Tuesday, 18 December 2007

the Althusser FAQ episode two

Given that I'm getting accused all the time of being an "apologist" for cantankerous French "Marxist-Spinozist" Louis Althusser, I thought I'd try on some tricks from more experienced apologists. So, with no apologies *rimshot* at all to Stop The War conference's "best in show", Somaye Zadeh of Campaign Iran, here are three and a half lies about Louis Althusser.

Lie number one: Althusser was a hardline Stalinist, widely disseminated among the new (and the decrepit) Hegel-o-trots. Althusser was, in the broadest sense of the term, a Stalinist. He was a member of the Parti Communiste Français until his death, and referred to the Soviet bloc as the "socialist countries" without qualification. Fine. The problem comes when people attempt to impute to him various other Stalinist positions that were not really his at all. He was not a popular frontist, and indeed the political stake of his theoretical anti-humanism was maintained at keeping any PCF alliances within the working class (just as his humanist rival Roger Garaudy was aiming at precisely the opposite, using theoretical humanism as a bridgehead to get "Christian Lefts" and the like on board).

Lie number two: Althusser was a Eurocommunist, as sneakily imputed by his hatchet job biography on the Marxists Internet Archive (this is, of course, a website who for a long time refused to even acknowledge anybody associated with the Stalinist bloc as "Marxist" at all, placing them instead in the "reference" section alongside Montesqieu, Fourier and Foucault. I suppose a little theory-police shite here and there is a small price for such an incredibly useful resource). As noted in lie 1, the substance of Althusser's political intervention in the PCF was keeping it about the proletariat and scuppering the cross-class nonsense that was then hegemonised by the Euros. Try again, boys.

Lie number three: Althusser considers dialectics "mumbo jumbo" or some such. Althusser in fact simply claims that there is a very important development that separates Marx's dialectic from its Hegelian predecessor, concerning the epistemological relationship between a real object and its corresponding thought object. On the one hand, empiricists consider the thought object to be an internal characteristic of the real object; on the other, Hegelians believe the object is internal to thought. Dialectical materialism breaks out of both, and conceives knowledge as a production.

Lie number three and a half: Althusser considers Hegel "mumbo jumbo". At the end of his life, by which point he had rejected causality itself in favour of a theory of "random encounters", Althusser was still able to say of Hegel that "he remains the fundamental reference point for everyone, since he is himself such a 'continent' that it takes practically a whole lifetime to know him well" (Philosophy of the Encounter, 2006. Tr. GM Goshgarian, Eds. Francois Matheron and Oliver Corpet. London: Verso, 2006. p229). Entire monographs
could be, should be and have been penned on Althusser's "eloquent silences" over Hegelian philosophy, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that there is "another Hegel", a "Hegel-for-Althusser" that he missed. To claim, however, that he dismissed Hegel in some crude fashion is idiotic, and treats his philosophy with a far larger dose of smug contempt than even the most boorish Althusserians (cough cough Hindess & Hirst) showed Hegel.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Global Shitties more like, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Something that didn't get in to the Weekly Worker, thanks to the bastards closing the exhibition before we went to press and thus negating the point somewhat. Oh well...

Global Cities: The Suicide of Empiricism

Given that the abiding tenor of exhibitions in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall is towards monolithic and consummately single-minded displays, exemplified by Ólafur Elíasson's Weather Project with its permanent hazy sunset, it is a surprise to find in its great expanses so muddled and contradictory an entity as Global Cities, which fills the gap between two such spectacular displays. The form of the exhibition, such as it is, involves large wall displays and videos pronouncing (apparently) detailed statistical analyses of the lives of ten major cities in the world – London, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Tokyo, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Johannesburg, Cairo, Istanbul and Shanghai – in terms of size, speed, density, diversity and form. In addition, there are displays of video art adding “anecdotal” flesh to the bones of “hard” statistical evidence. In a largely separate area, one finds a series of installations commissioned specifically for the exhibition.

A crisis of method
There are serious difficulties at all levels here. Firstly, the presentations of statistics are the ultimate in bourgeois empiricism. Beyond the standard usage of statistics as a descriptive tool, they become, in a bizarre twist on the Romantic Will, a kind of pseudo-divine creative and motive force in the lives of the cities themselves. One may first, for instance, look at the obviously arbitrary choice of the cities themselves – does Sao Paulo have more to tell us about urban existence than Rio de Janeiro or Caracas, Los Angeles than New York, etc? What, furthermore, makes the 5 holy criteria – density, speed and so on – the appropriate “thematic lenses” for such a study of urbanism? (For a Marxist, there is at least a silent sixth in “class”, but one would not expect such an inclusion in an exhibition with a raft of corporate sponsors.)

This specific issue is brought out most sharply in a particular set of diagrams illustrating the arrangement of buildings in selected square kilometres of five or so of our chosen cities. In a moment of delirious self-parody, these selections are openly arbitrary – we have a suburb of Los Angeles, a group of high-rises in Shanghai, a crowded sprawl in Cairo...why have these square kilometres been chosen? The answer is simply: because we say so. Dig beneath even the most superficial signs of “objectivity” and “science”, and one finds what the great French philosopher Jacques Derrida would call a “moment of madness” - a stubborn and utterly irrational imposition of an agenda. The method distorts the result, which in its distortions acts as a justification for the method.

Similarly, we find statements such as “15 children are born in city X every minute; by 2015 this will rise to 20”. Will it? What is entirely erased from this question is human agency, whether defined in the traditional liberal individualistic way or in theories of class and other group agencies. What is the subject of history for the curators? The numbers as such, it seems – moving themselves...

A crisis of identity
This disavowal of agency sits uneasily with the scattered video exhibits, obviously designed to paper over the cracks by “humanising” the urban experience. The best of these work by undermining, or reflecting the absurdity of, the project of the exhibition as a whole. One video shows worshippers traversing the perilous walkway over rough seas to the Haji Ali mosque off the coast of Mumbai. The camera is fixed on a particular 50 yard stretch. We cannot see where they are going or from where they are coming. This activity, rendered into a completely meaningless and masochistic action by the lack of context, is an excellent parallel for the erasure of origins and agency perpetrated by the statistical evidence.

Elsewhere, we have banal interviews with Londoners conducted by an artist sketching them, some overly worthy shots of Mumbaikars lacking in basic sanitation systems, and so on – it seems, really, that since the exhibition is in Tate Modern, the curators felt they should probably get some art in there somewhere.

Then, we are left with the specially-commissioned exhibits – most are conspicuously banal. The wooden spoon for the whole show, without a doubt, goes to Nils Norman's severely misjudged and gratingly didactic “reclaimed” street furniture, whose satirical bite – such as it is – would barely pass muster on a slow news day at Adbusters. At the opposite end of the scale, we have two redeeming features: Nigel Coates' “Mixtacity”, a diorama of the proposed Thames Gateway developments with household objects, toys, mantelpiece ornaments and even faintly surreal pseudo-organic forms as an alternative skyline; and the architect Rem Koolhaas' displays in the “new urbanism”. The former is playful without being self-conscious, and if it pushes the characteristically post-modern enthusiasm for kaleidoscopic diversity a little too obviously, it offers, through its magnification of the objects of everyday life, a critique of the exhibition's obliteration of agency.

Koolhaas, meanwhile, delivers a simple three-wall collage of photographs and adverts from around the world, acting as support for a thoughtful text on the relationship between contemporary architecture, public service and private capital. His ideological framework precludes any thoroughgoing solution, but the problems are posed intelligently. It is, furthermore, just about the only mention capital gets in the entire show.

Global Cities suffers because it does not know what it is for. The statistical and artistic elements are clearly intended to complement each other in some way, but the mechanicist, self-justifying empiricism of the statistics leaves no room for anything else. The rest of the exhibition, therefore, simply grates against it. Where it succeeds, it succeeds against the pernicious ideology of the statistical displays. An illustrative but frustrating fudge of the problems facing the urban world.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

PR And “The Kids”

As most comrades will be aware, the small British group Workers Power and its network of clone-parties the League For the Fifth International (LFI) has recently fallen on hard times. Last summer, a minority consisting largely of the group's most experienced and talented activists were ejected, forming around a new and impressively shiny publication called Permanent Revolution (as the “PR supporters network”, or PRN). Not long after that, its “independent” youth group REVOLUTION (popularly called Revo) was forced to expel whole layers of non LFI-affiliated youngsters – again, including whole national sections, such as that in Germany. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the PRN would have to confront the question of youth organisation anew. Sure enough, this has happened, firstly in an open letter to iRevo's founding conference last yeari, and now in a full article in the latest issue of PRii. both by leading (and not, it is probably fair to say, particularly young) figure Stuart King.

Youth organisation today

Firstly, the good news – King's logic flows from a very important fact: the lack of mass communist parties (Lessons, p37). Where such parties exist, it may be perfectly permissible, tactically speaking, to organise a youth section which is effectively within the party, subject to the same discipline as everybody else. In such circumstances, young comrades will naturally gravitate towards the party anyway, because it would be the expression of communist politics from the campus to the streets. Such a party, furthermore, would have to maintain full minority rights, and so “discipline” would not be the sort ofchafing, rigid regime we have come to expect.

However, this is not the scenario confronting youth and adult parties alike in 2007. Thus, the decisions of the Bolsheviks on the subject are largely of peripheral value, since they were confronting a very different era. It is good, then, that King uses as his starting point the 1938 positions of the American Socialist Worker's Party, for decades the largest and most important Trotskyist group and at the time operating under the authority of Trotsky himself. King notes that youth organisations “aim to attract large numbers”, whereas a revolutionary party will – barring a “mass revolutionary struggle” - attract only a few young people as such.

Organisational independence, political subordination”

Nevertheless, King rejects calls for complete independence of the youth leagues. This could imply that “democratic-centralist fractions of the revolutionary organisations should not be allowed in the youth movement if they sometimes demand democratic centralist discipline over their youth members” (Letter...iii). His preferred formula is “organisational independence, political subordination (or 'solidarity')”. This means that the youth group must have its own conferences and so on, at which policies should be debated and consensus won if possible. It may even take “some positions at variance with the adult organisation's program” (Lessons p37, my emphasis). However, the basic line would be the same.

This all is backed up with various tidbits from leftist history – Lenin calling for “complete independence” during WWI (to break the youth from the social chauvinist parties), through various Comintern resolutions culminating in the “organisational independence, political subordination” formula. He cites approvingly the Comintern's rearranging of a youth conference to ensure victory of the united front policy as evidence of the efficacy of OI-PS.

It should now be abundantly clear that this policy is essentially absurd and completely contradictory. If “political subordination” allows the adult party to rearrange conferences in order to force through votes, exactly what does “organisational independence” include? What, precisely, are the young cadres free to “organise”? How does this differ from the LFI Revo faction's unprincipled manoeuvrings? (King does have an answer of sorts to the latter question – more on which later.)

In my view, the whole gamut from the third congress of the Comintern, through the American SWP, through to the LFI's early relationship to Revo and finally King's articles all try to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, the PRN know there is no point in simply setting up a youth “trotskyist cadre” organisation and do not wish to do so. They acknowledge that the majority of younger leftists have not “come up” through traditional communist or trotskyist groups but in fact through the ever-more-influential anarchist movement, and that the battle for partyism and vanguards must be won. For this reason, they wish for the youth to keep a degree of independence. On the other hand, however, they want to have the youngsters there for them, as another layer of footsoldiers. They want the youth group to have some kind of connection to the mothership, and this means (for an orthodox trotskyist) some kind of theoretical agreement. The youth group is to be of the revolutionary party but not in it.

The aforementioned actions of the Comintern pose it all very sharply. The OI-PS model lopes on quite happily as long as the Comintern can rely on winning all the important votes. They can make a show of convincing the youth rather than handing down the line. Nevertheless, when it comes to crunch time, the crisis cannot be resolved within that framework. Organisational independence implies control over the programme, or what else are the youth organising? Political subordination implies the adult organisation “trumps” the youth equivalent, otherwise how can they be effectively subordinated? There was no middle way in this dispute, then – either the Comintern acted as it did, or the CYI declared full independence. (iRevo's denunciation of this framework as “Maoist” is more true than they perhaps think – what was the paradigmatic bit of Maoist “philosophy” but the rejection of the Hegelian 'synthesis' in favour of catastrophic conflict, one side “devouring” the other “mouthful by mouthful”iv? The OI-PS line disavows such an event but leads right to it.)


Another well-known feature of Maoism is its elevation of the struggle between political lines to a near-cosmic force to which all trifling matters of organisation, epistemology and the like are to be subordinated. King certainly does not take such a histrionic view of things, but the determining factor for him does seem to be 'political perspectives'. For instance, we have his summary of the split in Revo, its “roots of the trampling on the independence of World Revo lies in the LFI’s political perspective and tactics” (Letter). The catastrophism embodied in the LFI's line led directly to the crisis in Revo. Things would, clearly, have been much better had the LFI leadership taken a more sober view of things.

However, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks reined in the youth in the early 1920s, this was principled and within the bounds of the party/youth relationship. Why? Because the youth were arguing against the allegedly correct line of the “united front”. The principled nature of the comintern's action, then, lies in the fact that they were “right” about the united front.

No doubt there is some truth in King's analysis of the Revo split. It is a general feature of political perspectives that they form into political practices, and a specific feature of catastrophism that it leads to a dramatic tightening of the chain of command. Like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, terrified of being late, the party must subordinate all other concerns to getting the best spot on the barricades. What he seems unable to concede, however, is that comrades in Revo had no way of challenging such perspectives, and no way of forging their own, for as long as they were under the cosh of OI-PS. The choice for revolutionary youth, it seems, is to try their best to hitch their wagon to the least swivel-eyed adult party on offer, and then hope the latter don't try anything stupid as long they're in a “politically subordinate” position.

Not good enough.

A balance sheet

King's analyses have the merit of not underestimating the complexity of the issue - one of the advantages of running a bureaucratic SWSS/Student Respect/Revo style regime is that you get to cut this Gordian knot without much bother. However, his resolution of the problem essentially amounts to a theorisation of such regimes. The balance he proposes is no balance at all but a dormant volcano, which will erupt the minute a dispute erupts on which the adult party, in its wisdom or stupidity, shall give no quarter. It is a recipe for splits, but more dangerously, driving potential activists away from the movement altogether.

The only ways out of the deadlock, as I see it, are an openly cadre-based group entirely subordinate to the party programme, consisting of full party members, which has a specific remit within the party's division of labour for youth work; or cutting the organic link entirely, and using youth groups as “neutral zones” between different parties and trends who struggle openly to define everything, from strategy to tactics to programme. Whether or not party fractions act under party discipline is up to the parties themselves. This certainly does include the possibility of a “hostile takeover” by a less scrupulous organisation, but it also includes the possibility of resistance to such a takeover. The OI-PS line amounts to writing the takeover into the youth organisation's genetic code, and frustrating all attempts to break this logic well in advance.

iStuart King, “PR letter to iRevo conference on October 7 2006” (http://tinyurl.com/38pekk )

iiStuart King, “Lessons of Revolution”, in Permanent Revolution #5 Summer 2007. Also reproduced are two articles by members of iRevo and the leadership of the dissident German Revo section.

iiiHe then asks the question, “is this in fact [iRevo's] position? It should be noted that the suggestion is dismissed by iRevo as “ridiculous” (http://www.anticapitalista.com/irevo/?p=43&language=en). King himself comes much closer to this when he cites approvingly the “graduation system”, whereby youth who join the Party leave the youth section after a year or so (Lessons, p39).

iviRevo, “Declarations of Independence”, in Permanent Revolution #5 Summer 2007; Mao Tse-Tung, “Talk on Questions of Philosophy” in On Practice & Contradiction, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2007).

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The Althusser FAQ

The problem with being Althusserian in this day an age is that his entire intervention was based on a confluence of intellectual fashions, trends and otherwise "facts on the ground" that, while more or less forgivable in the 70s, have become drastically unappealing since. And the thing with passed trends is that they have a habit of attracting more criticism than is due - Depeche Mode always get thrown out with Duran Duran.

This - along with the absolute, miserable hatchet job the poor bastard received at the hands of an unimaginative MIA writer - is why I have decided to put together a little pack of myth-busting aphorisms. Thus!

  1. Who was Louis Althusser?
    Louis Althusser was born in Algeria. His family, strictly Catholic, moved to France while Louis was still very young, and he hung around in the catholic milieux in Paris. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the army - it was during detention in a prisoner of war camp that he first came across communism, and he became - by 1948 - a loyal member of the Parti Comuniste Francais. At the same time, his reputation as a prodigious student of philosophy culminated in a tutoring post at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. He was eventually to become a professor there.

    Contrary to his image as a withdrawn scholastic figure, Althusser intervened actively in the life of the communist party - however, stalinism is as a stalinism does, and often this meant he was forced to "out-philosophise" the leadership instead of taking them on politically, which would have entailed immediate expulsion. This problem led to his endorsement of by his own measure disastrous political lines, most infamously the PCF's scabbing on the workers and students during the evenements of 1968. And contrary to the rather bizarre implications of the aforelinked MIA debacle, he represented the staunchest and, but the late-70s crunch time, the most public defense within the PCF of revolutionary politics and opposition to the fetid opportunism of the Eurocommunists.

    Always struggling with mental illness, his life was shattered when, in 1980, he fell into a depressive rage and strangled his wife to death. His work rate dropped, and he too finally copped it in '90.

  2. What's his point?
    Althusser really arrived at a time when Marxism was losing ground to a new intellectual fashion, structuralism. Taking after the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralists turned up everywhere in intellectual life claiming that meaning existed in the relations between elements, and interpreting everything in terms of elaborate "sign systems". Althusser became intimately involved in bashing out an accord between structuralism and marxism (and later on in his life, "post-structuralism" and "post-marxism"). He borrowed a term from Freud, "overdetermination", to argue against naive concepts of histrical causation ("historicism"), arguing persuasively that the 1917 revolution represented a paradigmatic example of thingsnever happening as they are "supposed" to, that historical forces identified by Marx and Engels can combine in a kaleidoscopic and surprising way - this diffusion of causality is characteristically structuralist. He became most controversial, however, for his lacerating attacks on "Marxist humanism". (Unfortunately, as with any time of reaction, this latter has become near-orthodox within marxism.) Later in his life, he began to doubt the very fact of causality, elaborating a theory of "random encounters" he called "aleatory materialism". While this is certainly a very dodgy position, it is worth noting that this was used by him as supporting evidence for very stringently "marxist" politics - the dictatorship of the proletariat, anti-reformism and so on.

  3. So what's so bad about humanism anyway?
    Humanism is a difficult term to pin down. Strictly speaking, it is a term that endorses a central "essence" which makes a human a human, that there is a "human-ness". Classical humanism, for example, sought to re-admit the nobility of classical society into the conjuncture of Renaissance and Enlightenment culture on the basis of the universal humanity revealed in ancient texts. Humanism of this kind lies behinds liberal theories of human rights, among other things.

    Humanism also has a very imprecise usage, which essentially means "nice and fluffy". Thus we find those who turn towards "Marxist Humanism" characteristically emphasise the passages in Marx which seem most full of all-conquering spiritual rage at the, natch, "inhumanity" of it all. It is, obviously, philosophically underpinned by elements of humanism proper - cf. human rights again.

    Althusser excoriates both "varieties" of humanism. He first noted that the rise of "Humanist" scholarship in the USSR and Stalinist bloc is specifically linked to the revisions of Marxism propagated by the post-Stalinists (rather than those offered by Stalin himself, although he was not averse to wheeling out humanism when it suited him - the philosophical backup for Zhdanovschina, for example, was provided by that awful bloody man Lukacs; and an essay by Maxim Gorky, entitled "Proletarian Humanism", recommends the "extermination" of homosexuals). He characterises it as essentially "ethical idealism", and sure enough such movements always end up obsessed with timeless "ethical" principles - even that old Althusserian Terry Eagleton has now decided he's going to waste our time with Aristotelian virtue theory.

    The problem with Marxist-humanism lies simply thus - they focus overly on the "early Marx", the works of 1842-44 where he focuses on the problems of alienation and other fluffy hegelian matters. This basically ignored everything that is unique about Marx. If one is going to adopt a socialist humanism, why be a marxist? Why not take after one of the great utopians, William Morris and the like? Why not be a Bertrand Russelite? Marx's great discovery was that socialism must have a scientific basis, or it will never be more than coffee house daydreams.

    If one goes a step further than denouncing the resultant symptomatic 'heresies' and rejects humanism as such, one has then to account for the matter of agency some othjer way - Althusser's answer involves ideology. Traditional Marxist views held it as simply "false consciousness", people believing X to be the case when in fact it was Y. Althusser suggested that ideology is more important than that - that it is the 'zero level' of subjectivity. One cannot exist in social life unless one "knows the rules" - ideology provides these basic structural features of social existence.

  4. Doesn't that mean we're completely boned as far as changing things goes? Only if ideology is a self-consistent closed system. Which it isn't. It inherently fails - the ideology produced by capitalist society points beyond itself.

    Remember, we're not dealing with an immaculate fiction cooked up consciously by devious members of the ruling class, but the structures of subjectivity arising out of an immensely complex social system riven with contradictions. Even if ideology were, in that way, "perfect", it would be in contradiction with the evidence of our own eyes - it would be, in other words, more vulnerable to destruction than an "imperfect" ideology.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

I wish the Lord would take me now...

Well, it takes a lot to generate in my icy breast sympathy for Manchester United fans, but somewhere between scenes of horrific police brutality in Rome and...well, over to you, Martin "One Gobshite To Rule Them All" Kettle...

Football is for foul-mouthed people who should get a life.

Yes. You heard the comrade, you disgusting proles. Fuck off. And best of all, the future............is golf.



What the fuck is wrong with this man's brain that he can consider golf to be a "people's game"? When has golf ever been played by anything other than the ruling class of the day? It's like a rite of passage. The day your revolution is complete is the day you commence work on your handicap (whatever the fuck that means - explain it to me adequately and I'll paypal you twenty pence). It certainly fits quite nicely up with bourgeois values. Why has our reprehensible turncoat picked this over similarly paced and mannered games such as cricket? Cricket is, for a start, too popular. Some smelly poor people like it. The barmy army even drink...whisper it...lager, instead of a nice pinot noir. but above all, cricket - like football, like other games unencumbered with hooliganism such as rugbies union and league, basketball and so on, but utterly unlike golf - is a team sport. Too "tribal" for you, Marty? Well so was class politics. Funny that.

The biggest joke of all is that, in decades, this man has not propounded a single remotely leftwing position, but still claims to be a "progressive". The punchline is that, in spite of everything, his primary evidence for this is that he - you know - used to be a communist. Communism is dead, except to the extent that it functions as an alibi for my reactionary crap. Keep that bitch on life support, nurse - there's a round of privatisations coming up and I've got some 5th columning to do.

Jesus H Christ in a chicken basket.

The fucking moon.

Chairman Bob...again.

Well, after one fawning editorial too many, I have finally been prodded into action. Which is to say, a sternly worded letter, as only the English know how. Thus!

Comrade editors,

I read with interest, among other things, the lead testimonial of your "special issue" on Bob Avakian, entitled "The Crossroads We Face, The Leadership We Need". I write, it must be said, from a somewhat distant position with regard to your party and paper. I am English, and I have no organisational or direct political ties to the anti-revisionist movement here, let alone the RIM which apparently lacks a formal British section. Nevertheless, I have taken an interest, mostly historical, in the American Maoist tradition, which gathered immense steam in the same period when my own tradition – Trotskyism – was making headway on this side of the pond.

It can also not be overstated the significance that the success or otherwise of the Marxist left – whatever species – in America is of the utmost concern to comrades throughout the world: not simply in the matter of principled internationalism, but in the very real effects that upheaval in the world imperialist centre cannot but have elsewhere. When America goes to war, Britain follows, and everywhere else suffers one way or another. So what follows is meant in a comradely spirit, in the hope that the American movement might beat the odds and take the lead in dismantling the imperialist system operating in large part out of its own backyard.

It is a boring but true enough commonplace among the more naïve parts of the far left that the principal difficulty facing our movement is its disunity. The old "two trots, three factions" joke still has a resonance, but it's not, nor has it ever been, just us. In fact, as many of your own more experienced cadres will surely attest, the ultimate failure of the 1970s New Communist Movement was, at least partially, due to the inability of participants to reach an agreement for principled unity. Had the thousands of energetic comrades who made up that movement been able to do so, things may have been radically different when the onslaught of neoliberalism set in. As it is, instead of punching with one fist, the New Communists poked with a hundred pinkie fingers. With that in mind, we can say that building such a unity is still the overriding priority. Of course, such tasks are not as easy as they sound – even the most sectarian organisation can agree that, in principle, the left must be more united, but in practice scupper all such efforts by insisting on their own terms beyond what is reasonable.

It is for this reason that I ask for the Avakian cult to end.

As the man himself might say, "'He didn't just say cult, did he?' Oh yes he did." The treatment the esteemed chairman enjoys from his charges goes beyond...well...esteem. I fully expect, to the extent that I expect any sort of reply, a defence along the lines of "we're not idolising him, he really is that good" - a defence one might expect from the followers of Jesus, or the more rigid and uncompromising Stalinists of the Bill Bland school. But the fact is, no progressive party, to my knowledge, in the imperialist countries has this relationship to its main leader. My own group, as a fairly typical example, is the CPGB. There is a member of the CC called Jack Conrad who writes at greater length than anyone else, provides the most persuasive leadership of the milieu and has written most of the party's books. Yet he is never introduced as a great leader; his articles get the same kind of lead-in as anybody else, and so on. The same goes for pretty much every other group with a main figurehead – from the CPUSA to the Spartacist League. Can you imagine the CPUSA's website carrying the boxout "Our Ideology is Marxism-Leninism. Our Vanguard is the Communist Party USA. Our Leader is Chairman Webb"? Not likely – and not just because they're awfully quiet about Marxism-Leninism nowadays.

The waste of human energy notwithstanding, it does not bother me when David Icke's followers behave in this way. It does not bother me when Alex Jones' followers behave in this way, or any other conspiracy-theorist or religious wing-nut for that matter. But for the RCP to over-promote Chairman Avakian is another matter, because it brings this phenomenon into the Marxist left. Thus, it becomes our problem in a more immediate sense.

I implied earlier that the cult is an obstacle to socialist unity. This is for the simple reason that, for the left to be united effectively, it must be united within a party. A "movement of movements" is not good enough. It is much easier, furthermore, to organise in the latter way; but in the long term, such coalitions fizzle out when their initial stimulus recedes into history. The RCP, therefore, should be seeking to bring smaller groups into itself, or fuse with larger "rivals" on a formal basis. This cannot be done while a party leader is promoted in this aggressive way. There is no chance whatsoever of other left parties, or even many individuals, accepting unity on the basis of subordination to any leader in this way. The leadership, by contrast, must be accountable to the membership and representative of it. It must be a collective body which provides for some sort of argument over the direction of the party, not a single chairman beavering away at his researches and handing down the line. On point after point the cult is an obstruction to unity – it makes the RCP seem an unattractive partner, and provides various formal and organisational obstructions which will scupper the best will in the world.

In fact, it seems to me that Avakian's reputation is done more harm than good by this sort of thing. Your article implies that he is the only leftwing figure to offer coherent challenges to various bits of conventional wisdom about communism being dead, American democracy being great and so on, without in fact bring up a single issue which isn't the stock in trade of every Marxist periodical in the Western world. Anybody with any experience on the left will see through this immediately. I listened to his interview with Michael Slate, who introduced his contribution on the Stalin question as "original and provocative thinking" - imagine my surprise when Avakian came on and basically repeated the standard Maoist position on the matter. I don't think it's particularly terrible for Maoist leaders to, shock horror, take some cues from Mao here and there. It is not even as though Avakian does not make citations when he does so. But in implying that such things were created ex nihilo by him, the Cult undermines the man, and allows people to dismiss his work – whatever its real merits – out of hand. "Oh, he's that guy with the cult, you ain't going to read that, are you?"

Your article proposes: "the question...is NOT "leaders vs. no leaders"—the question is what kind of leaders, with what kind of goals and methods." Fine, but this is not the only question. There is also the question of the leaders' relationship to the rank and file and to the class at large. The Revolutionary Communist Party does not, on the whole, have a bad leader in Bob Avakian. He is indeed a good communicator who has gone through immense personal sacrifice for the cause, and he has been able to openly self-criticise when positions are changed, which is all too rare. But on the second question, the RCP has got it disastrously wrong. I implore you to reconsider this course, and join with other communists of all trends on a principled basis in destroying this brutal capitalist system.


Jim Grant

Friday, 2 February 2007

The Chairman Bob Phenomenon

Sometimes, it seems, the entire purpose of the "Marxism" group on here is to indulge in endless debates on the Marxist value of Maoism. Thread after thread, the same old arguments - die4oil bawling about the fat, useless white Amerikkkan working class; trots of all kinds pulling their hair out; and henry and Jay pimping their supreme overlord, Chairman Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party. And it was there that one guy linked, in that rather robotic manner that Bob-cultists do, to the fellow's voluminous website of rather epic talks.

Avakian's roots are typical of American Maoists - while in good old Blighty thr principal beneficiaries of the New Left '68 generation were us Trots, our transatlantic cousins looked enviously over the Pacific to the Cultural Revolution and that plump little fellow with the sharp tongue. How many Party Headquarters there were to bombard...Avakian came up through SDS, via the Revolutionary Youth Movement, and led the largest section of that to form today's RCP; a Maoist group remarkable principally for still being there, after the Sino-Albanian split and the nouveaux philosophes and everything else. As a figure, he's unassuming, photogenic for a man of his age, good looking in a beret. He swears. He watches sport. And he talks, a lot, at length.

At a lonely moment, hurting for something to listen to while playing Breakout, i found myself digging out that URL. I wanted to hear him defend maoism, preferably without the historical whitewashings one hears so often from that quarter. I wanted to see what they thought separated them from the trots and revisionists and capitalist roaders and anarchists and everything else.

What's initially remarkable is how little overt maoism actually gets into it. Oh, sure, it's fairly common currency nowadays for a far leftists to engage in some crude demagoguery and "dumb down" their revolutionism for petit bourgeois consumption. But he does not do this. He just doesn't sound particularly Maoist. The only thing that comes up to that end a lot is the Maoist view of contradictions - there are antagonistic contradictions, which must be resolved through class struggle, but there are also contradictions among the "people" (that is, the social basis of the revolution) which, although not necessarily confrontational, must be dealt with somehow to avoid serious problems further down the line. You wouldn't know it unless you already knew it.

In fact, it strikes me as rather suspicious the absence of serious issues like the historic failure of those societies Bob deems to have been "socialist", the role of cultural revolution and nationalism in Maoist discourse and so on. For a guy who can find three hours to talk darkly about the NBA being fixed (probably the best fun out of the lot of them, sort of like some crank in a bar going off on one), he sure as hell has problems with his own 'patch'. At one point he dismisses the "Trotskyite" version of internationalism before proposing as the correct path something that any Trotskyist could happily sign up to. What makes you different, Bob, apart from the specific origins of American Maoism?

What's extra interesting is the small-scale personality cult the little bastard's got going. The RCP rank and file are notorious in America for the rather "uncritical" attitude they maintain towards their bossman, and on the face of it, it's difficult to see - this is not some Greek hero, but a foul-mouthed, corner-of-a-pub hectorer of the first degree. A more down to earth political leader is difficult to imagine. However, this is exactly the holding pattern for the Stalinist "leader" figure. Zizek pointed out in some lecture that the difference between the fascist and stalinist dictator is that the latter will applaud the empty space he just vacated after leaving the podium, being as he is only the embodiment of the people's will. Stalin joked with workers on public appearances. It's just how it works.

The biggest obstacle to a serious engagement with Mao's work is Maoism as such. One cannot seriously examine Mao's view of contradictions, or the idea of a cultural revolution as an ongoing safeguard against counterrevolution, without first dropping all the Maoist baggage - endorsement of Stalin as a progressive figure, slightly David Duke esque approach to casualty figures, sectarian approach to other tendencies and so on. There may be something in it, but there won't be much left when we're done.