31 January 2016

How far left?

The current Harper's has a scathing article by Garret Keizer on a relic of oldschool leftism, the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, led from French exile by Bob Avakian. Keizer introduces us to Avakian by describing a rare American appearance of his at an advertised "public dialogue" on Revolution and Religion, at which Avakian outraged most of the audience by launching into a two-hour diatribe against religion, in an implicit attack on his interlocutor, self-described "revolutionary Christian" Cornel West. There might have been a point to the attack, which Keizer, showing his own hand somewhat, describes as "nasty bits of Eurocentric arrogance," were Avakian not the object of a carefully cultivated, utterly obscure cult of personality. Avakian is a Marxist-Leninist on the Maoist model, the RCP's line being that the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, a period the Chinese themselves prefer to pass over with a silent shudder, was "the furthest advance of human emancipation" to date. Interestingly, Avakian fled the U.S. after leading a protest against the 1979 visit of Deng Xiaoping, the man who made China's superpower possible but whom hard-core Maoists regard as a treacherous capitalist-roader.

I took a look at the RCP website, which was recently updated with "Six Resolutions of the Central Committee," most of which are dedicated to the indispensable revolutionary genius of "BA," a world-historical figure who, though "subordinate to the collectivity of the Party overall," is "greater than the Party" by virtue of his "new synthesis of communism." Avakian takes the position that no real revolution is possible without a correct, scientifically determined "line" as synthesized by himself. All of this makes me wonder why the organizers of the Revolution and Religion dialogue thought it was worth having Avakian in their midst. Cornel West at least has some sort of celebrity, while Avakian seems only to have a cult. Perhaps the organizers were entranced by the "Revolutionary Communist" label, though many were disillusioned by Avakian in the flesh. I don't doubt that many of his observations on religion were on the mark, but as far as Keizer's concerned, the issue isn't really religion vs. atheism but grass-roots vs. vanguardism. Keizer himself clearly rejects the Leninist premise that a vanguard party is necessary for any real revolution, though he concedes that "if I'm truly serious in my anticapitalism, I need to affiliate myself with some group."

The real question for the left is what it means to affiliate yourself to a group. Inescapably it must mean submitting to some sort of discipline, but ideally, at least as far as Keizer's concerned, it shouldn't be the top-down great-leader discipline of someone like Avakian. Keizer would probably say that revolution is not a science, but even if I know what he'd mean by that, I'd answer that it should be, to the extent that it proceeds by the scientific method. The problem with "scientific" socialism, as I see it, is that it predicts a result that itself dictates how we should reach that result, while encouraging adherents to attribute failures to deviations from the correct line, if not outright sabotage. Marxist-Leninists are too confident in their knowledge of what revolutions should look like and too hostile to alternate approaches. If you instead see revolution primarily as a moral or species imperative, instead of something that can be predicted like the movements of stars in the sky, you should be more willing to take a trial-and-error approach and more ready to adapt to error. Because Marxist-Leninists have an ironbound notion of what revolution looks like, they become inflexibly defensive in the face of failure, since any failure threatens to discredit the revolutionary structure that is their primary concern. But if revolution is something you're doing rather than something you're building, it shouldn't follow that any revolutionary mistake discredits the revolution itself. Vanguardism only makes things worse because self-appointed vanguards bring with them a preconceived "scientific" notion of what the poor or the working class should be doing. Avakian, for instance, once dallied with the labor movement but ultimately repudiated it because unions were more concerned with improving working conditions for their members than in taking over. Such an attitude tempts one to infer that someone like Avakian probably doesn't really care about anyone's working conditions, so long as they're doing the work he considers necessary. To reject the Avakians of the left shouldn't mean abandoning all efforts to persuade the grass roots of the necessity of certain measures and policies, but it does mean listening to what the grass roots deem necessary as well, instead of sneering at their unscientific consciousness. For whose sake is revolution undertaken, after all? For the good of the people, everyone will say. But who gets to say what the good of the people is? There has to be a middle ground between "it's whatever the people say it is" and "it's exactly what Marx/Lenin/Stalin/Mao/Avakian says it is." But no middle ground is even apparent, arguably, unless both sides, or all sides, make themselves heard, so I guess we have to tolerate the Avakians of the world on the off chance that one of them may be right about something, even if their pretensions of epochal genius deserve only laughter.


Anonymous said...

Any movement centered around a person, rather than a message, is doomed to failure.

Samuel Wilson said...

The problem with Marxist-Leninists -- or Stalinists, if you prefer, -- is that the cult of personality is the only practical answer they've come up with to the question, "Who the hell are you to tell us what to do?" If they were as scientific as they claim, they'd wouldn't even recognize this as a valid question, but in their defensiveness they answer it anyway.