the “heart of a heartless world” vs. it is a huge obstacle to getting rid of this heartless world; (the two key ways religion shackles people is a very good concentrated explanation); the “need for ecstatic relief and mutual consolation in a horrific world” vs. these beliefs are principally a shackle and weight on the masses; the Bible belt isn’t the lynching belt, because it includes the African American churches vs. the Christian Bible has been a cornerstone of white supremacy that produced the lynchings, and the fact that many of the victims were/are tied to the same reactionary system of beliefs only makes it worse; supposedly “respect” people by “understanding” their beliefs and why they believe vs. really respect people by challenging them with the truth, and having strategic confidence that they can embrace and wield it to emancipate humanity, expecting them to rise to what they’re capable of. The way Mike Ely “understands” the need people feel for religion is practically an “ode” to the benefits of the “salve,” almost to the point of proclaiming this is really something that is good for the people, a real necessity (like Karen Armstrong argues). And it is dripping with contempt, while also prettifying religion to the point of making it sound like these beliefs (at least among the oppressed) do more good than bad in the world.
About “Living in the House of Tony Soprano,”4 I agree this is nauseating imperialist chauvinism, and again, it shows contempt for people, what they can and must rise to become, and tries to justify tailing after where they are at spontaneously, and joining them under the wing of the bourgeoisie, all in the name of “not blaming the masses.” You point to the horrible consequences of this in imperialist countries historically and the revisionist determinism that attempts to justify this (what’s desirable is what’s possible...is what’s already going on).
The philosophical and epistemological criticism is really, really good. Here it seems to me you develop more the points about the real dialectical relationship between theory and practice. It shows how Marx, Lenin, and Mao developed the science, learning from very broad and sweeping human practice, developed theory that “runs ahead” of practice, and how this must be done in order to lead revolutionary practice to make new breakthroughs, or the communist revolution cannot advance. And the final point that “leading the masses in making revolution relies on a complex dialectic of the ‘push’ of the horrors of this society and the ‘pull’ of a radically different world that is visionary and viable” is crucial to grasp. And this understanding is what girds “enriched What is to be Done-ism,” the “two mainstays,” and the other aspects of this.5
The eclectic views on relative truth that deny the principal aspect, that this is (generally) truth, are a very good teacher by negative example, and this is argued out very well. On one level, Mike Ely is really grossly misrepresenting what Avakian says about this, and to anyone who reads Avakian, it’s pretty obvious that to claim he absolutizes relative truth and denies the contradiction between acting on (and leading masses to act on) what we understand to be true at a given time, while being open to that we may be wrong in part or even overall on a given question, is really preposterous. But because this is a real contradiction, and because overall relativism is so predominant in the culture on an international scale these days, this is a very important part of the polemic. I really enjoyed the irony you point out, of claiming Bob Avakian absolutizes relative truth while at the same time criticizing him for breaking with inherited “truths” which can be seen to be erroneous—including “class truth.”
On the question of Bob Avakian’s epistemological rupture, Mike Ely first claims that this isn’t saying anything new that all kinds of scientists don’t already know, and then he opposes it through upholding the concept of “class truth,” that “truth has a class character” and the Lenin quote about opposing our truth to bourgeois “truth.” I think the explanation that the struggle over getting at truth and what is accepted as truth does not imply that truth itself has a class character, that it is not the same thing, and the idea that it “constitutes an inverse and incorrect logical leap” is very good. And the argumentation of how truth is objective, that it’s true for all and doesn’t depend on what class is served by it, and the example that is given of the class struggle under socialism helps to clarify this question. And that distortions of reality are objectively not truths, (rather than being “bourgeois” truths, for instance). I think that’s why Lenin puts “truth” in quotes in this passage, but still it is not correct, not a formulation that should be upheld, and especially not in opposition to Avakian’s synthesis on this problem.
It’s very true that Mike Ely tries to discredit the new synthesis6 without even dealing with its content—just trying to “rule out of order” any discussion of strategic goals, and attempting to justify this on the basis of empiricism—as you say, “there is no practice to verify it.” The points made about aspects of it that can be tested and validated (or not) and on what basis are very true. His total disdain for the theoretical breakthroughs in regards to communism, ruling this out of order and pitting it against a (totally invented) “poverty” of theoretical work on other questions is very revealing, and your response about the crucial importance of deeply addressing questions about the first wave, developing the theory that will guide the future society and that this has everything to do with what we do now, is very brief but very cogent. And the partial list of theoretical work by Avakian on the core problems of “our specific” revolution hits home and embodies a different outlook on what some of the “core problems” in fact are.
On the Culture of Appreciation, Promotion, and Popularization of the body of work and method and approach of Bob Avakian: what stands out is the opportunism of Mike Ely not even attempting any kind of coherent refutation of the content of Bob Avakian’s work and in particular the new synthesis. I would add, he even opportunistically claims to uphold some things, and criticize the RCP for not giving them due attention: specifically Advancing the World Revolutionary Movement, Questions of Strategic Orientation, and the polemic vs. K. Venu—while of course also promoting and trying to make use of other forces whose present line and course represent something completely opposed to this, and then his proceeding to attribute a stupid and wrong argument to the Party and to refute that, is exactly to the point. Here he is pandering to all the anti-leadership, anti-communist, bourgeois democratic pluralist and anarchist views that abound these days, and spreading lies about the Party to try to get over. As I understand his “argument,” he tries to pretend that the line of the Leadership Resolutions7 (though he doesn’t mention them directly) is qualitatively different and opposed to the line now and the “mainstay” of Culture of Appreciation, Promotion and Popularization (as explained in Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity), which is ridiculous. And the attempt to equate Culture of Appreciation, Promotion and Popularization (and the overall line on communist leadership) of the RCP with “jefatura” is stupid and outrageous. The response refuting all of this is very sharp and good, including that attributing the “genius theory” to the RCP is an invention of Mike Ely, and then bringing forward very clearly what, in fact, is the understanding of Bob Avakian and the Party on these questions. It argues out how in fact the unity between the two aspects is principal, and how Avakian grapples with this contradiction between leadership and led, between encouraging the greatest initiative, criticism, and creativity among communists and more broadly, and at the same time the greatest unity of will and action of the Party. Here the “opening up” of wrangling with these questions (and other cardinal questions) to the “public at large” is such an important part of how Avakian leads, and this is brought out in the document. The document sharply and correctly contrasts the two lines on this: “proceeding from the understanding that the principal aspect is the unity, the fact that the more leaders can enable others in the party, as well as the masses, to understand the world, the better able the party and the masses will be to step forward and play their role, and indeed that such leadership should be cherished and defended, on the basis of a deep appreciation” vs. the “flat and one-dimensional terms, seeing only the secondary aspect of the contradictions, the fact that promotion of individual leaders can give rise to slavishness and passivity and thus liquidate the very vital role that revolutionary leadership can and has to play in the whole process of revolution.” The quote from Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity on “team of scientists,” and how this is reflected in epistemology and method—opening up the big questions of revolutionary theory, and learning from others inside and outside the Party, and how all of this is exactly the opposite of promoting slavishness or blind obedience. I especially thought the point which sums it all up: “that Avakian has provided a new framework in which that search for truth can go on in a qualitatively more fruitful way—and it is a framework that builds upon the foundation and further develops the science of Marxism. With the new synthesis, every communist has to really confront—and bring the masses in on—the vexing problems of the revolution, the transition to communism, etc.—including the truths that make us cringe. Without doing that, where are you going?” Then it goes on to show how and why this is precisely “the rub”—how economism and revisionism clash with the new synthesis, and how the living vibrant communism and revolution concentrated in it “is enormously inconvenient for his economism, and this is the essence of the Nine Letters.”
So to conclude, Mike Ely’s basic orientation of “this hasn’t worked and won’t work,” and casting about for whatever he thinks could get a bigger mass base more quickly (never mind that it won’t be for communist revolution) is really crass pragmatism and economism. He puts it out there pretty clearly that numbers really are the only criteria.
1. Editors' Note: This is a reference to a faction that split from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in 1978 based on their support for the revisionist forces in China who seized power after the death of Mao Tsetung and a whole economist political line. They were called Mensheviks because their political and ideological line echoed that of a grouping in Russia many years before who called themselves communists but who fought for a whole set of philosophical, ideological, political, and organizational positions in opposition to the work being done by Lenin to prepare for socialist revolution.[back]
2. Editors' Note: Stuck in the “Awful Capitalist Present” Or Forging a Path to the Communist Future? A Response to Mike Ely’s Nine Letters cites a quote from Lenin, in The State and Revolution, as particularly illuminating on eclectics: “Dialectics are replaced by eclecticism—this is the most usual, the most widespread practice to be met within present-day official Social-Democratic literature in relation to Marxism. This sort of substitution is, of course, nothing new: it was observed even in the history of Greek philosophy. In falsifying Marxism in opportunist fashion, the substitution of eclecticism for dialectics is the easiest way of deceiving people. It gives an illusory satisfaction; it seems to take into account all sides of the process, all trends of development, all the conflicting influences, and so forth, whereas in reality it provides no integral and revolutionary conception of the process of social development at all.” [Emphasis added].[back]
3. Editors' Note: Stuck in the “Awful Capitalist Present” Or Forging a Path to the Communist Future? explains that “Opposed most notably by Lenin in What Is To Be Done?, economism is a trend that directs communists to focus their attention, and the attention of the masses, on immediate struggles (often in the economic realm), viewing this as a special stage which enables communists to get a mass following; only then, it is held, can communists bring in larger issues. In actual fact, there is nothing new about this notion—it has been tried many times, and in every case it has led to the desertion and finally betrayal of the goals of revolution and communism—and this has been especially sharp when it has been applied in imperialist countries. Politically this line and trend, first refuted by Lenin conclusively and incontrovertibly in What Is To Be Done?, and now championed by Mike Ely, charts a path to capitulation to imperialism, becoming yet another weight on the masses of people.”[back]
4. Editors' Note: From Stuck in the “Awful Capitalist Present” Or Forging a Path to the Communist Future?: “[RCP Chairman Bob] Avakian uses the example of ‘Living in the House of Tony Soprano’ to make the point that most people in the U.S. have overall conditions of life significantly better than most of the rest of the world, and are somewhat aware of the fact that this standard of living has a lot to do with the crimes of the rulers around the world and the extreme parasitism of imperialism, an international food-chain, which the U.S. sits atop. But like Tony Soprano’s family, people within the U.S. don’t want to look too closely at this or confront this reality and act on that responsibility, because that would make their “way of life” very uncomfortable. And beyond this, Avakian talks about people who are consciously opposed to the U.S. war crimes, but who at a certain point in the struggle against the ‘War on Terrorism’ gave up because it was proving too difficult and perhaps too dangerous. While appreciating the importance of the struggle that has been waged, and the real difficulties that it ran up against, Avakian nonetheless makes the point, in relation to all this, that ‘Refusal to Resist Crimes Against Humanity Is Itself a Crime.’”[back]
5. Editors' Note: Bob Avakian’s talk Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity, discusses the importance of Revolution newspaper and a culture of appreciation, popularization, and promotion around Bob Avakian as the two mainstays in the work of the RCP, along with a whole ensemble of communist work which is necessary to the bringing forward of a revolutionary people—including building “massive political resistance to the main ways in which, at any given time, the exploitative and oppressive nature of this system is concentrated in the policies and actions of the ruling class and its institutions and agencies” and solving the problems of how to involve the masses in “meaningful revolutionary work.”[back]
6. Editors’ Note: Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity includes this concentrated explanation of the new synthesis: “This new synthesis involves a recasting and recombining of the positive aspects of the experience so far of the communist movement and of socialist society, while learning from the negative aspects of this experience, in the philosophical and ideological as well as the political dimensions, so as to have a more deeply and firmly rooted scientific orientation, method and approach with regard not only to making revolution and seizing power but then, yes, to meeting the material requirements of society and the needs of the masses of people, in an increasingly expanding way, in socialist society—overcoming the deep scars of the past and continuing the revolutionary transformation of society, while at the same time actively supporting the world revolutionary struggle and acting on the recognition that the world arena and the world struggle are most fundamental and important, in an overall sense—together with opening up qualitatively more space to give expression to the intellectual and cultural needs of the people, broadly understood, and enabling a more diverse and rich process of exploration and experimentation in the realms of science, art and culture, and intellectual life overall, with increasing scope for the contention of different ideas and schools of thought and for individual initiative and creativity and protection of individual rights, including space for individuals to interact in ‘civil society’ independently of the state—all within an overall cooperative and collective framework and at the same time as state power is maintained and further developed as a revolutionary state power serving the interests of the proletarian revolution, in the particular country and worldwide, with this state being the leading and central element in the economy and in the overall direction of society, while the state itself is being continually transformed into something radically different from all previous states, as a crucial part of the advance toward the eventual abolition of the state with the achievement of communism on a world scale.”[back]
7. Editors' Note: Parts 1 and 2 of the “1995 Leadership Resolutions on Leaders and Leadership” are available at revcom.us.[back]
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