Q: Yeah, I think what you just said is a really important, a really provocative and powerful point. And I want to continue with that thread. In this interview so far, you’ve been talking about the new synthesis of communism that BA has brought forward, and to get a little bit more into this: What does it mean to say that there is a new synthesis of communism? Or another way to go at this is, what’s new about it?
AS: Well, that’s a very big question, obviously, which I can’t do justice to in a limited interview like this. I would first of all point people again to the website revcom.us, where, if you go to the BA portal and you click on it, not only are some of the key works of BA in recent times featured there, but there’s also a complete bibliography of core works, and you can actually access for free a whole lot of very important works by BA. He’s making these very broadly available and facilitating that process. And, on that website, there are some explanations of what the new synthesis is, a brief explanation, and also some longer explanations. I think BA and the Party are making a lot of efforts to try to give this to the people, to anyone who is interested, making it available very broadly and encouraging people to check it out, making things either free or very inexpensive, trying to really make it easy for people to get into it. There are many different works, and I think it’s important that people actually read BA’s works. There are many books and articles and essays. There are many talks, there are films of his talks, and you can get a better sense there than what I can possibly represent here.
But I will say that some of what’s new about the new synthesis of communism is, first of all, that it’s much more scientific than anything that’s come before. You can see this, and we talked about some of this earlier, in the ways it approaches really digging into material reality as it actually is, uncovering patterns, using scientific methods to investigate and explore ever more deeply, being willing to go to some uncomfortable places, really promoting critical thinking, being willing to look into some of the errors of the past in order to learn from them and go forward on a better basis. Look, one of the things the new synthesis has done is that it hasn’t just limited itself to sorting out and distinguishing the positives and what was correct in the past experience of socialist revolutions, from the negatives and the errors that were made. It has done that, but it’s done a lot more than that. It’s not just some kind of cobbling together of these things. It’s not just a deeper and more scientific analysis of the past, it’s a new synthesis, one that is based on that deeper analysis, of how to better go forward in making revolution and building a new socialist society on a better foundation and with better methods than at any time in the past. It’s actually breaking new ground in terms of sorting out and recasting the experience of the earlier wave of socialist revolution, basically from the 19th century and Marx’s early development, up through the reversal of the Chinese revolution in the 1970s. Again, that’s what is meant by “the first wave,” and there’s been a lot of deep analysis of what was correct in all these different experiences, what does or doesn’t help things move forward in the direction of communism, what is actually, objectively, in the interest of the vast majority of humanity. The new synthesis has deepened our understanding of internationalism, with the concept that the whole world comes first and is the fundamental basis and stage on which all these different contradictions are playing out. It has more deeply analyzed the nature of the capitalist-imperialist system, including as it has evolved into further developed empire and has further consolidated its rule over the entire globe.
And the new synthesis has made a deeper and more correct analysis of what does it mean to meet the needs of society, to meet the needs of humanity—what I was saying earlier about going beyond strictly trying to deal with the most basic economic needs. In other words, capitalism-imperialism does exploit the working people for profit, and so on, and there is a struggle to meet the basic requirements of life; but with the new synthesis there is a greater understanding that the world we need, in order to meet the needs of humanity, has to encompass a lot more than that. It needs to meet basic economic needs, but it also has to meet the cultural needs, the scientific and artistic needs, of people broadly and in all their diversity. It obviously needs to be able to encompass and meet the needs of the most oppressed and exploited, but it needs to do even more than that. It needs to encompass very broad swaths of humanity, in all its variations and diversity. So there’s been quite a bit of development in terms of a better understanding of both the nature of the problem and the nature of the necessary solutions, if you want to put it that way.
Again, a hallmark of the new synthesis is that, compared to any previous theoretical development of the science of communism, it is much more thoroughly and consistently scientific in its method and approach to everything. It puts a lot of emphasis on critical thinking and on really boldly confronting errors and shortcomings, while not denying or throwing away the actual successes and accomplishments of previous incarnations of the socialist revolution. And that’s very important. It gets back to what we were talking about in terms of truth and the understanding of what truth is. What is true is what actually corresponds to material reality. That’s what truth is. It’s not just an idea, it’s not just what you might think or what I might think. Does something correspond to the way things actually are in material reality, or does it not? What does the evidence show? You often have to be willing to dig, to explore more deeply, to uncover the evidence and get at the patterns. You generally can’t just answer a question like that in two seconds. You have to be willing to look for patterns and concrete evidence that actually exist in reality. You also have to look for evidence over a period of time: You want to examine repeated examples, not just one example. You don’t just want to go on very partial or limited experience, you don’t just want to say, “Oh, well, this happened the other day, so obviously that’s truth, or obviously that’s a significant thing.” Well, I don’t know. Is it part of a recurrent pattern, or is it just something that occurs every now and then? I mean, what is the actual significance? You have to dig more deeply to get at the bigger lessons of life and the bigger patterns of reality. And one of the things that Avakian has done is to actually promote that kind of method. He basically tells people: Look, no matter how much you might want a better world and no matter how much you might want revolution, and you might want communism, you just can’t try to twist things to fit your expectations or come out the way you’d like them to. You have to actually look for the truth of things, based on concrete evidence, even if it turns out to be an uncomfortable or inconvenient truth, and even if it ends up revealing your own errors or shortcomings. If you really want to go in the right direction, you have to be able to face up to that.
And one of the things that really distinguishes a good scientist—and I would include BA in this category—is this understanding I pointed to before, that you learn at least as much from an analysis of mistakes and shortcomings as from an analysis of successes. And again, one of the things that BA has done is dig deeply into the experience of the first wave of socialist revolution to understand where people, even the best-intentioned people, went off track, made mistakes, had the wrong conceptions or the wrong methods and approaches. And by digging into what actually happened—including some of the errors of method and approach—it becomes a lot more possible to understand what were some of the underlying causes of the restoration of capitalism, why socialism was overthrown and capitalism restored in the Soviet Union and later in China. It becomes much less mystifying or confusing. People sometimes say, “Well, if socialism was so great, how come it got overthrown, how come people didn’t want to keep it?” Well, we now know there were mistakes made, and we can learn from those mistakes. But we also understand better now that one of the big problems of socialist revolution is that you make that revolution in particular countries at particular times, but meanwhile the rest of the world is still wrapped up in capitalism and imperialism; so, for a while at least, any emerging socialist country starts off embedded in an imperialist world, and this generates a lot of pressure and makes it objectively even more difficult to develop the new socialist society. That’s one of the problems people have to wrangle with.
And mistakes have in fact been made in the past when trying to defend socialist societies while also contributing to expanding the world revolution, and when trying to develop the internal socialist life of a society while at the same time having to contend with all those capitalist-imperialist forces pressing in on them, antagonistically, from the outside. These are big complicated problems to have to deal with. And yes, there have been errors of method in how some of that has been dealt with in the past. For instance, there were some errors made in terms of sometimes making unconscionable alliances with repressive foreign regimes in a misguided attempt to defend new and fragile socialist societies by finessing certain international relations or exacerbating some international contradictions between competing imperialists. There were also sometimes errors of method that were made when dealing with some of the middle strata people who may have had one foot in the new society and one foot kind of back in the old society: Sometimes such forces were given too much room to exert their undermining influence, and sometimes they were given too little room to breathe and were restricted too severely.
I don’t feel I can get into all this in great depth right now, but the point is that leading communist revolutions and developing socialist societies on a correct basis is a tremendous challenge, full of complexity and a great many thorny contradictions, which in an overall sense have to be handled “with just the right touch,” or things can easily go off track in some very bad directions. In my opinion the new synthesis, if it is systematically applied to such problems, provides the methods and means to unfold the revolutionary process—both before and after the seizure of power—in a much better way than at any time in the past. It really has broken new ground in terms of the process of getting to the seizure of power, in terms of developing strategy for revolution in a country like the U.S., and also in other types of countries. What are some of the key principles for getting there? What about the question of how to go about actually seizing power when conditions are ripe for this? Seizing power in an actual revolution means going up against the armed force of the state. How could you possibly do that without getting crushed? How do you do that while involving millions of people, and in a country like the U.S.? How do you do it with a realistic chance of winning? You can’t just wish for it to turn out alright (!)...that’s one of the big obstacles...when it comes to that stage of struggle, you’re going up against very powerful forces with entrenched traditions and lots of armaments. How do you develop the work, theoretically and in terms of strategic orientation and approach, so that, when it gets to that point, people have a chance of actually winning and coming out the other end, not just having experienced a lot of loss, but with a new and better society being born and on the way to being developed?
And then there’s the question of how do you nurture this new society in a way that actually moves in the direction of overcoming the “4 Alls” very concretely, in other words, going in the direction of communism. And, at the same time, do it in the way we talked about before—solid core with lots of elasticity based on the solid core. If you’re too elastic, you’re going to get overthrown. All these different forces of basically the old capitalist guard, as well as some newly arising capitalist-inclined forces within socialist society itself, are still going to find a lot of material basis to restore capitalist modes of production and capitalist values, if you’re too loose and don’t prevent that from happening. On the other hand, if you try to control everything too tightly, people broadly are going to feel like they can’t breathe and things are going to chafe and grind.
Innovations are going to be stifled and people are not going to want to take a lot of initiative. There’s going to be fear, there won’t be enough ease of mind, and things will feel repressive even when they’re not, and people just won’t be very motivated to fight for this new society. So you have to get the right synthesis.
I think Avakian is breaking radical new ground on the relationship between these two aspects. There’s the analogy I used earlier about riding a horse, and the two kinds of mistakes you can make: You can let the reins go too loosely and the horse will run away with you, and you’ll probably get thrown off the horse that way; or, you can hold the reins in too tightly but then the horse can’t even run, and nothing positive gets developed, if you follow the analogy.
So these advances, these breakthroughs in the new synthesis, are rooted very fundamentally in a rigorously scientific approach to questions of philosophy and method, applied to meeting the complex needs of humanity in the very best ways possible. Once again, in relation to the question of truth, are you going to think something is true just because that’s what you’re hoping it will be? Are you going to start lying to yourself and convince yourself of something that’s not true, just because it might be more comfortable or convenient? Are you going to try to make reality fit your conceptions, or preconceptions, or are you going to take up scientific methods to get a more accurate picture of how reality really is? Are you going to look for immediate results in the short-term but not bother thinking about strategic objectives and how best to proceed, even now, and at any given moment, in such a way as to advance towards those overall objectives?