Learning from Bob Avakian: Understanding the World in Order to Change It

by Raymond Lotta

Revolutionary Worker #1248, August 8, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

The ideology of the proletariat allows for and demands critical thinking and challenging convention, vigorous debate and struggling over ideas, raising the sights of all of society to cardinal questions and the linking of theory to practice in order to continually deepen our understanding of reality and to transform it--to know and change the world-- in the the interests of humanity.

Bob Avakian, "End of a Stage-- The Beginning of a New Stage"

We should always be interrogating ourselves as well as listening to "interrogation" from others.

Bob Avakian,"Grasp Revolution, Promote Production"


Authors and intellectuals, myself included, speak of influences. Of teachers who open doors of appreciation and give encouragement (when encouragement is needed more than anything else). Of thinkers whose pioneering mappings of a "problem-field" contribute to new modes of understanding. Of scholars who set standards of clarity, rigor, and intellectual persistence. Working in and across disciplines, we acknowledge gratitude to others, because intellectual work is at base a collective endeavor that draws and builds on the work of others, and that requires the stimulus, criticisms, and insights of others.

Bob Avakian has been a teacher and mentor.but of a very special kind. Because he is that rare combination: a pathbreaking thinker and a conscious protagonist of history, someone who not only imparts a new knowledge but who also communicates and embodies a historical project that stirs and summons others.

As a theorist, Bob Avakian has produced a body of work that in its range and thematic concerns has extended the horizons of Marxism. I am speaking of writings like Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions , Conquer the World: The International Proletariat Must and Will , For a Harvest of Dragons , Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones , and recent collections of essays, such as Grasp Revolution, Promote Production--Questions of Outlook and Method .

As Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party and a leader of the international communist movement, he has been hewing a path of transformative revolutionary struggle in the contemporary world. He has been grappling with the complexities and contradictions of U.S. society and the world system, and distilling lessons of the international class struggle. He has been analyzing the great achievements as well as the shortcomings, setbacks, and mistakes of the socialist experience of the twentieth century--and through these critical investigations identifying, confronting, and putting before people the difficult but world-historic questions that the next wave of socialist revolutions must take up.

Bob Avakian has brought forth a vibrant, highly developed vision of socialist and communist society. It is a vision that enlarges and deepens the understanding of what it means for oppressed humanity to free itself from the shackles of class division and all oppressive relations. It is a vision of emancipation that is, in dialectical relation to the horror that is today's world, grounded in the material and social possibility that now exists for humanity to overcome scarcity and exploitation. And, in dialectical relation to the struggles of today, Avakian has put the point sharply: there can be no effective political and ideological challenge to the existing order absent the broad propagation of the communist vision.

But wait.this is not supposed to compute. The guardians of the status quo exhort us to wake up and smell the coffee: "communism is dead" and the choice, we are told, is to sink or swim in the maelstrom of the world market. In works such as Phony Communism is Dead...Long Live Real Communism , Bob Avakian has boldly taken on this ideological onslaught. He has not only defended communism but also infused it with new vitality, relevance, and urgency. Which is to say: there is a way out, there is a way forward, there is another future.

Over the last three decades, my understanding of Marxism, my grasp of what it means to carry out communist intellectual work, and my development as a Maoist political economist have been profoundly shaped by Bob Avakian.

From him, I have learned that there is a benchmark from which to evaluate one's work and life. It is the standpoint of for whom --the oppressed and exploited; and for what --to liberate humanity from the shackles of all oppressive relations and ideas, and to bring into being a communist world. I have learned that to be a communist intellectual is to carry forward a certain kind of theoretical work --that contributes to the ability of the masses of people to understand and consciously change the world; and to carry forward theoretical work in a certain kind of way --creatively, searchingly, and critically.

To work with this understanding is to be alive to revolutionary potentiality, to embrace it and to fight to realize it through tortuous struggle in an ever-changing world, and to link the future to the challenges and tasks of the present.

Bob Avakian's arguments for and practice of a scientific, open-ended, and revolutionary Marxism have set a methodological standard and example for me. I am speaking of a Marxism that must be applied, tested, and deepened in that ever-changing world.a Marxism that develops and thrives in contact with other intellectual trends and discourses, even hostile ones.a Marxism that is disdainful of dogma and complacency and that insists on putting its own traditions and foundations to the critical microscope.

Bob Avakian's incisive analyses of the dynamics of the world system and his investigations and interrogations of what he calls "the first wave" of socialist revolutions (from the Paris Commune of 1871 through Mao's Cultural Revolution) have provided me with a conceptual grid and research agenda.

I have learned, and continue to learn, enormously from Bob Avakian. In this essay, I want to share some of these lessons and some of the personal experiences I have had in working with him.

Breaking New Theoretical Ground:
Carrying Forward Lenin's Work on Imperialism

In 1984, America in Decline was published. The impetus and direction for this project came from Bob Avakian. Having analyzed the shifting contradictions of the world imperialist system, he had come to the conclusion in 1975-76 that the two imperialist blocs, one headed up by the United States and the other headed by the Soviet Union, were on a collision course. There was a growing danger of world war. At the same time, exactly because political, social, and economic contradictions were intensifying and becoming intertwined, the possibilities for revolutionary breakthroughs could rapidly, unexpectedly, open up.

Avakian posited that we were entering a period of exceptional historical tension, a conjunctural moment, the struggles and outcome of which could affect the entire structure of world relations for "decades to come." Humanity faced great challenges and potential opportunities.

Fulfilling A Great Need

Bob Avakian has spoken of artists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries accomplishing important things and producing important, sometimes great, works--not because they set out to but because they aim to "fulfill a great need." Bob felt strongly that we had an internationalist responsibility to produce a deep analysis of the world situation and to explore how the contradictions making for its very acuteness were in fact expressive of the underlying motion and development of this era of imperialism and proletarian revolution.

This theoretical project, what would later become America in Decline , was not undertaken as an academic exercise. The object was to provide people with a rigorous, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist conceptual framework with which to interpret diverse phenomena of world economics and politics, and to help politically conscious people grasp the enormity and stakes of the developing world situation--and the implications for revolutionary struggle. That was the "great need" Bob Avakian was calling on us, and leading us, to fulfill.

America in Decline builds on and extends Lenin's theory and model of imperialism. Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalist development--a stage rooted in the capitalist mode of production but with features particular to the dominant role of giant, monopolistic firms and the internationalization of the circuits of capital. Lenin conceptualized imperialism as an integrated world system and as an era of violent transition towards a higher mode of production: socialism. He analyzed monopoly capitalism's structural features and its dynamics, especially uneven development, geostrategic rivalry, and the periodic compulsion of the imperial powers to redivide the world through war.

By this time, in the late 1970s, it had been 65 years since Lenin wrote his landmark study. Major developments had taken place in the world: the devastation of two world wars and reorganization of the world economy; the triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949, the spread of national liberation struggles; the emergence, after World War 2, of the U.S. as a hegemonic world power within a highly integrated world capitalist order; the unprecedented economic expansion of the post-World War 2 period and extensive capitalist penetration into the Third World; the reversal of socialism in the Soviet Union in 1956 and its transformation into a capitalist superpower contending with the U.S.; and the revisionist coup and reversal of socialism in Maoist China in 1976.

Bob saw a two-fold task. We needed to engage the reality of the world system--conducting research and historical analysis and applying and testing of theoretical propositions--and synthesize a deeper understanding of the dynamics of imperialism. In short, we had to break new theoretical ground. But to do that, we also needed to break with certain "Marxist orthodoxies" and "Marxist traditions"--namely, the political economy of the Third International of communist parties of the 1930s.

Very much at the core of that theoretical tradition was the notion that capitalism had ceased to be a dynamic system--marked by the destruction and restructuring of capital, by expansion leading to crisis--but was stagnant and mired in an unrelieved "general crisis." A strategic corollary to this view of capitalism was the idea that revolution would unfold as the linear outcome of intensifying economic crisis.resulting in growing immiseration.leading to sharpening economic struggles that would, in mechanical (almost alchemical) fashion, go over to revolution.

Not only was this a wrong conception of capitalism, which is at once a dynamic system that is a fetter on human development. It was also an erroneous and stunted view of the revolutionary process: the interrelation between objective and subjective factors, the vital role of ideology and consciousness, and the overall scope of revolutionary work.

It was interesting, though entirely consistent with Bob's methods, that we would be critiquing the received wisdom of the international communist movement as we set out to apply Marxism to new challenges and make a contribution to the international communist movement.

Intellectual Cross-Fertilization and "Listening Effectively"

Bob encouraged me and others working on what would eventually become America in Decline to convene meetings and hold exchanges with radical and Marxist political economists: people who had been working in particular areas, such as international trade theory, trends of profitability of U.S. capital, industrialization in the Third World, and so forth. He attended some of these sessions. He read omnivorously and brought enormous enthusiasm and conviction to these discussions.

I remember a debate over what is called unequal exchange (touching on issues of trade and price relations and transfers of value through the mechanisms of the world market). Bob was arguing forcefully that the subordination of the oppressed nations is a structural feature of the world imperialist system and that Marxists must understand not just the economic mechanisms leading to and reinforcing such dependency but also factor in unequal relations of power and imperial structures of political control. (In his essay Conquer the World , he would describe the relationship between the oppressor and oppressed nations as a "production relation," a concept that would be pivotal to America in Decline's analysis of dependency in the Third World.)

At the time of these discussions and exchanges, I was struck by Bob's ability, and here I use a phrase of a philosopher friend of mine, to "listen effectively." No matter how sharp the differences--and they could and did get sharp--he would pay close, respectful, and critical attention to the argumentation and positions of others. He would sift through arguments and identify key issues. He would vigorously engage from a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist perspective, seeking to wrest clarity and raise understanding, sometimes by formulating questions anew.

And even where he felt someone was generally "wide of the mark," if he or she had important insights, was pointing towards fruitful lines of inquiry, or making useful criticisms of our work--he would seek to learn from that. I remember a scholar who was rather dismissive of Lenin but had been working on applying Marxist value categories to national income and product data. Bob was quite appreciative of this work, which we studied; but he also struggled over Lenin and imperialism with this scholar.

For two years, a core of us had been involved in research and drafting chapters on particular topics. We had written on banking and credit, agriculture, capital flows to the advanced and less-developed countries. It was useful work, as we were pointing towards important trends and features of the world system. Bob would comment and critique extensively--with rigor and, to lighten things up occasionally, with his trademark wit.

Once I sent him a draft of a chapter on trends in accumulation in the U.S. In discussing employment patterns back then, I made a point about how (and it still holds today) a significant proportion of the U.S. labor force under 30 had worked at one time or another for McDonalds. After mentioning McDonalds, I cleverly quipped (so I thought): "that's two all-beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun." Bob made his customary comments on the margins, but next to this statement he wrote in large print "WRONG: that's two all-beef patties, special sauce , lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!" I had left out the sauce. Bob Avakian knows his culinary culture and his Marxism!

Our team had been making progress: generating data, identifying key problems for analysis, and theorizing certain aspects of understanding. By now we had a massive collection of chapters. But there was a problem. We were still considering the system too much in empirical-descriptive terms. We had not produced a theoretical structure adequate to grasping and elucidating what Marx has called "the real movement of things."

It was time to take stock of the project and regroup. It was time to advance, if we could, towards a higher theoretical synthesis, which would frame and further guide and inform empirical work. We needed to make a theoretical leap.

Working on Problems, Breakthroughs in Understanding

Bob invited me to spend some time with him so that we could work through these issues, focus up a new research agenda, and develop the architecture of America in Decline . To work in a sustained way with Bob Avakian, this outstanding leader, was an exhilarating and life-changing experience for me: a lesson in applied Marxism, a laboratory of dialectics. And it wasn't just the force of Bob's ideas but the power of his sensibility as well-- his warmth, his humor, and his great love for the masses--that I felt so strongly.

How we worked on problems? We might, for instance, delve into a basic concept like commodity production and revisit Marx's exposition in Capital.But Bob would also go at this by looking at how capitalist commodity relations and competition were in play in highly socialized and disguised forms--specifically, in the state-capitalist Soviet Union of the time. We traced out how ownership was expressed in the form of state property while the economic interactions in that society were in fact those of competing blocs of (highly concentrated) capital. This exploration actually helped us construct our presentation in America in Decline of the essential features of capitalist commodity production.

There was always a back-and-forth between empirical findings and issues of theorization. Bob wouldn't rest content with superficial understanding, and if we were encountering evidence contrary to our existing understanding or the prevailing understanding of the communist movement, than we had to confront that. Let me give one example.

The great bulk of capital flows in the world was and is among the advanced capitalist countries. So how do we understand the importance of investment in the Third World? We parsed the data and puzzled over theoretical controversies, including the nature of superprofits generated in the Third World. We scrutinized our own work. And we studied the works and findings of others of very divergent perspectives.

Now for Bob, we couldn't proceed from a moralistic or a priori (pre-given) notion about the importance of the Third World to imperialism--but neither could we draw empiricist conclusions, based on a simple "read out" of data (data is never self-explanatory). We had to dig deeper, which we did. While it's not possible here to summarize our approach and developed argumentation, we did come to identify the qualitative and strategic role that imperialist investment and imperialist-led transformation in the neocolonial countries plays in the overall process of world accumulation and its impact on the overall profitability of imperialist capital.

These sorts of deliberations were part of our larger attempt to more deeply conceptualize the structure and the motion and development of the world imperialist system. I mentioned Lenin and his emphasis on the law of uneven development. This law expresses itself through interimperialist rivalry, shifting balances of strength, and the compulsion facing the imperialist powers at particular times to forcibly redivide the world.

Avakian proposed that what Lenin was describing is actually part of a larger dynamic. Bob came to call this "spiral/conjuncture motion." Since this represents a major contribution to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political economy--it informs and is further theorized in America in Decline --it might help to briefly summarize some key points of understanding.

A spiral of world development is a stage or period in the development of the contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation, which is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. Each spiral is shaped by a specific set of contradictions and factors on a world scale--involving in particular, thus far in the history of imperialism, the relations among the imperialists (mainly their struggles over the division of the world) and the relations between the imperialists and the forces opposed to them. A spiral is also an international framework for capital accumulation.

A specific spiral of world development was set in motion by the outcome of World War 2; this spiral had particular defining features, such as the leading and orchestrating role of the U.S. in the imperial world order.

At certain points in the development of spirals, the contradictions of the world system become intensely heightened and tightly interwoven, leading to violent explosions (world wars and revolutions) or dramatic shifts in power (such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and its bloc in 1989-91). These are world historic conjunctures through which the contradictions characteristic of a particular spiral are resolved (if temporarily and partially) and world relations are recast and the basis laid to reorganize the imperialist world economy.

Twice in the twentieth century, world wars have been the turning points of spirals. The development of the proletarian revolution has so far taken place as part of this underlying motion of imperialism, while at the same time reacting back on it.

Bob had been developing this thesis for some time. We were thrashing it out, putting it to empirical test, and demonstrating its analytical value. With many of the most important research and theoretical problems that we took up, we would resolve things on one level and go on to pose new questions for research. But through all of this, we were achieving higher-order synthesis of the spiral/conjuncture dynamic and gaining clarity. America in Decline was taking shape.

Marxism is a Wrangling-ism

I have to say that Bob was pushing the limits of my understanding while, at the same time, spurring me to go further and deeper with analysis. He has this wonderful way of focusing up questions and provoking you with challenging theses, with critical reflections on Marxist theory and practice, and with philosophical issues.

One matter of philosophical concern to Bob in our deliberations was what he described as "typical- motion" thinking: that is, a certain crude deterministic tendency in the Marxist tradition to see historical development in terms of fixed patterns or preordained outcomes and end-points. The complex interplay of different levels of society, the economic base and superstructure, the role of revolutionary struggle, of accident and historical contingency--all this is downplayed in this tradition.

Bob had been doing quite a bit of thinking and writing about this problem of "typical-motion" thinking. His readings and ruminations were also connecting with insights and debates from outside of historical materialism, such as in the biological sciences.

This kind of discussion of underlying laws and patterns of development was an important component of our work. We were seeking to identify and theorize certain "structural dynamics" in the imperialist era, while at the same time grasping the historical specificity of particular periods of development. We were trying, for example, to analyze both the more universal and the more distinct features of the outcomes of World War 1 and World War 2, respectively.

Bob likes to quote Mao that "Marxism is a wrangling- ism. " Is it ever! We were wrangling with issues of analysis, as we applied the tools of Marxism.and we were wrangling with the tools of Marxism, as we applied ourselves to the challenge of analyzing complex structures and processes. It was very demanding. It was very stimulating. And it was great fun (Bob believes in that).

Just recently I was reminded of all of this by an interview I heard with the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. He was talking about a research institute he heads up and how it was important to have an intellectual atmosphere conducive to inquiry and breakthroughs in understanding. He said you have to be able to ask questions, though often you won't know at the start what the right questions are; you need to be open to fresh perspectives; and you need to allow ideas to gestate and follow them out--all this is valuable, even if it doesn't lead directly to solutions. Then he quipped: if you're doing this right, it can get a little wacky at times. Hmm.sounds a lot like working with Bob.

I remember one round of discussion about spiral/conjuncture motion. We were talking about the post-World War 2 period and discussing how a historically specific framework and trajectory of development could not go on indefinitely (although how long could not be predetermined) and would come to a convulsive recasting. We were distinguishing this from attempts to model extended cycles of accumulation--long regular economic upswings followed by long regular downturns.

I was posing some questions and he threw a darting glance at me and said, let me show you. Whereupon he bolted up from his chair and began vibrating his arms, raising them over his head and bringing them closer together--all the while emitting a whirring sound. And, then, as his arms were fully outstretched, there came a loud clap of the hands. I think I got the point about spiral/conjuncture motion.or did I? The following morning I was in the bathroom and when I reached for the toilet roll I saw a message scrawled on the tissue: "don't forget the conjuncture." I let out a huge laugh, and outside the bathroom Bob broke into even louder laughter (older readers will recall a bathroom tissue ad with the same set-up).

America in Decline was published in 1984. Bob Avakian had seen the need to break new theoretical ground in order to arm people with an understanding of what was going on in the world. Basing ourselves on the laws of capital as they assert themselves and interact with the class struggle in the imperialist epoch, we extended Lenin's theorization of imperialism. We applied and tested this theorization through concrete analysis. We projected certain developments and outcomes.

Interrogating Ourselves, Summing Up Errors, And Engaging Reality More Deeply

The RCP had assessed that the intensifying conflict between U.S. imperialism and Soviet social- imperialism, interacting with other contradictions, would lead to world war--unless this were prevented by revolution in large or strategic parts of the world. Plainly, this was not how things worked out. The Soviet Union and its bloc collapsed in 1989-91. This dramatic change in international relations.this was how the contradictions coming to a head, and which were in fact driving things to world war in the 1980s, got resolved.

Now in the wake of the Soviet collapse, many important changes had taken place in the world economy and in world politics. The emergence of the U.S. as the sole imperialist superpower was a signal development, as was greater economic rivalry among the imperial powers and an intensified wave of globalization.

I was itching to delve further into these and other issues. Once again I was able to correspond and have the opportunity to work directly with Bob. Our point of departure, however, was not the one I had initially prepared for. He explained to me that while, yes, we had to analyze the new global configurations of power and trends in the world economy, first we had to thoroughly revisit our analysis of the 1980s. We had to come to terms with those incorrect conclusions we had reached--where we were off and why we went wrong--and strengthen what was correct in our thinking.

We could not, Bob insisted, gloss over our mistakes. We had to confront them head-on. Moreover, and this was a major point of orientation, we had to put our self-criticism before others. For Bob, it was not simply a matter of intellectual honesty and scrupulousness, important as that is to him. We had the responsibility to identify and dig into the flaws in our analysis and weaknesses in our approach, so that we could raise understanding and popularize the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist critical scientific approach. We needed to draw people, inside and outside the Party, into the process of wrestling with these issues, so that we could deepen analysis of the world situation and important new trends.

Bob has never recoiled from self-interrogation, or from subjecting his own ideas to the interrogation of others. Nor, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist that he is, does he consider Marx, Lenin, and Mao "off limits" when it comes to critical scrutiny and evaluation. (I strongly encourage readers to check out Conquer the World--The International Proletariat Must and Will ). Bob has written on the problem of a Marxism that ceases to interrogate itself. It is a recipe for intellectual stultification, passivity, and cynicism.

For Bob, revolutionary theory has a disruptive, even unsettling, quality to it: questioning established verities and conventions and posing new challenges as it seeks a deeper grasp of the world in its changingness. This is not to throw everything up for grabs, but rather to become more thoroughly grounded in reality, in its motion and development. It is to strengthen the foundations of scientific understanding. I have found this to be terrifically exciting--even as (especially as) I struggle to keep up and travel with him.

In terms of our self-criticism, which I won't attempt to summarize here, as it is quite extensive and multilayered, we proceeded on two basic levels. We examined where we were off in our specific analysis of world trends in the 1980s and why; and methodological weaknesses that could now be seen more clearly in how America in Decline had theorized and applied the "spiral/conjuncture" model. (We had fallen into some elements of "typical motion" thinking that had been the object of our earlier critiques.)

The fruit of this self-criticism and further research and analysis was Notes on Political Economy : Our Analysis of the 1980s, Issues of Methodology, and the Current World Situation , which was published in 2000.


Working on America in Decline and Notes on Political Economy with Bob and under his leadership has helped me appreciate more deeply his approach to and grasp of Marxism as a living, developing science that serves the revolutionary transformation of the world. It also helped me appreciate more deeply his methods of work and leadership--and his view of what a Maoist vanguard party is about.

It's not that the vanguard is always right or always at the van on every major question (and if you're thinking that way, it's already a lost cause). No, what Bob Avakian has emphasized is that being the vanguard, the vanguard that is shouldering the historic responsibility to lead the masses to remake the world, means and requires that you have the science.the methodology.and the outlook with which to engage reality in the most thoroughgoing and scientific way, that is, to seek the truth. It means that you are able to lead, to unleash, and to learn from others; to recognize and sum up errors; and to be open to criticisms from others.

A lot is riding on this. The point, after all, is for humanity to understand and change the world.

Raymond Lotta is a Maoist political economist. His works include America in Decline, The Soviet Union: Socialist or Social-Imperialist?, and Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism. He has lectured widely, in the U.S. and in India, Mexico, and the Philippines.