Tuesday, August 18, 2015
All played out – Bob Avakian's Descent into Ridiculous irrelevance by Roshan Kissoon
'A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.' - Saul Bellow
This short article is an attempt to present my final views on the RCP USA, its Chairman Bob Avakian, and the so called 'New Synthesis of Communism'. It is a settling of accounts, and afterwards, there is nothing more I have to say about the RCP USA nor any desire to further 'engage' with the so called 'New Synthesis'.
We have been asked to 'engage' with the New Synthesis by supporters of the RCP USA, and we have 'engaged' to an extent- but not to the extent of agreeing with all of it nor of accepting it as a 'higher stage' of Communism.
It is important to state, right at the beginning, that we respect the cadres and supporters of the RCP USA for their dedication and activism. Furthermore, we do not claim to have any especial insight into the various groups and parties or history of the US left. To uphold communism in the United States must be difficult, and we respect the RCP USA and others for doing so. An excellent and interesting book, Heavy Radicals, discusses the history of US Maoism, the RCP USA and the wrecking tactics used against US Maoists by COINTELPRO. Worth reading. i
However, there are any number of Trotskyist, Anarchist, revisionist and even pacifist groups in the US, UK and elsewhere that we respect. We respect the work and dedication of their cadres and activists, support their campaigns, march alongside them on demonstrations, and even count some as personal friends. Nonetheless, we disagree on fundamental issues. My personal respect for a group, party, politician, activist or intellectual does not mean agreement with all of their positions.
Furthermore, regarding the substantive issues and disagreements over the political line of the RCP USA and its analysis and summation of the history of the International Communist Movement, there have already been a number of good solid criticisms from various sources.
Notable ones include the Kasama Project and its 'Nine Letters to Comrades' ii, the Worker's Dreadnought has published five in depth articles iii, and Com. Nick Glais has published a short article criticising the 'cosmopolitanism' of the RCP USA iv, and there is also an article by Com. Harsh Thakor v and Otto's war room vi. There are also the criticisms of Com. Ajith vii, a central committee member of the CPI Maoist, and also that of Com. Sharma viii, central committee member of the CPN Maoist and former Nepali ambassador to Australia.
We have nothing to add to those criticisms, apart from to refer to arguments that have already been made and are readily available.
To be blunt, we take a different view on Com. Stalin and his legacy to the RCP USA. We are more positive about Com. Stalin's accomplishments and legacy. But this article is not about that, the great Stalin, it is about the less than great Bob Avakian.
Our subject and criticism of the RCP USA is about the way the RCP USA present themselves, their chairman, their claims, rhetoric and slogans, which suggest to us, even if we knew nothing more, that the RCP USA have a wrong line that will never lead to success of any kind now or in the future. A wrong line can be rectified, however, with self-criticism.
This is written as critical advice from a friend, not an enemy, to the RCP USA - but they can take it as they choose to take it. Not quite telling truth to power, as the RCP USA have little real power (state power, army, guns, money, ministerial positions, hit men etc.) but rather telling truth to fellow travellers on the communist road.
Obvious problems in the practice of the RCP USA
1) Ridiculous attempts to promote Bob Avakian – The RCP USA has long attempted to promote Bob Avakian by comparing him to some or other notable figure. Thus, I have heard of Avakian referred to as 'the American Lenin' and 'the white Malcolm X'. This type of ridiculous comparison recently went even further, in an article which praised Bob Avakian as the 'Jimi Hendrix of Revolution'. The article was designed to promote the 'historic' debate between Cornel West and Bob Avakian, known as BA to his fans:
“As with Jimi Hendrix, there is a total synergy, not an opposition, between the opportunity to see BA live and in person and the importance of studying his works in an ongoing way. Failing to fully recognize the incredibly special and unique opportunity to see BA live and in person because one is already familiar with BA’s works would make no more sense than people failing to recognize how special it would have been to see Hendrix live and in person because they already were familiar with his albums. Similarly, people who do see BA live and in person should only leave the room even more determined and inspired to dig into his works.” ix
We are genuinely curious to know to what audience this article is aimed at. Who will be convinced by this? It is comical and one cannot really take it seriously, because it is not serious. Furthermore, when making comparisons, there needs to be at least some parity for people to take it seriously. That is, it should be possible to flip the example around, and for the example to still make some sense. Thus, if Bob Avakian is the 'Jimi Hendrix of revolution', then also implied is the statement that 'Jimi Hendrix is the Bob Avakian of rock and roll'. Move over rover, let Avakian take over! x
Likewise, if Avakian is the American Lenin, then implied is that Lenin is the Russian Avakian, or if Avakian is the white Malcolm X, then Malcolm X is the black Bob Avakian. Ridiculous!
If one is to compare Jimi Hendrix with a political figure, then the obvious and most apt is Che Guevara. After all, posters of both lined the student digs of the 1960s, both died too young, and both were handsome, masculine men with a touch of 'feminine' softness and vulnerability. Both made substantive contributions to their fields. If one were to compare Avakian with a musical figure, then the not obvious but relevant example would be Francis Rossi of British rock band Status Quo. Bob Avakian is the Francis Rossi of revolution.
Further, another ridiculous article, on Bob Avakian watching a serious film about the last day in the life of a black man murdered by the US police, Fruitvale Station. The article states:
“As these scenes unfolded, I looked over at BA. He was sobbing. Not just misty-eyed. Sobbing. And he continued to cry tears of heartbreak and rage for several minutes, as the closing credits rolled.
This made a very big impression on me. BA did not know Oscar Grant personally. But he felt the sting of his murder in an extremely raw and visceral way. And I think his reaction speaks volumes about who Bob Avakian is, what he represents, and what he is all about.”xi
Now, we do not deny that certain films can bring tears to the eyes of the audience, and this is mainly due to the skill of the director, producer, cameraman, script writer, actors etc. However, it is neither here nor there if Bob Avakian cries at a film, and says nothing at all about his leadership or character.
Worse, the article portrays a white leftist leader crying over the death of a black man, and is meant to show how much Bob Avakian cares about the plight of black people in the US.
The inference of this article suggests, of course, that Bob Avakian should be the leader of oppressed blacks in the US, because he cried, and was seen crying by the writer of this stupid article, at the murder of a young black man; and wants the general public, and especially black youth, to know about how much he feels the pain of black people in the US. Ridiculous!
The RCP USA slogan, ' BA everywhere – Imagine the difference it could make' is one of the silliest and most desperate slogans I have ever come across.xii
One can imagine any number of things, but it is unclear to me what difference imagining BA everywhere would make.
The RCP USA seem to think that if they can get Bob Avakian onto the Oprah Winfrey show, or some similar prime time show, it would somehow make a difference in US politics. We doubt that.
(I also sometimes feel moved to tears by certain films. The last film that I saw that moved me to tears was the classic Hindi film Devdas (1955), starring Dilip Kumar.)
2) Ridiculous claims of a supposed intellectual or philosophical achievements – The RCP USA claims to have made advances in the theory and understanding of communism, but when one tries to find the essence of these claims, there is nothing.
The most common claims that are made by RCP USA cadre are that Avakian has made a break in epistemology, that Avakian has criticised the so called doctrine of 'inevitabilism', criticised the notion of 'class truth' in the international communist movement, and ruptured with pragmatist and instrumentalist tendencies as well as criticised supposed 'apriorism' xiii
We do not doubt that Avakian has indeed done these things, but so have many others before him, without claiming any special status for their ideas. A few names – Lukacs, Gramsci, Althusser etc – all have made real philosophical and intellectual contributions to Marxism of far greater weight that Bob Avakian, yet didn't claim so much for themselves and their achievements.
Humility is not a bad thing. These aspects of the RCP USA's claims mentioned above have already been criticised thoroughly enough by others that there is no need to cover the same ground.
3) Crude and unoriginal views on religion – the RCP USA try to promote their unoriginal, tired, and uninspired views on religion as original and ground breaking. Avakian's book 'Away with All Gods'simply covers the same old ground trodden by Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists.
However, unlike the so called New Atheists, Avakian does not support Western intervention in the Muslim majority countries nor link up his atheism with US foreign policy.
The shallowness of this view was fully exposed in the debate, if it was a debate, between Cornel West and Bob Avakian at the Riverside church in New York, November 15, 2014.
I attended a live stream of this debate, watched all of it, even missing the last train home, at a showing at London's Conway Hall. More than two hours of Avakian talking, yet never saying anything with any real depth or insight nor even any real understanding of religion, theoretical, historical, practical, or otherwise.
The event was billed as 'historic', but it was just a historic waste of time, and was like watching an embarrassing drunk uncle at a wedding party who doesn't realise he is making a fool out of himself on the dance floor. Heckling from the audience – let Cornel speak! - could be heard - it was embarrassing. We suspect that most people who attended the so called 'historic' debate came to see Cornel West, not Bob Avakian.
If it was meant to be compared to a performance of Jimi Hendrix, then it was obvious that Cornel West was the one who may be compared to Hendrix, as he blew Avakian off stage to loud applause in less than a minute, and spoke for a mercifully short time, made valid points drawing on Existentialist theology and explained them clearly enough, in his usual colourful way.
Avakian could have made all his points in under twenty minutes, but he seems to think he is Fidel Castro, who is famous for long speeches. Fidel Castro, however, always has important things to say to the Cuban nation in his speeches, and led a revolution and was head of state. Avakian had nothing important to say but just seems to want attention to promote himself. Big fail!
The wasted opportunity to discuss religion seriously was wasted as it seems that Avakian knew little about any other kind of religion except US protestant fundamentalism.
There have been several excellent books analysing various aspects of religion from Marxist perspectives, such as Maxine Rodinson's book on the life of the prophet of Islam, Karl Kautsky's work on early Christianity, and the work of Ernest Bloch.
We suggest that these works and that of many others, Marxist and non-Marxist, to be far more important than the insipid platitudes of Avakian's thoughts on religion.
The sad thing is that there are many issues involving religion that desperately need analysis, such as political Islam, but Avakian doesn't seem capable of it.
4) Bob Avakian is not a contended question of any great importance xiv- The RCP USA is its desperation to promote Avakian at all costs has lost touch with reality:
“….putting forward the fact that BA is a "contended question"...that a lot of people who find out what he is all about really like him and what he stands for, and then there are people who really hate him, fundamentally because of what he stands for. We should speak directly to why "doofuses," backward fools, opportunists and outright counter-revolutionaries, as well as functionaries and enforcers of the present oppressive order in the world, hate him...”
This, basically false, belief is at the root of the problems in the RCP USA. They imagine Bob Avakian to have an importance he does not have in reality.
They then, predictably, accuse those who reject Avakian's megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur as ' backward fools, opportunists and outright counter-revolutionaries'.
However, this again is not sound, as one may reject the so called New Synthesis of Communism, and simply have a different political line and social, historical and political analysis to the RCP USA.
As most of the international Maoist movement has rejected the New Synthesis, then it seems that, in the eyes of the RCP USA, they are all 'opportunists and outright counter-revolutionaries'.
It is not possible to declare oneself or ones party to be a cardinal or contended question, as cardinal or contended questions arise, exist and are recognised by the society generally.
Thus, during Apartheid rule in South Africa, the ANC and Nelson Mandela were contended and cardinal questions, that nobody in South Africa could ignore, love or hate the ANC and Nelson Mandela.
It was not Mandela's personal brilliance that made him a cardinal or contended question, but the issue of Apartheid white minority rule.
Nelson Mandela was the leader and voice of the ANC which had mass popular support in South Africa, that made him a contended or cardinal question. Avakian and the RCP USA are not and have never been of that critical importance in the US or anywhere else.
The inability of the RCP USA to understand how they are seen and sound from the outside also causes problems which the RCP USA cannot tackle.
That is, when one is presented with ridiculous and overblown claims, the only way some tackle it is to respond in kind, in an overblown and ridiculous way. Thus, there is a Youtube video entitled 'Bob Avakian is Basically everywhere' xv, a 'Doing the Basics with Bob Avakian' xvi tumblr page, a Blob Avakian meme generator, and a number of other rather funny things on the internet.
The RCP USA has been unable to tackle this, except with a comical slogan of 'down with the culture of snark – serve the people'. The RCP USA should realise that the way they present themselves is itself the cause of 'snarky' comments on the internet.xvii
An article by the RCP USA denies that the RCP USA is a cult. We agree with this, we also do not believe that the RCP USA is a cult. However, if it appears as a cult to many people, then that is not the fault of anyone but the RCP USA itself.
After all, why have an 'Honour Bob Avakian Day' xviii, a Bob Avakian Institute xix, put up posters of Bob Avakian at the hippy 'Burning Man' festival xx etc. How are people supposed to react? The RCP USA states:
“This accusation of “cult” is just bullshit. It is lazy. It is intellectually cowardly. And it is harmful, because it spreads lies and confusion about what Bob Avakian, and the party and movement for revolution he leads, are actually all about; stands in the way of the critically needed theoretical engagement and practical involvement with the movement for revolution to emancipate humanity...”xxi
But it is surely the case that the RCP USA has itself created this problem through its own actions and way of promoting Avakian. If the RCP USA appears as a cult to many people, which some bourgeois media are happy to go along with xxii, they should ask themselves why this is the case.
Could it be that the RCP USA is doing something wrong which causes people to think it is a cult, even though it is not? Self criticism comrades! Its sometimes too easy to blame others for your own mistakes.
If the RCP USA present themselves with a weak point for reactionaries to attack with their ridiculous promotion of Avakian, then they have nobody to blame but themselves and if people dismiss them as a cult.
Even their website font seems to be one used in comic books, and the comic book style picture of Avakian screams - don't take me seriously! We are unsure whether this is conscious or unconscious.
If the latter, then this article may help to make it fully conscious to the cadre and supporters of the RCP USA.xxiii
Though it may sound unbelievable to most Americans, there are tiny (two, three persons maximum) groups around the Nepali, Indian, Sri Lankan, Turkish, Iranian Maoist movements that do take Avakian and the RCP USA seriously.
They seem to have the mistaken belief that the RCP USA has cadres and mass support in the USA, especially amongst black and Hispanic people in the ghettoes, and the RCP USA is primed and ready to lead a revolution in the USA. How did they get that idea, one honestly wonders?
Furthermore, out of all the good books that have been published in English about Marxism, there are surely more important books to translate into Sinhala, Hindi, Nepali etc. than those by Bob Avakian. xxiv
Bob Avakian has also released a number of musical compositions, including an attempt at Hip Hop/spoken word, entitled 'All Played Out'.xxv
Its worth listening to once, all the way through, as an example of cringe inducing sixth-form poetry, an example on how not to carry out musical propaganda. Avakian spits out his rage at being largely ignored by almost everybody:
“Plus there's a New Synthesis, there are books, speeches with deep analysis,
but you don't read 'em, wont hear 'em, go near 'em, you remain in paralysis,
like that, you're ALL PLAYED OUT “ xxvi
Oh dear! Not quite Louis Aragon or Pablo Neruda is it? Nor is it KRS One or Public Enemy. One suspects that this 'rap' was partly an unconscious or semi-conscious confession by Avakian that he himself is 'All played out'!
There have also been ridiculous attempts by the second in command of the RCP USA, Raymond Lotta, to engage cultural critic and celebrity Slavoj Zizek in debate, as well as French philosopher Alain Badiou.xxvii
Frankly, we do not have a high opinion of either Zizek, Badiou, or others of this ilk, or indeed of most post-68 French philosophy, which we believe is hyped up to an incredible degree way above its real importance, and is rather overrated and consists of mostly pseudo radical posturing with big words.
Another waste of time and diversion for serious activists and communists, especially in the oppressed countries, in our opinion. xxviii
We have criticised the RCP USA and Bob Avakian not just to settle accounts, but also to highlight how the stupidity of the RCP USA's propaganda make other communists appear to the general public.
It is not just a comic story, but also a sad one, as at one time, without doubt, the RCP USA and Bob Avakian seemed to promise so much more.
History has not chosen Bob Avakian to be the leader of the American proletarian revolution; it is another that will lead this struggle. Bob Avakian's early books are not bad, and the RCP USA have made some decent criticisms of the line of various parties over the years, such as the line of the CARC and K. Venu, as well as that of the Nepali Maoists.
These are worth reading alongside other texts dealing with the same issues. That is the most we can say, positively, about the RCP USA. We have engaged, and found the New Synthesis woefully inadequate.
We hope this article puts the dog to sleep, at least as far as we are concerned, and we hope it is of some use to others subjected to RCP USA evangelism. We have stated our opinion on the RCP USA, its Chairman Bob Avakian, and the so called 'New Synthesis of Communism', and have no further interest in the matter. There are more important things to study, read, and write about. For us, this matter is 'All Played Out'.
Links and references :
a good review by JP Moufawad. Details about the book, authored by Conor J Gallagher and Aaron J Leonard, in the review.
viiiCom. Ajay Sharma's book 'Unity and Polemic in the International Communist Movement' is available in Nepali, and hopefully will be published soon in English. It deals partly with the RCP USA over a period of many years, long before the New Synthesis was announced, as well as other issues in the RIM, such as the question of Stalin.
xParaphrase of lyrics to the Jimi Hendrix song 'Fire'.
xxiii Thanks to Com. Peter Tobin for sharing his thoughts on the RCP USA.
Com. Rupasinghe is a Sri Lankan political activist who dresses like Avakian, and promotes the New Synthesis in Sri Lanka. He leads a party, but it is unclear how many people are in that party. Not very many, so Sri Lanka friends inform us. Another charlatan.
xxvi This part is dedicated to Fritz Tucker, from the Big Apple, a cool cat I met in Nepal and hung out with in Calcutta. He used to do a very funny spoof of Avakian's rap, and we had a few conversations on this topic.
xxviii See Chomsky's comments on postmodernism for a succinct statement of some of the problems of post-68 French philosophy. There are fuller critiques by Sokal and Bricmont.
Posted by nickglais on 8/18/2015 03:15:00 AM