A space for open discussion and blogging among communists and radicals.
The value and problems of Maoism
We have been having discussions on the meaning and value of Maoism. Here are some extracts from my larger essay "9 Letters to Our Comrades"
"There is real glory and continuing value to Maoism, as a body of thought and as a movement for liberation. As a distinct international trend, it was born during the 1960s in raging opposition to both the global rampages of the U.S. and the suffocating gray norms of the Soviet Union. Maoism proclaimed 'It is right to rebel against reactionaries,' and gave new life to the revolutionary dream. It said 'Serve the People,' and promised that no one (not even the communist vanguard) would be above the interrogations of the people. A loose global current congealed from many eclectic streams, and it included many of the world’s most serious revolutionaries. There have been important and heroic attempts at power — in Turkey, Iran, India, the Philippines, Peru, Nepal and more. There were important revolutionary movements of 1968 that included Maoists in France, Germany, Italy and more. There was real ferment around the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and then at times around the RCP in the U.S.
"But 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."
* * * * * * * *
by Mike Ely
Standing at a lectern, young Omar looks into the camera.
The crisis in the communist movement, he says, “has given us the right to make a precise accounting of what we possess, to call by their correct names both our riches and our predicament, to think and argue out loud about our problems, and to engage in the rigors of real research.”
This moment has, Omar continues, “allowed us to emerge from our theoretical provincialism, to recognize and engage with the existence of others outside ourselves. And on connecting with this outer world, to begin to see ourselves better. It has allowed us to develop an honest self-appraisal by laying bare where we stand in regard to the knowledge and ignorance of Marxism.”
Omar scans his comrades scattered across the room and adds: “Any questions?”
[from: La Chinoise, film by Jean Luc Godard,1967, Our translation from French. The crisis Omar was discussing was the great struggle that followed Stalin’s death and Krushchev’s denunciation.]
Even the most revolutionary forces have been lagging seriously. In the thirty years since Mao’s death, there has not been another communist revolution, and a whole generation has grown up without revolutionary societies. Communism is not contending within the deep channels of the world’s politics, culture or thought. International efforts to regroup communist forces have not overcome long-standing fractures. As rapid changes rework this planet, there have rarely been parallel innovations in communist understanding and work.
The experience of the last century has convinced many that communist revolution has been a failed dream. And yet, rising from every corner of life, weighing on the brain like a living nightmare, there it is: the horrifying suffering of people and the mounting crimes of this system.
Faced with these challenges, revolutionary communism is dividing into two around us. Or to be more precise: Events are revealing how much this movement already exists as two, three, many Maoisms. Several distinct conceptions now contend among Maoists.  There is sharp struggle over how to make the breakthroughs we need in both communist theory and revolutionary practice....
[In our experience in the U.S.] leaders dream up grand schemes out of whole cloth — without forming alliances, constituencies or trained networks over time. They don’t have their own base to bring to the process. They “plan” to reach millions without actually organizing thousands — as if the masses will be jolted by public appeals in newspaper ads and made to flow, like water, through a quickly engineered canal.
We should be suspicious of such contrivances and “get rich quick” schemes. They flow from a sectarian view of what “proletarian leadership of the united front” means, of how a revolutionary movement is built and led.
A plan to reach millions without organizing thousands.
A party without a correct mass line — without a correct approach toward leading and learning from the people — cannot hope to lead a great revolution or a new society. This is a problem that urgently needs theory, struggle and solution...
Re-reading documents from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, I noticed again how Mao believes people develop consciousness and sophistication in the course of political struggle. One key document announces: “Let the masses educate themselves in the movement.”  People learn to appreciate and apply the ideology of revolution and communism in the course of political struggle.
There is real glory and continuing value to Maoism, as a body of thought and as a movement for liberation. As a distinct international trend, it was born during the 1960s in raging opposition to both the global rampages of the U.S. and the suffocating gray norms of the Soviet Union. Maoism proclaimed “It is right to rebel against reactionaries,” and gave new life to the revolutionary dream. It said “Serve the People,” and promised that no one (not even the communist vanguard) would be above the interrogations of the people. A loose global current congealed from many eclectic streams, and it included many of the world’s most serious revolutionaries. There have been important and heroic attempts at power — in Turkey, Iran, India, the Philippines, Peru, Nepal and more. There were important revolutionary movements of 1968 that included Maoists in France, Germany, Italy and more. There was real ferment around the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and then at times around the RCP in the U.S.
But 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.
Revolutionary communists have often cut themselves off from the new facts and creative thinking of our times.
In a cloistered universe, Avakian’s ruptures in inherited ideologies can appear as a radical break. But measured by our tasks, it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.
The issue facing our movement is not so much “are we for truth?” The issue is much more “what is true and what isn’t?” It involves the problem of bridging the limited and prejudiced vantage point of each observer, and collectively getting into what is real. It is the measure of theories, established verdicts and relative truths against objective truth...
Reality is a tough judge: You can run on vapors. You can hide problems using denial and info diets. But in the end, the truth will come out. That was true for Lysenko.  It was true for the RCP’s faulty 1980s predictions of “world war or revolution.” It is true when the preachers around us swear “we live in the end times.”
Let’s critically re-visit On Practice together. Let’s critically consider what comrades in the international communist movement are saying philosophically. Then let’s open it up and re-find our path.
No overarching historical mechanism guarantees a revolutionary outcome. New things will ceaselessly and inevitably emerge — and either something radically liberating takes roots in society or it doesn’t. The implications for humanity are profound.
Mao said there is no need to inoculate ourselves from ideas. We must dare to go through things and come out the other side.  Maoists, following Mao in this, have to leave the comfort of reassuring illusions and misplaced authority. We have to confront that here in the U.S. we have neither a vanguard organization nor the theoretical breakthroughs we need.
The Maoist project centered on the RU/RCP never really “took off.” It never took root as a leading representative of the oppressed (other than in the most abstracted, self-defined sense). After grappling with this contradiction from many sides, this party’s leadership has now consolidated itself around a course that is a particularly sterile response to long-standing problems. This is concentrated in the adoption of “Avakian as the cardinal question.”
Throughout these letters I have been forced to repeat the words “real,” “actual,” and “living” — over and over — because so much of communist project here in the U.S. has been fantasy draped in fine words. Even if a turn of events pumped new life into old “vehicles” (including the RCP itself), the heart of the problem would remain untouched. Specific, voluntarist verdicts are fully consolidated at the heights of the RCP....
Meanwhile, five minutes out that door is a beautiful blue planet crammed with contradiction and life. The rush into the future does not hang by any single thread — but it does demand something of us. One way or another, something different has to raise its head. It is now left for revolutionary communists, both inside and outside the RCP, to re-conceive as we re-group.
This is not the place to actually make a positive accounting of “what we possess.” But we must start that soon. We need a process, a going, where we sort things through, think afresh and start to act, together.
When Mao’s Red Army abandoned their early base area, they carried with them all the hard-won apparatus of rebel state power: They brought archives, printing presses, factory equipment, rolls of telephone wire, furniture and more. That baggage cost them dearly in lives, when the heavily burdened column faced its first tests of fire. They then simply left off the boxes and machinery of their old apparatus. What they kept was that material that made sense when integrated into their new mode of existence. They were traveling light. They were ready to improvise, live off the land, and fight.
The analogy to our theoretical moment: 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.
Not a remake...
It is a great creative challenge. We don’t need a remake of the RCP, but better. The theoretical knife must cut deeper than that. There needs to be negation, affirmation, and then a real leap beyond what has gone before. We need a movement of all-the-way revolutionaries that lives in this 21st century. Not some reshuffling of old cadre, but the beginning reshuffling of a whole society.
We need to take up a great new project of practice — while applying and developing our theory.
I can propose two or three key places to start new practical work together. And I see at least four major problems for theoretical engagement:
First, we need to chart the uncharted course, sum up past practice and move to actually fuse revolutionary communism with the deep currents of discontent among the oppressed.
Second, communist theory needs to deeply comprehend our world today — the new connectedness of production and communications, the global shifts of industry, the mass migrations of people, the changes in class structures, the dynamics of modern warfare, the capitalist transformation of remaining feudal relations, the new interpenetrations and conflicts of imperialist powers, the basis and limitations shaping the unprecedented attempt to establish a global U.S. hegemony, the development of political Islam, and the stark historically-new ways the emancipation of women is posed. These changes (and more) are driving a world process quite different from the one explored in earlier communist analysis. There are related analyses of the U.S. itself that are needed, including deepening understanding of the impact of “de-industrialization” of the working class, and changes in the structures of national oppression (i.e., racist oppression of minority people in the U.S.).
We are at a fresh start.
Third, communist theory needs to comprehend the twentieth century — especially what that century revealed about the socialist transition to communism and the wellsprings of capitalist restoration. When encountering communists, people all over the world demand to know what we have learned from this exhilarating and painful process and what we would now do differently. Our answer must come in deep historical analysis and theoretical proposals — but also in our style, our methods, our program and our larger practice.
Fourth, 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.
Discussing their history, the Maoists of Nepal touched on outlook. They made their mental leap toward the seizure of power, “by protecting revolution from the revolutionary phrases that we used to memorize in the early period.” And they say that then, later, they dared “to abandon the course once selected and have the courage to climb the unexplored mountain.” 
Something important is being said if our movement in the U.S. can (at long last) develop an ability to even hear the voices of others. We have to learn to look past the text, the glib phrase, the comforting myth — and look deeply into the living thing and our living practice of engagement. We have to actually know this shimmering, dancing world in the course of actually fighting to end its many horrors.
We are in many ways at a fresh start. Let’s re-teach ourselves to think with a critical spirit. Let’s struggle and debate creatively, as comrades. Let’s chart that uncharted course. Let’s actually “prepare minds and organize forces for revolution.” Let’s bring down the beast and move toward the final emancipation of humanity