On the Revolutionary Road with Chairman Avakian

A contribution to the conversation on the unique and irreplaceable contributions of our Chairman: a few thoughts on approach and method

by Lenny Wolff

Revolutionary Worker #1224, December 28, 2003, posted at rwor.org

Lenny Wolff is the author of the book, The Science of Revolution,an introduction to basic principles, analyses and methods of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.


In recent months I've had occasion to return to What Is To Be Done? and--coupled with study and reflection on some other points as well, including the campaign to promote and popularize our Chair-- it's led me to a renewed appreciation for the almost gravitational pull of spontaneity: no matter how high you aim to fly, if you don't fight the pull, you'll come back down. It's worth thinking about the huge percentage of one-time revolutionaries--both parties and individuals--who've come crashing down on those rocks. They almost all came into things with genuine revolutionary convictions. But one day, after years or even decades of battle, they somehow find their name at the bottom of a contract for a sell-out, maybe without even being conscious of how they got to that point, or even having signed it. That's the strength of spontaneity--quite apart from your convictions, unless you find the ways to divert the natural stream of things, you're gonna end up drifting downstream to a place you once swore you'd never go.

I think one earmark of our Chairman's approach has never been to rest content with what we've accomplished. He ceaselessly interrogates the whole party and he interrogates himself: Are we doing everything we can to make revolution? Are we focusing on the right questions? Are we pushing hard enough--or in the right direction--on the limits of the possible? Are we looking enough at things from our final goal back, and are we forging strong enough links between that goal.and the many pressing tasks of today? Are we approaching things enough from a thoroughly internationalist standpoint and situating all our work in this belly of the beast from the needs and struggles of the people worldwide? Are we thinking rigorously enough about the points raised by people who don't agree with us on strategy, but who may be on to something we need to learn from nevertheless (a case in point on this: the Chair's writings on George Jackson1 a few years ago)? Are we settling for easy answers or facile approaches to complex questions? Are we doing enough to bring forward critical sections of our base, to develop (and learn from) the youth around the Party, to engage with others who are out there trying to do something positive?

This orientation of the Chairman's, I think, is one very decisive reason why our Party has been able to not just stay on the revolutionary road in this country, but to actually advance on it.


At one point I had an exchange with the Chairman during which we got into the question of Stalin. It's kind of remarkable--and a problem for our movement to take up--that no one else in the original leading core of the Bolsheviks aside from Stalin was able to carry on as a leader of the socialist society and that quite a few of them came into direct opposition to its further advance. A number of them were pretty far from Marxism on some points--Bukharin, for example. And Stalin himself, as we've summed up, had serious shortcomings in wielding the dialectical method.

One concentrated example of this contradiction: October 1917. Lenin basically had to threaten to resign in order to finally get a majority of the leading Bolshevik core to approve the October insurrection, despite having made a convincing argument and having advanced extremely compelling arguments to the many objections being raised to that argument. Maybe it was some combination of the force of his political arguments, his authority within the Party, the course of events, the actions of a section of the masses, and a feeling that if they didn't have Lenin in their party then their party wasn't ever gonna lead a revolution that finally carried the day with the majority.but, again, it's not good that it had to come to a threat of resignation--it's not good that people could not see what Lenin was seeing (not that everyone would necessarily see as deeply or clearly or farsightedly into the contradictions as Lenin, but it almost doesn't seem as if they were even looking through the same lens), and that's a problem we need to think about.

In going back and forth on that problem, one important point to think about is that shortly after the outbreak of World War I Lenin re-studied the dialectics of Hegel. He had been shocked not so much by the outbreak of war as by the capitulation of nine-tenths of the social-democratic parties in Europe, and he felt compelled to "hit the books" once again. His notebooks on Hegel can be found in Volume 38 of his Collected Works ; they represent a re-thinking and to a certain extent a re-fashioning of what had become Marxist philosophy and the dialectical method (see footnote #3). It seems likely that this re- thinking formed the basis for Lenin's very radical and unexpected "April Theses" in 1917, when he shocked the Bolshevik Party by calling for more or less immediate preparations for socialist revolution (rather than a protracted period of political work consolidating the bourgeois-democratic revolution then in process).

Yet you don't get the feeling that Lenin opened up these questions of method and philosophy to other leaders of the Party and "took them with him" on this (or at least I'm not aware of it if he did--it's not in Krupskaya2 or History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union , for instance). Of course, he may not have had the freedom to do this, but in any event you don't get the sense that he was able to make this method--which was the Marxist method but which he was, again in my opinion, re-thinking and more or less re-fashioning after his re-reading of Hegel--the common property of the leadership and, through them, the ranks of the entire party. (Lenin did, of course, write an entire book on materialism when it was under attack-- Materialism and Empirio-Criticism --which I assume had a huge impact; and, again, it may have been, with the reality of war and the collapse of the 2nd International and the tasks associated with those momentous events, that Lenin and the Bolsheviks could not carve out the freedom for everyone to do that kind of study of Hegel; but my point is that, nonetheless, there was a gap there, particularly on dialectics, and I think it came back to haunt the Bolsheviks.3)

I've been mulling this exchange about the Bolsheviks for a while and, as I've been mulling it, I've gone back to something a comrade said to me some years ago. This comrade, due to objective problems, had been forced to cut back her participation in Party life (including discussions), and this situation was hard for her. Anyway, we were discussing one or another of the Chairman's talks from the early '90s and she remarked that whenever she reads one of the Chair's talks, she feels as if she's being invited in to grapple with and contribute to helping solve and answer the problems and questions that he's raising. I think that's really true--and part of "his approach"--and on further reflection I'd add that he's also "taking us along" with him, giving us the opportunity to wrangle with and wield and in so doing absorb the method that he's developing (and to deepen it as well). This is a point that has been well- made before--I am only elaborating on it a little here. But I think that this "praxis" of the Chair's has tremendous importance in light of the history of our movement, including some of our movement's weaknesses.


I do think that the Chair has further extended the philosophical contributions of Mao in particular into something of a higher synthesis. For one thing, much of Mao's later and most provocative philosophical thoughts--as captured in the various unofficial collections of speeches and comments made after 1949--as well as the philosophical implications of some of Mao's pathbreaking political analyses and some of what was brought forward in the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (e.g., class struggle under socialism, continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the role of consciousness and the superstructure, overcoming bourgeois right, the role of the Party under socialism, etc.)--never were synthesized into a coherent whole until Bob Avakian wrote Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions .

While that would be significant enough in itself, the way in which the Chair has summed up, further developed and applied these insights actually amounts to a further contribution to Marxist philosophy. This goes from Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions through the short essay back in '81 on the "philosophical basis of proletarian internationalism," "Conquer the World" and the many discussions through the years on questions of dialectics and method all the way up to the recent talk on "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production"--where he takes a concept and "praxis" originally developed to apply to the economy in China and draws from it philosophical and methodological implications that range over the relationship between chance and causality and accident and necessity, the universal Marxist method and particular areas of human endeavor, learning and leading, leading and unleashing, economics and politics, etc. etc., all in the context of humanity's epochal struggle to understand and transform the world. This is really good stuff--and really something new!

Returning to the remark of the comrade, and to the problem posed (or contradiction revealed) by the shortcomings of the Bolshevik leading core, it's imperative that we "take up the invitation" and get as deeply as we can into wrangling with that method and that approach, striving to make it the (collective!) property of the people we lead, and continuing to keep in step with and advance together with the new advances as they are made.


If you have a half-formed insight, a question, a disagreement--if you are thinking out loud and trying out a new idea--the Chairman will listen with a fully open ear and then he'll challenge you to develop that insight, question, thought, or disagreement as much as you can; he'll prod you to draw out the further implications as fully as you can, he'll encourage you to take the time (and the responsibility) to think it through as rigorously as possible.

The corollary is that the Chairman won't settle for superficiality or complacency in analyzing a phenomenon, making a criticism, addressing a question, etc. He demands of others what he demands of himself: that you really get deeply into a phenomenon or argument or question, really figure out the major contradictions in play and examine, really get inside, the thing and take it apart very thoroughly. And on both of these points, there is an underlying orientation: not rigor or "excellence" apart from and above classes and class struggle, but the fact that if we are going to do what we have to do, if we are going to really solve the questions that are before us, this is no mere intellectual exercise, but is something with very high stakes for people's futures--and we have to strive to approach every question with that in mind and live up to that responsibility.


Another point on approach: the Chairman is what I would call a comprehensive and far-reaching thinker--a mix of being wide-ranging and all-embracing and at the same time very open to the new and unexpected. There's an approach of ranging widely and making connections (connections that sometimes seem unlikely at first glance)--of being very lofty and very grounded in the real deal, simultaneously--and of doing all that in the service of confronting the hardest problems.

I think this approach is actually part of applying the dialectical method (connections sparked from unexpected places deepen an understanding of the whole process you're dealing with) and it's materialist as well (ideas reflect material reality, even wrong or partially correct ideas, and analyzing such ideas--and particularly if you can (again) "get inside" them and break them down in the manner of the Chair--can lead to a higher synthesis, into a more fully correct understanding of that reality--a method of no small importance).

At the same time, the Chairman's thinking is profoundly rooted in the actual advanced practice of the class struggle--he interrogates, analyzes and draws lessons out of this practice from the standpoint of humanity's advance to communism--and all this with a deep sense of the context of the experience of the international proletariat, and in particular the socialist states that have been brought into being through proletarian revolution--the material necessity that confronted people, and what they were trying to do in the face of that.

This all-embracing, far-reaching, comprehensive orientation is something that is not that common in our movement and in our history--it is something that is pulled against in a thousand different ways by the urgent press of events, the need to focus deeply on some things, and other factors as well no doubt--but it is something very important to strive for if we are going to do all that we can to advance things as far as we can for our class and our cause--and for humanity itself, whose highest interests our class represents at this time.


1 See "Getting Over the Two Great Humps: Further Thoughts on Conquering the World--Rereading George Jackson," RW #968 (August 9, 1998).

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2 N. K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (International Publishers, 1970).

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3 The impact of Lenin's battle against empirio-criticism is given significant attention in History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union , though it also is placed somewhat as an introduction to what was later published as Stalin's Dialectical and Historical Materialism , which our Chairman characterized in Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions as "being largely correct. [but] marred by a certain amount of metaphysics"--in particular, failing to "focus on contradiction as the basic law of materialist dialectics" [p. 147], even though Stalin actually quotes Vol. 38 of Lenin's works. The HCPSU does not mention Lenin's study of Hegel, so far as I could tell. And while I did not make a recent thorough study of the whole book, a review of Stalin's codification of Lenin's method in Foundations of Leninism shows that Stalin tended to reduce Lenin's method to a set of (admittedly true and very important) precepts on the character of the parties of the Third International versus those of the Second International [see section entitled "II. Method," pp. 11- 19, Problems of Leninism , FLP edition], including (in relation to the question of philosophical method and dialectics) the need for theory to be tested "in the crucible of the revolutionary struggle of the masses" and for the policy of a party to be judged by its deeds rather than its words. In at least one place in the work, Stalin explicitly argues against and even ridicules the notion that Lenin developed his thinking on the relationship of the bourgeois and proletarian stages of the revolution, when faced with unanticipated developments and novel situations. This was probably in opposition to Trotsky's claim that Lenin united with Trotsky's line to come up with the April Theses, but that doesn't really justify missing the important ways in which Lenin's thinking did develop.

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