Maoism? Rupture and continuity!

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"Marx was supposed to have created his synthesis from German philosophy, British political economy and french socialism.

"Why can't we learn from cutting edge investigations and theorizing going on around us (including by non-communists)? Why can't we encourage the cross-fertilization among revolutionaries (of many different beliefs)?  Haven't others been hard at work (including Badiou, and one-world theorists, and students of network theory, and social media innovators, neuro-sciencists, creative graphics, and more) while too many communists have been grinding at their cuds? Don't we communists have a lot to learn?

I often think to myself 'I spent far too much time in rooms with poeple who all claimed to have the same beliefs.'

"I am now (by contrast) much more interested in sitting down with people who have different beliefs -- who have been thinking about similar problems, but in parallel, along different tracks."

IN our thread on The Value and Problems of Maoism, Andrei wrote:

"Let me ask y'all (in particular, Mike) this: Do you think that Maoism is the only revolutionary form that Marxism can take in this era?

I remember when I was in the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, a Party member said to me: "There is no Marx without Mao." And in the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement's document "Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism!", the RIM declared that "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism must be the commander and guide of the world revolution" and "Revolutionary communists must wield our universal ideology."

Yet, at the same time, there is the interesting and compelling argument that "Marxism is not a layer cake" and "Marxism is more like a bush in an ecosystem".

Personally, I think it is important to maintain the theories that Mao devised as lines of demarcations. I don't believe in agnosticism. Maoism should be our ideology. However, how do we make sure that we stop that from being static? I think it'd be nice to have Marxism be a bush in an ecosystem, but I personally think we should make sure that it is a Maoist bush, otherwise it could be victim to, ahem, "poisonous weeds" (to quote the man himself).

What do you comrades think? Do we stay Maoist and say "Maoism or nothing", or is this too static?"

This is not a simple question or answer. But no, I don't agree with your lean here.

First, I am a Maoist -- meaning I take the advances embedded in Maoism as the floor and platform from which I am attempting to apply and develop communism. I think it would be a big problem to "go back" -- as if we had not experienced the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (or the conceptual insights of that experience). It would be wrong to return to a "goulash socialism" after we have glimpsed this approach of continuous revolution and the communist road.

So in my opinion, there are crucial, precious insights embodied in the work of Mao and many Maoists that we should treasure, apply and develop. And many people don't know about all that -- so I volunteer to be a conduit. And that too is why I describe myself as a Maoist.

One divides into two

Second, our project requires serious leaps of development -- meaning ruptures beyond (and that involves "away from") previously existing Maoism.

Maoism (as a synthesis pulled together in the mid-70s) is exhausted -- not disproven or discredited... but its age, seams and accumulated problems are showing. Communism needs to take a major leap.

There is a self-critical aspect to this. It is not just a "natural aging process" -- there has also been a stubborn backward and conservative pull among most (perhaps not all) pre-existing Maoist currents.

In the 9 Letters, we wrote (see above):

"...since Mao died in 1976, this Maoist movement has not been a fertile nursery of daring analyses and concepts. A mud streak has run through it. Even its best forces often cling to legitimizing orthodoxies, icons, and formulations. The popularization of largely-correct verdicts often replaces the high road of scientific theory — allowing Marxism itself to appear pat, simple and complete. Dogmatic thinking nurtures both self-delusion and triumphalism. In the name of taking established truths to the people, revolutionary communists have often cut themselves off from the new facts and creative thinking of our times. We need to break with that fiercely, and seek out the others who agree."

In other words, the Maoist movement (after Mao) has not done particularly well. (that is: on the theoretical project. There have been leaps of practice in several countries... but they have suffered because of these problems of theory, and the conservatism of orthodoxy as well as, obviously, the sugar-coated bullets of capitulation.) 

Post-Mao Maoism has sought to codify and defend the existing Maoist synthesis... but its attempts to develop, refresh, extend, etc. have not gone well. And multiple syntheses have emerged -- which are imho all deeply flawed... and all shy from opening the doors and minds, and cleaning house.

The demand for making a previously codified Maoism into "the commander guide of the world revolution" today is precisely the idea of treating communism as a closed system of settled verdicts. Given the profound lagging of that previous Maoist movement, it is terrible advice given the urgent problems we are tackling.

In the 9 Letters (included in the excerpt above) we talked about:

"communist theory needs to clean its Augean stables— uprooting this legacy of dogmatism, deepening its struggle against various forms of capitulation, and tackling long-standing philosophical and strategic problems that stand as real obstacles to communist revolution."

Cleaning out all the shit accumulated in a vast stable -- that is a pretty pungent metaphor, and consciously chosen. The stables of King Augeas had not been cleaned in thirty years....hmmmm.

That doesn't mean throwing everything out, obviously. But it does imply some serious housecleaning, a carting away of mounds of crap, and a parting of ways.

(And perhaps you deserve some examples? Here: Mao said, at the height of stormy 1968 that "revolution is the main trend in the world today." And, arguably, it was - a quarter of the world's people were going through socialist revolution, the world was speckled with serious revolutionary movements, and more.. But some people, who say we should take Mao as our "starting point," claim in 2013 that "revolution is the main trend in the world today" -- in the brazen absence of both evidence and of serious argument on their part (!). We should hoist such mindless cowpies into large plastic garbage bags, and set them on the curb. Or Avakian claims the world communist revolution hangs by a thread, and his appreciation by communists will decide its fate.  Or some people claim that the road to revolution is known and literally universal -- and it lies in embracing the methods of protracted peoples war developed by Mao in China. There are lots of other claims of "universal" form: universal forms of communist organization, universal forms of decision-making among communists, universal forms of working class consciousness, etc. I could give dozens of example -- lazy, thoughtless, backward looking, uninformed, militantly dogmatic.)

Third: Creative rupture and development don't happen by turning inward. The regeneration of living communist theory will not happen by entrenching around previous verdicts (however true they were in their time).

We need to live in these times, and absorb fresh insights and criticism and more from outside any particular communist current.

This means a communist project that is not limited to its "Maoist" current. Most demands for "It must be based on Maoism" are (in reality) a rejection of very idea of ruptures and reconceptions.

And this is not unusual to look outward, not back to an inherited doctrine: Marx was supposed to have created his synthesis from "German philosophy, British political economy and french socialism." 

Lenin integrated many of the practices of Russian revolutionary experience (including in the organizational form and practices of underground) and absorbed the thinking abroad in economics and elsewhere (Hilferding etc.) Lars Lih may claim that Lenin was an orthodox Erfurtian, but I believe that is a complete misreading of reality. (And once again: a break-off is portrayed as a subset.)

Mao brought a fresh rupture from codified Soviet diamat, by reinjecting a non-mechanical dialectics from classical Chinese philosophy (and his whole movement studied American pragmatists to combat chinese scholasticism). He completely ruptured with a movement's declaration of "universal principles" (of Soviets and the October road), and dared to climb the unexplored mountain. We should learn from that.

All of them (and others we need to mention, like Mariatigui...)  brought a great deal (creatively) from the world and ideas around them. Why can't we too range freely today, while also adopting Marx's work and Maoist insights are part of what we create our synthesis from?

Why can't we learn from cutting edge investigations and theorizing going on around us (including by non-communists)? Why can't we encourage the cross-fertilization among revolutionaries (of many different beliefs)?  Haven't others been hard at work (including Badiou, and one-world theorists, and students of network theory, and social media innovators, neuro-science, creative graphics, and more) while too many communists have been grinding at their cuds? Don't we communists have a lot to learn?

And lets be clear: Communist ideas are objectively "like a bush in an ecosystem." This is true, independent of our desires -- because that's how human thinking develops. The myth that "Communist ideas are like a layer cake" (first Marx, then Lenin, then Stalin, then Mao, then...) is a self-delusion maintained by wearing blinders... that's now how it happened, and its not how it happens now.

And: Isn't this catch-up time for us?  Who is going to forbid us? Some nagging schoolmarm of doctrine in our heads?

I am not calling for abandoning the communist road (obviously) -- On the contrary, I'm saying if we don't break with "closed systems" we will never find that communist in real life -- on the living canvas of real politics. Communism is not mainly a doctrine, it is a real, historic movement of society.

I often think to myself "I spent far too much time in rooms with people who all claimed to have the same beliefs." I am now (by contrast) much more interested in sitting down with people who have different beliefs -- who have been thinking about similar problems, but in parallel, along different tracks.

And if you raise that od slogan "Maoism or nothing" you will discover it has two problems: 

One, you won't be able to identify what to keep and what to discard within Maoism (and that is one of our tasks). 

And second, the people seeing you raise this odd slogan will respond, and after they respond, you will sadly face that "or nothing" part.

Assertion reveals the question

In fact, under our conditions, (and this is an expression of a moment needing rupture!) any assertion of old phrases is (in fact, objectively) a question.

You can say "Maoism or nothing" -- but then the question comes back "uh, which Maoism are you asserting? And what within Maoism are you upholding?"

We can assert "the dictatorship of the proletariat" (and do) -- but then the question comes back "What does that mean to you? does dictatorship require a one-party state? Or even a police state? And what should 'of the proletariat' mean to us after a century of very diverse and complex experience?"

We can assert all the precious lessons and concepts of the past (and we do often) -- but really they come to us as urgent questions, because their meaning and summation is inherently unstable, precisely because (see above!) the post-Mao movement has not done its homework well, and because no one else stepped up to do these projects politically.

(Others are always doing valuable work, i'm not denying that, but there is a specific project of regroupment and reconception that only communist revolutionaries can do.)

Here is what I wrote above:

" We need to discard ruthlessly, but cunningly, in order to fight under difficult conditions. We will be traveling light, without baggage and clutter from earlier modes of existence. We need to preserve precisely those implements that serve the advance, against fierce opposition, toward our end goal. We need to integrate them into a vibrant new communist coherency — as we thrive on the run."

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  • Thank you, Mike!

    If I may, I'm going to post my reply to your original response here in this thread, so that others may nibble on it as well:

    "An excellent and thorough response to my question Mike.

    I too wish to use "Maoism as the basic platform from which... to apply and develop communism."

    But, indeed, there is no doubt that Maoism has not made the leaps it has needed to make since the death of Mao himself in 1976. The RIM is dead, and while many revolutionary attempts have been launched, many of them have been heavily crippled (such as in Peru or Turkey) or are in the midst of struggling to continue (such as in Nepal). And you are right that attempts to codify Maoism, be they by Avakian, Gonzalo, or Prachanda, have all emerged, as you said, deeply flawed.

    In fact, it's interesting that you point out "Post-Mao Maoism has sought to codify and defend the existing Maoist synthesis." That's something that I've never really consciously thought about in my personal efforts to aid in communist reconception and regroupment. And it's something that we have to go beyond (in the myriad ways that you described across the 9 Letters).

    However, I must clarify that I didn't mean that "Creative rupture and development don't happen by turning inward." I too, don't want to turn "inward." I think we should be examining and looking at the outside world. However, I think there is a degree of "entrenching around previous verdicts" that we need to do: e.g. that it's right to rebel against reactionaries.

    You ask questions such as "Why should we not do that? Why can't we learn from cutting edge investigations and theorizing going on around us (including by non-communists)? Why can't we encourage the cross-fertilization among revolutionaries (of many different beliefs)? Don't we communists have a lot to learn?"

    I'm not arguing against such. I'm arguing for lines of demarcations. I don't think we should be "learning" from the CP-USA's lock-and-step support of the Democratic Party, or from the Spartacist League's bizarre, cultish Trotskyism. I'm saying we need to stay revolutionaries and not become agnostic. Sure, if a non-Maoist says "the sky is blue," we can't simply oppose that statement simply because of the fact that the person wasn't a Maoist, but I'm also saying if a so-called communist says "the sky is purple," we shouldn't "learn from" that.

    You make two other points:

    "One, you won't be able to identify what to keep and what to discard within Maoism (and that is one of our tasks)."

    Once again, I am not objecting to exploration. I am objecting to liberalism.

    "And if you raise the slogan "maoism or nothing" you will discover it has two problems:"

    Well, I didn't mean raise that ACTUAL slogan in REAL LIFE. I'm not saying we should literally do that- otherwise yeah, we'll come across as peculiar and archaic (to say the least). I meant more of have that attitude. But, as I said above, your point about only rallying around existing ideas is more valid. And you are correct that it would lead to questions like "which Maoism?" (in the 9 Letters, it was stated there are 2, 3, many Maoisms) and "what parts of Maoism?".

    In the end, I agree with the overall thrust of your post (both the original article and your reply to me). Regardless, I maintain that communist reconception and regroupment should be one of collecting correct ideas, and not a "big tent" for any ideology claiming to be revolutionary."

  • Guest (mouse)

    I got a related comment/question... I've realized that myself and others have very little understanding of the cultural revolution (and for that matter the soviet union's experience). We have read the "classics", synthesis and party programs. and are eager to learn, but what we're encouraged to learn from these texts are so rigid (what Mike mentions above - democratic centralism, octobre road...etc) ... the discussions don't allow for an understanding of how ideas and movements developed. Do y'all have suggestions for books/articles/movies... that provide a good descriptions of the complexity of the Chinese and Soviet revolutions?

  • "...Haven't others been hard at work (including Badiou, and one-world theorists, and students of network theory, and social media innovators, neuro-sciencists, creative graphics, and more) while too many communists have been grinding at their cuds? Don't we communists have a lot to learn?

    I often think to myself 'I spent far too much time in rooms with poeple who all claimed to have the same beliefs.'"

    I am really happy to see communists asking this question. After observing and studying anarchism and Trotskyism (respectively) for the past few years, I agree with you entirely. The inbred sectarian mentality of contemporary socialism is its coffin, and to reanimate communism as a movement we need to engage with a 'ruthless criticism' of all of our doctrines. I mean this down to our basic philosophical commitments.

    While I don't think the Analytical Marxist school produced much of great theoretical value, they were just brazen and sacrilegious enough to test Marxist assumptions with contemporary social scientific and philosophical tools. There was one catch: 'contemporary social scientific and philosophical tools' have entirely liberal assumptions, mainly because Marxism has refused to significantly develop since the latter half of the 20th century. In order to not repeat this mistake, I think it is our job to critically engage with the these contemporary norms and try to "translate" the ideas of Marxian theory into a methodology that doesn't betray its roots.

    Andrew Kliman and Alan Freeman (among others) have shown us what 21st century Marxian economics looks like, providing us with a modern defense of the traditional Marxian law of value and the law of the tendency of the falling profit rate. What does a revitalized version of historical materialism look like? How can we employ dialectics in a more transparent way, so that we are not so often accused of obfuscation? Do we care to lay out what we mean by dialectics in a readable and formulaic way?

    Anyway, that's my two cents. I don't think Leninism and pluralism are incompatible, especially when there is no immediate task at hand and there is no revolutionary party with widespread working-class support.

  • IMO (obviously) this post did a good job of raising more questions than providing some pat answers. One question I have is, how does Mike E. and others more concretely see not just some “failings” of Maoism, but how Mao has been interpreted and applied—or not applied as the case may be? For those who consider themselves Maoists, how have they picked up that mantle and tried to go forward? Like Mike mentioned, there are several schools of thought that have emerged since Mao’s death, and not necessarily by some Maoists (or even communists), so how much attention are people paying to other theorists, etc.? Is there a tendency to simply put them in some well-worn slot, and not take them seriously? And what are “the others” basing their analyses on?

    How much has the changing objective situation been a part of various analyses? How do revolutionary communists greet changing conditions and contradictions; what has become primary or secondary in today’s world?

    And if I understand Mike correctly, think he makes a major point: that if one simply applies Mao”ism” (or even Lenin and Marx) as some universal truth, across the board, one actually renders their revolutionary theory and practice as static. IMO, this is very problematic—even if they are upheld in the main. Along with the somewhat catastrophic view of “Maoism or nothing,” besides ending up with “nothing,” what has been more the case is—an entrenched and base sectarianism (rather than a preferred cross-fertilization)…unfortunately with more than a few revolutionary communists being unwilling to consider even Maoists of different stripes, or certainly not considering anyone else outside their own limited confines.

    And in my somewhat cynical view, ultimately it is the people themselves who are often times left out of the equation—with the people continuing to suffer the most, as well as being the true beneficiaries of revolutionizing society. In trying to follow the events in Nepal, two roads, significant regrouping and formation of a new party, etc. -- without real life struggle and winning over significant sections of the people, even former and not so former revolutionaries, the CPN(M) may encounter failures (at least in the short-run) rather than successes. But with all the contradictions they face, they are apparently trying to remedy potential pitfalls. And I think they deserve our heartfelt support, even if some of us don’t agree with them across the board. What the people of Nepal, and the communist revolutionaries have embarked on, and continue to fight for is not frivolous—and I think we (in a global sense) have some important lessons to learn from them, both thus far and for the future—but not in some static way.

    About 5 years ago I was having dinner with 3 old comrades. I dared to ask, “What does it mean to call yourself a Maoist in this day and age?” 2 of them—Maoists in a very static or dogmatic sense—seemed appalled that I would even raise that question. But ironically, the wife of one of them said, “I have the same question.” She is someone who has devoted her life to revolutionary politics and change.

    There are two “axioms” that I still think ring true, based on historical and current investigation and analysis, and not just because they sound correct. One is “where there is oppression there’s resistance.” The other, “create public opinion, seize power.” And with the latter, I think we can see, through different movements, etc. and against reactionary/or status quo ideologies, not a seizure of power at this point in time, but the effects of creating public opinion (together with past and developing struggle through what sometimes seems a daunting obstacle course.) While seizure of power has obviously not been realized, the changes via creating public opinion have been important—even if, and perhaps in spite of, the fact that Maoists and other revolutionary communists have not been at the helm. IMO think it is important to have a better understanding of a changing political landscape, and to be able to unite better with real potential allies.

    So yeah, I agree with Mike that it is not particularly fruitful to simply surround one’s self with sycophants, or revolutionary-minded folk who are seemingly on the same page. A real challenge lies in listening to, incorporating and struggling with those whom you may have points of unity and disagreement with, but who do not necessarily reside in your comfort zone. And can only aid in a developing revolutionary process. Is this ghoulash socialism, or some form of agnosticism or liberalism? I don’t see that it is, but hey, I have been wrong many, many times in the past.

  • Guest (Autonomeus)

    I am for the millionth time revisiting the question of praxis. There seems to be little that's new in terms of theory informing praxis, but I'm sure I'm looking in the wrong places. New forms of praxis like Occupy always seem to lead the way, rather than theory, which follows behind.

    I fail to see any value in Badiou, and I have turned again to Negri and the Italian autonomist tendency for ideas, but that too seems to be mainly the cutting edge of a past period of history.

    My latest avenue of exploration is Deleuze -- any suggestions for A) particular writings, or B) other theorists that have some insight into how to move forward today?

  • I don't have any simple answers for you, but I wanted to urge you to look out for Kasama's new Reading Clusters, which will be launching here shortly. They'll include clusters of different views for study on a number of subjects, including a cluster dedicated to revolutionary strategy.

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by eric ribellarsi
  • Guest (Autonomeus)

    (My apologies for no doubt placing this comment in the wrong place -- I am trying to figure out how to use the new site.)

  • Guest (Autonomeus)

    OK, checking to see whether I have successfully registered.

  • Autonomeus, are you sure you are logged in? You should see your profile appearing in the top-right corner of the site when you are logged in. If not, you will see a login box.

  • Guest (Autonomeus)

    Eric, I went through all the steps, including selecting an avatar, and I'm still not registered.

    I don't what I'm doing wrong.

  • Guest (Autonomeus)

    OK, I tried for the third time to register just now -- but when I fill in the first screen and press enter the site takes to a page that says "session ended."

    I give up -- without some guidance it looks like I am not able to register.

    I don't know how many other potential participants are having the same problem, but you should probably look into it.

  • Autonomeus: I've written you on Facebook. It looks like your account was not activated, perhaps because the activation email was in your spam filter. This has, unfortunately, happened to several people, and we're trying our best to find a solution. In the meantime, I manually activated your account, so you should now be able to login.

  • Thanks Eric.

    I looked in my junk file and didn't find any message, but I suppose that's probably what happened.

    Now I'm in!

    And I will keep an eye out for the Reading Clusters.

Dig in.