Whence Maoism? (Part 3: Marxism, Leninism… Maoism?)

In this, the final part of my initial public meditation on “Maoism”, I wish to discuss “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism”. It will be noted that throughout the “Whence Maoism?” pieces thusfar, I have placed “Maoism” and “Maoist” in quotation marks. The reason for this relates to the phenomenon of “MLM”: “Maoist” and “Maoism” are labels that have been used long prior to the emergence of a conscious theoretical effort to grant “Maoism” the status of a third and higher stage of revolutionary science, forged throughout the struggles within the RIM, and surviving after the latter’s effective demise as an evangelical trend within anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism (or, as they would have it, surviving as the only real anti-revisionist communist ideology). A particularly dogmatically anti-Mao Marxist-Leninist may use the term “Maoist” to deride others who are not, in the view of the “MLM” crowd, “proper Maoists”. Similarly, Trotskyites may refer to anti-revisionism as a whole as “Maoism”, just as they may refer to “Maoism” as “Stalinism [with Chinese characteristics]”.

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With their document “Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism!” we see the RIM’s official “recognition of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as the new, third and higher stage of Marxism”, forcing other Marxist-Leninists, regardless of their views on Mao and the Chinese struggle, to formally declare that we do NOT view “Maoism” as a “third and higher stage”. Consequently, in their eyes, we become “dogmato-revisionists”. Of course, we are not “dogmatically anti-Che” for not holding that “Marxism-Leninism-Guevarism” is a “new, third, and higher stage of Marxism”, even if we do think Che is an inspiring figure and a great Marxist-Leninist. The parallels may seem odd to “Marxist-Leninist-Maoists”, for whom Mao is indeed a second Lenin, but in fact, many “Maoist” comrades (most?) continue to self-identify as “Marxist-Leninist”. We do not see this level of confusion over the division between Marxist-Leninists and so-called “Orthodox Marxists”, with whom we have so little common ground on the question of Lenin as to prevent debate from occurring in the first place. When “Maoists” ask what is really “new” in Bob Avakian’s famous “new synthesis”, we ought to ask what is really “new” in “Maoism”. To outsiders, “Marxist-Leninist-Maoists” appear, more than anything else, to be pointlessly sectarian. While dogmatic Hoxhaites are viewed as very sectarian by “Maoists”, we cannot say that any Hoxhaite organisation has ever defined revisionism negatively in terms of Enver Hoxha the way “Marxist-Leninist-Maoists” do with Mao.

We are told that Mao did indeed have unique theoretical insights which must be grasped in order to be a true communist (to not descend into “dogmato-revisionism”). What are these insights? The document “Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism!” emphasises several ideas which are often repeated by “Marxist-Leninist-Maoists”, the most frequently repeated of which seem to be “cultural revolution”, “the mass line”, and “people’s war”. If I am mistaken that these are the issues which separate “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” from “dogmato-revisionist” Marxism-Leninism, I invite comrades to correct me. However, based on this assumption, I will give my appraisal of these ideas in the order I have given them above.

Cultural Revolution

I have previously commented briefly on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It is a fact that it failed in its mission to defeat the revisionists. I do not mean this in the sense that Stalin’s purges failed to prevent revisionism in the Soviet Union. I mean it failed in the most immediate sense, while Mao was alive, to the point where he was forced to accept Deng as a power player even while Jiang Qing and others continued to insist (rightly) that he was a capitalist roader.

I do not intend to use this space to attack the cultural revolution in the way that Enver Hoxha did, insisting it was un-Marxist and so forth. Nor is there much point in noting that mistakes were made, as almost all “Maoists” would admit that (otherwise they would be hard-pressed to explain the above-noted failure). What is worth discussing, in my view, is why this particular revolutionary moment is not merely upheld, but held up above all others. “Maoists” would respond that it is important because it represented the masses taking power into their own hands.

But as “Maoists” know better than anyone, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was but one of Mao’s many mass campaigns. Mao’s “mass line” meant that such mass campaigns were a tremendous part of his practice, something which they frequently mention as a reason to uphold Mao. Why then the emphasis on the last one? Was it the most successful? One may argue to the contrary, that this was the mass campaign that led to Mao’s surrender, and the military stepping in per the wishes of Mao’s opponents, etc. “The mass line” is no longer practised in China thanks to the new order accepted by Mao as a result of the Cultural Revolution. By contrast, the Great Leap Forward, also much maligned by bourgeois historiography, can in many ways be counted as a success.

In short, was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution the most important moment in Chinese history, or merely the largest (but still ultimately unsuccessful) example of “the mass line”?

The Mass Line

I did not merely redirect the Cultural Revolution to the mass line in order to degrade Mao’s practice in this area. Marxism-Leninism has always been a radically democratic ideology, in spite of anarchists’ wilful misunderstanding of what the vanguard party means. The idea of “the mass line” comes out of a thorough and scientific investigation into the dialectical relationship between the vanguard party and the masses. It is the idea that the party must lead the masses not merely by standing one step ahead of them in the march towards victory, not merely by agitating among the masses to teach them the way forward, but by learning from the masses, so as to better teach them. One of Mao’s many succinct aphorisms explains the concept in terms I have always found sympathetic:

 “Communists should set an example in study; at all times they should be pupils of the masses as well as their teachers.

Of course, the issue is that this dialectical relationship was not first observed by Mao, he simply gave it the name “the mass line”. Stalin is quoted as saying:

Lenin taught us not only to teach the masses, but also to learn from them.

What does this mean?

It means, first, that we leaders must not become conceited; and we must understand that if we are members of the Central Committee or are People’s Commissars, this does not mean that we possess all the knowledge for giving correct leadership. An official position by itself does not provide knowledge and experience. This is still more the case in respect to a title.

This means, second, that our experience alone, the experience of leaders, is insufficient to give correct leadership; that, consequently, it is necessary that one’s experience, the experience of leaders, be supplemented by the experience of the masses, by the experience of the rank-and-file Party members, by the experience of the working class, by the experience of the people.

This means, third, that we must not for one moment weaken, and still less break, our connection with the masses.

This means, fourth, that we must pay careful attention to the voice of the masses, to the voice of the rank-and-file members of the Party, to the voice of the so-called “small men”, to the voice of the people.

And so forth.

Those familiar with the writings of Mao on practical work will note similarities without my having to point them out. This is not to attack Mao as an unoriginal thinker: It was Mao himself who emphasised “the mass line” was “the Marxist theory of knowledge” (and all Marxists ought to agree, if they understand dialectics), and “self-criticism” as a “Marxist-Leninist weapon”. Some “Maoists” take no issue with this, and on the contrary, embrace Stalin’s “mass line” approach. This leads to the question of Chairman Mao’s other commonly cited theoretical breakthrough: “the universality of people’s war”.

People’s War

In the first few paragraphs of the section of “Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism!” entitled “Mao Tsetung”, we are told that among Mao’s key contributions was “people’s war”. Indeed, long prior to the RIM, the popular view among many lay observers was that “people’s war” was the essence of Mao’s practice. Certainly Mao’s military strategy inspired many, and is defended by many non-“Maoists”. “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” declares “the universality of people’s war”.

What does this mean? Does this mean that peasant revolution is to be carried out everywhere? “Maoists” insist that it does not. And yet the truly fascinating and historically noteworthy feature of the Chinese Civil War (from the perspective of proletarian internationalists and bourgeois observers alike) was how the peasantry of a backwards country was mobilised to defeat a professional military backed by the imperialist powers. Otherwise, what is “Maoist” “people’s war”? Let us go to the source, and we will see that Mao does not argue for universalising the lessons of China, rather he views the call for revolutionary violence (when called for by the conditions) as “Marxist-Leninist”:

The seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution. This Marxist-Leninist principle of revolution holds good universally, for China and for all other countries.

But while the principle remains the same, its application by the party of the proletariat finds expression in varying ways according to the varying conditions. Internally, capitalist countries practice bourgeois democracy (not feudalism) when they are not fascist or not at war; in their external relations, they are not oppressed by, but themselves oppress, other nations. Because of these characteristics, it is the task of the party of the proletariat in the capitalist countries to educate the workers and build up strength through a long period of legal struggle, and thus prepare for the final overthrow of capitalism. In these countries, the question is one of a long legal struggle, of utilizing parliament as a platform, of economic and political strikes, of organizing trade unions and educating the workers. There the form of organization is legal and the form of struggle bloodless (non-military). On the issue of war, the Communist Parties in the capitalist countries oppose the imperialist wars waged by their own countries; if such wars occur, the policy of these Parties is to bring about the defeat of the reactionary governments of their own countries. The one war they want to fight is the civil war for which they are preparing. But this insurrection and war should not be launched until the bourgeoisie becomes really helpless, until the majority of the proletariat are determined to rise in arms and fight, and until the rural masses are giving willing help to the proletariat. And when the time comes to launch such an insurrection and war, the first step will be to seize the cities, and then advance into the countryside’ and not the other way about. All this has been done by Communist Parties in capitalist countries, and it has been proved correct by the October Revolution in Russia.

If “Maoists” are not adventurists, and merely seek to avoid pacifism and eventually overthrow the bourgeois state, and they are not peasant-ists, if they are not, in a word, “Narodniks”, then according to Mao’s description, “people’s war” appears to be yet another case where “Maoist” packaging makes orthodox Marxism-Leninism look brand new, contrasted against the revisionism and opportunism of surrounding non-“Maoist” parties (and, it is worth noting, many such revisionist and opportunist parties themselves “uphold” Mao).

(If “Maoists” doubt that Mao’s military strategy is acceptable to non-“Maoist” Marxist-Leninists, that there is some fanatical commitment to some particular type of military strategy which precludes guerrilla warfare, etc., they should note the reception of Ho Chi Minh in even anti-“Maoist”, dogmatic Hoxhaite circles, and then should explain how Ho Chi Minh was not practising “people’s war”, by any definition.)

There is surely more to say about “Maoism”, and I hope that “Maoist” comrades (both “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist” and self-identified Marxist-Leninists who have great sympathy for Chairman Mao) will, upon finishing reading my disorganised personal musings here, directly engage me in a critical fashion in the comments. Perhaps the result can be a more thorough conversation on elements of Mao’s theory and practice. But my conclusion remains, as it was, that Mao may have been a great revolutionary for a significant period, but specific adherence to his line to the exclusion of, for example, Enver Hoxha’s should not constitute a shibboleth between revolutionaries and revisionists.

Anglo Liberals and the National Question: Invasion Day

For some decades now in every English-speaking state from Singapore to Canada there has existed a numerically significant, university-educated section of the bourgeoisie which holds “enlightened” and progressive views on various issues. Both among themselves and among revolutionary socialists it is known that our basic response to their existence consists of something along the lines of:

While the liberals are more ethical in their rhetoric than the conservatives on both an individual and structural level, in practice they cannot meaningfully liberate the oppressed, even if they intend to, which is not always the case.

I would indeed be a revisionist if I did not hold that the above is true. However, it is necessary to show how our line is theoretically and practically different to that of the liberals. The reason I bring this up is Martin Flanagan’s piece “The problem with Australia Day” in The Age. Now it should go without saying that we stand in solidarity with Aboriginal Australians and condemn the recognition and celebration of so-called “Australia Day”, which our real friends will agree is better termed “Invasion Day”. However, Flanagan’s underlying assumptions are themselves chauvinist and to be rejected. The very first sentence shows Flanagan’s misunderstanding of the issue:

“National days should unite.”

No, they should not. National days by their very nature divide the world into nations. This is perfectly natural, as the world is indeed thus divided. But the assumption that all Australians constitute one “nation”, that should have one “national day”, is incorrect. Australia is a single state at present (the terminological issue of calling the main subdivisions of the Australian state “states” being as irrelevant as in the United States, both are indeed sovereign states), and surely its citizens ought to all enjoy equal rights, but it is not correct to say that Australians are all one nation. Even if persons of immigrant background assimilate totally to the settler Anglo-Australian national culture and thus do not even constitute minority nationalities with Australian citizenship (an oversimplification of the reality at best), Aboriginal Australians are not part of the same nation as the settler Anglo-Australian nation. Assuming the bulk of the readership to be Marxist-Leninists, I can simply refer to Comrade Stalin’s words on the subject, which all would be hard-pressed to dispute apply as much to the oppressed Aboriginal Australians as they do to the Irish (which nearly all English-speaking Marxist-Leninists agree are not part of some “British nation” and are right in seeking national liberation against British occupation).

Regardless of the specific terminological issue of “the nation”, even many liberal readers would agree that the issue for the Aboriginal Australian is not specifically the “driving apart” of settler and Aboriginal Australians. After all, New Zealand and Australia are “apart” from one another, but no tears are shed for this fact. The concrete issue is that Aboriginal Australians are OPPRESSED by the settler Australian bourgeoisie as represented by the Australian state. The removal of Invasion Day from the calendar and full opposition to its celebration on the grounds that it celebrates invasion and subjugation of aboriginal Australians are, in light of this fact, the proverbial “lowest common denominator” of opposition to national chauvinism by the oppressor nation of settler Australia. We must object every year, but this is not because we, like Flanagan, believe the problem can be solved by the choice of a new “Australia Day” and a new flag:

“New Zealand is in the process of changing its flag which, up until now, has had the Union Jack in the corner. Presumably, if the Scots had won their bid for national independence last year, the Union Jack would have ceased to be flown in what remained of Great Britain or at least the blue of Scotland’s flag would have been taken out.”

New Zealand’s flag debate in part reflects its own relative success at collective bargaining between the settler nation and the Māori nation. I do not wish to pretend that the Māori nation has achieved its sovereignty to the point where they are no longer subject to national oppression, but because we must understand any “superiority” of New Zealand over Australia in terms of superior advocacy for Māori rights, not a ruling class which by its very nature cares more for the feelings of minorities. Similarly, in Scotland the question was of whether or not Scotland would exercise its right to secession, which itself reflects organisation and will which exists within Scotland itself.

The case of Scotland shows us quite clearly: The point is not to make sure to be a polite oppressor who doesn’t remind the oppressed nations and nationalities of their subjugated status, but to stand for real equality of rights. Aboriginal Australians are not oppressed by not being able to share barbecue days with the rest of Australia. Indeed, Aboriginal Australians oppose their forcible inclusion, as exemplified by the issue of the Stolen Generations. The truly progressive stance on the part of members of all oppressor nations must be one of concrete support for the struggle for liberation of all oppressed nations and nationalities.

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In conclusion, when Flanagan complains that:

“an occasion which supposedly exists to bring us together serves each year to drive us apart”

he misses that the Australian state (or any other capitalist state) does not intend to bring its citizens together in a principled unity. It seeks to subjugate them and exploit them as a whole, and in order to do this, their hierarchical division is desirable. If we want to “unite” Aboriginal Australians and settler Australians, it must be a unity in struggle against the Australian state and its imperialism. Strange though it may sound, settler Australians can best unite with Aboriginal Australians by not merely opposing Invasion Day, but by supporting what amounts to further division from “mainstream” Australia, on their own terms.

The CPGB-ML, Revolutionary Purity, and Entryism

The current political culture in Britain is such that most readers, upon seeing the picture of Stalin at the top of my blog, will assume that I am sympathetic to Harpal Brar and the CPGB-ML, due to the particular zeal with which they defend Comrade Stalin. It is my personal view that Harpal Brar is far from the saviour of British anti-revisionism that his followers make him out to be, and that there are both theoretical and practical problems with the CPGB-ML which cannot be blamed on the subjective or objective conditions in Britain at large, but rather stem from the party’s own strategy and tactics. Indeed, I believe that in some ways, the CPGB-ML is now less relevant than some processes which are ongoing within Labour. I wish to discuss “entryism” and the Labour Party, and how it relates to “ultra-leftism”, with the CPGB-ML acting as a foil of sorts.

What is “entryism”? At the risk of sounding too philosophical, all of us “enter” into something when we take part in practical politics. We enter into the party, it changes us, and we change it. We enter into a trade union, or a publication for which we write. The question is not whether or not to “enter”, but what to enter and how. As an organisation, most readers would agree, one may “enter” into popular fronts. Entry into a party is, in my view, similar. One wouldn’t enter into a front or an alliance where the terms were sure to benefit the other side and possibly destroy your organisation. Similarly, the idea of working within a larger party or Syriza-esque “party of parties” for tactical reasons should be dealt with in terms of how beneficial this tactic is for the overall strategy of the organisation.

Internationally, the term “entryism” is associated with Trotskyism, hence why it may be easily used as an insult. In Britain in particular, the term is most strongly associated with the much-publicised controversy surrounding the Trotskyite group “Militant”. But it may surprise more more anti-Labour readers to learn that Lenin took a much more nuanced stance. I quote:

I cannot deal here with the second point of disagreement among the British Communists—the question of affiliation or non-affiliation to the Labour Party. I have too little material at my disposal on this question, which is highly complex because of the unique character of the British Labour Party, whose very structure is so unlike that of the political parties usual in the European continent. It is beyond doubt, however, first, that in this question, too, those who try to deduce the tactics of the revolutionary proletariat from principles such as: “The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of reformism inviolate; its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution”—will inevitably fall into error. Such principles are merely a repetition of the mistake made by the French Blanquist Communards, who, in 1874, “repudiated” all compromises and all intermediate stages. Second, it is beyond doubt that, in this question too, as always, the task consists in learning to apply the general and basic principles of communism to the specific relations between classes and parties, to the specific features in the objective development towards communism, which are different in each country and which we must be able to discover, study, and predict.

“Left-Wing” Communism in Great Britain

It must be emphasised that Lenin did not conceive of Labour as a revolutionary party. He insisted that an independent communist party be formed for Britain, as elsewhere. Whether by alliance or entry, the approach of the revolutionary organisation towards a non-revolutionary one must be based on tactics. No illusions may be held that reformism can be substituted for revolution. We must divide between serious debate by revolutionaries on the usefulness of entry into Labour on the one hand, and surrender to Labour on the other. Lest we forget: The worst scoundrels are those who entered Labour as “revolutionary” socialists decades ago and became the core of “New Labour”. (I place “revolutionary” in quotes as all evidence I can find indicates that those blamed for New Labour appear to have a background the revisionist CPGB or in Trotskyism).

Lenin repeatedly emphasised that revolutionaries ought to make tactical compromises in order to unite with the masses. A revolutionary organisation should not become so crippled by fear of liquidating itself and abandoning its revolutionary mission that it distances itself from the revolutionary masses whom it is meant to lead. The Chinese Communist Party did not liquidate itself when operating within the KMT, but did show the Chinese people that it stood on the side of national liberation. The KOE in Greece, as weak as its present position may be, continues to exist even while acting inside Syriza, and can reemerge when it is deemed appropriate. Of course, the worthwhileness of such actions can be disputed (perhaps the time to exit Syriza has already come, perhaps Labour is not worth entering because of the strength of the Blairites, although at present that would seem to be untrue), and it depends on the particular dynamics within the front or coalition or party into which a revolutionary organisation enters. There are no simple answers.

That is, unless you are an ultra-leftist who declares that everything but your own organisation is composed of reformist scum, and that the masses should wake up and flock to your obvious leadership. In this case, the answer is clear: Behave like CPGB-ML, ignore Lenin’s explicit advice, and never actually step closer to bringing political power to the proletariat. You will feel more revolutionary than anyone and have made zero mistakes, as far as your own narrow perception is concerned.

To actually make revolution, one has to get involved in some messy business, while always striving to respond appropriately to the mess around oneself. It should be clear that I think CPGB-ML has delegitimised itself in the eyes of many British workers who would be open to revolutionary rhetoric by taking such a sectarian stance against Corbyn. It seems to me that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represents a historical opportunity, however brief and limited it may be, to push forward a genuine discussion about socialism in Britain through the Labour Party.

On the other hand, we must be serious about the limitations, and asking what is next: Is a revolutionary organisation in Britain presently moving closer to proletarian revolution thanks to the Corbyn leadership? It is difficult to say. What few Marxist-Leninist groups we can see which do not respond to Jeremy Corbyn with the jeering, unearned arrogance have even fewer masses behind them than the CPGB-ML. Whether defending Corbyn while not supporting him, or supporting him openly, it’s not clear that such groups have a future in Britain at all. Do any British communists have a long-term strategy, or do we just have our messiahs, Brar or Corbyn?

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Image courtesy of Worker’s Spatula

It is not enough to support Corbyn because he is, in practice, pushing back against imperialist warmongering, while recreating a much-needed space for class politics. It is also not enough to say to oneself that what is really needed in Britain is a proletarian revolution, without having any power to bring this about, as CPGB-ML does.

What is needed is an organisation with international ties aimed towards establishing a fourth communist international. An organisation that recognises that it must, like Jeremy Corbyn, take part in day-to-day politics in such a manner so as to draw the masses closer to itself. An organisation which will use its place in day-to-day politics not to advance the careers of its nominal leadership, but to build a counter-hegemony against that of the British state. An organisation that will utilise all possible tools at its disposal to struggle against capitalism-imperialism.

Should Revolutionaries Drink?

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Once, when I was out drinking with a comrade, a subject of some political sensitivity came up. Sometimes, we can discuss such things in public, but with a certain amount of caution, euphemistic language, etc.

But as I was relatively drunk at the time, I was not careful, and worse still, when my comrade tried to quiet me down, I interpreted him as disregarding what I was saying (because it related to a previous disagreement), and I only got louder and more belligerent as a result.

Some days later, when I gave my self-criticism, my comrade suggested I learn to not discuss politics when inebriated. I am a very political person, and again, discussing politics all the time isn’t an issue so long as I know how to bring up sensitive issues or what sensitive issues not to bring up. The problem being, of course, that when one is drunk, self-control is always found wanting.

To me, the natural answer seemed to be to give up drinking. Unlike smoking cigarettes, giving up alcohol was not an issue of addiction. Rather, it is the effect on behaviour which worries me. As I meet more or less regularly with comrades and fellow travellers, my social life involves discussion of politics to a significant extent. Being in total control of how I communicate is very important, and this is difficult to reconcile with keeping alcohol as part of my social life.

Does one have to be constantly disciplined to be a revolutionary? Marx didn’t seem to think so. But he had different ideas about what organised life meant. To be sure, many successful revolutionaries enjoyed alcohol, and many comrades of mine drink still. But I think every revolutionary ought to ask themselves about their relationship with drugs. I don’t refer just to the stoner who can’t function…

…but even to someone who rarely does drugs, and can function, who can contribute to practical work, but who, in simply trying to unwind and have a good time, ends up nullifying important security practices. Nobody wants to be the security risk for the organisation, and making small sacrifices for the good of the revolution is certainly a good practice to have.