Platypus and the Maoists

Revolutionary Thought and Practice

The following is an edited version of a talk by IBT supporter Jason Wright, participating in a panel discussion on “Revolutionary Thought and Politics” at the Left Forum in New York City organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society on 1 June 2014. Joining him on the panel were Benjamin Blumberg from Platypus and Raymond Lotta of the Revolutionary Community Party (RCP). During Jason’s speech, supporters of the Maoist RCP became noticeably agitated at some of his comments and, following his contribution, walked out of the forum in protest. Full audio of the meeting is available here.

As always, I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Left Forum and thank the Platypus Affiliated Society for inviting us. This particular session has had a long gestation. It seems for a while now that it has been the desire of Platypus to have a three-way presentation between New Left Maoism, as one of the more palatable faces of Stalinism, orthodox Trotskyism, as it was preserved via the anti-revisionist tradition of the Revolutionary Tendency of the American Socialist Workers Party and its successors, and of course the Platypus Affiliated Society, which as I have come to understand is heavily influenced by the Frankfurt School. I’ve deferred the engagement for a little while … not because I think these are bad subjects to discuss and think about, but because I’m not sure some sort of gladiatorial combat enacted between the last Maoist and the last Trotskyist for Platypus’s entertainment is all that productive.

Of course our tendency welcomes debate. There are some good questions posed by this forum, questions I answered for myself some 20 years ago. I think the membership of Platypus should be engaging with and answering these questions for themselves. That is assuming that there are members (and I hope that there are) who are attracted to Platypus and to Marxism because Marxism provides them not only with a critique of the society they live in, but also a program for transforming that society and liberating humanity.

Platypus itself is a reflection and crystallization of the “academicization of intellectual life.” There are a lot of reasons why this occurred, from the large number of New Left era “revolutionaries” like Bill Ayres and Angela Davis who reinvented themselves as radical profs, to the partial deindustrialization of America and the accompanying union-busting campaigns that severely reduced the scope in which an (itself greatly diminished) ostensibly “socialist” left could operate. Platypus can be partially attributed to this phenomenon, but it is hardly unique. When I was in my late teens and first attending demonstrations in solidarity with the Sandinistas and the FMLN, the ISO [International Socialist Organization] was one of the more activist groups with pretty aggressive paper sellers. Today the ISO’s spheres of activity seem to be largely reduced to maneuvering within the trade-union bureaucracy and to an academic existence. Though I suppose Haymarket Books is where the left wing of American social democracy does the least harm and at least manages to publish some interesting material in affordable paperbacks that would be otherwise inaccessible.

From what I’ve been able to discern from Platypus’s “synthesis” of Marxism, there are two tendencies that have overwhelmingly influenced the vision of Platypus. One is Trotskyism, primarily as embodied by at least two of the founding members’ encounters with the already severely degenerated Spartacist League of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but also reflecting the struggle for Leninist orthodoxy embodied in the early SL and its predecessor, the Revolutionary Tendency of the SWP. Platypus uses the literature of this tendency in their study groups, as do we.

These Platypus founders are also aware that the Spartacist League’s rapid expansion in the 1970s came as the upsurge that we have come to think of as the New Left was waning. The SL at its best was able to win some of the more thoughtful elements of Maoism to Trotskyism. It also competed, in its interventions in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and other campaigns, with groups such as Progressive Labor. So Platypus has an ancillary and subordinate interest in Maoism as the “other” and more prominently visible current of Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s. I want to acknowledge that, but not go into details since our time is limited and I think that this has already been addressed in the May 2011 forum at which our comrade Tom Riley spoke [“The Marxist turn: The New Left in the 1970s”]. Since PL is a lot less interesting today and the Kasama Project has been hosted before (and perhaps represents a less useful foil in this battle royale), we are here today with the comrades of the RCP, who represent the most activist element of what remains of Maoism in the U.S. They are the logical choice.

Frankfurt School: theory without praxis

The other tendency that influences, and at this point seems to dominate, Platypus is the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm and Habermas were clever men, and when they address cultural matters some of them occasionally had useful insights. But I think there is also something in the way in which “being” determined consciousness in this crowd. It’s hard to talk of it as a cohesive whole, since it certainly wasn’t a democratic centralist party, but the general tendency was for theory to be abstracted from praxis. By and large there was a lack of engagement by these men in their youth in the pivotal struggles that occurred within the communist movement. They then witnessed the trauma of the midnight of the 20th century with the hegemony of a totalitarian bureaucracy in the USSR and the ascendency of fascism throughout much of Europe. It is certainly understandable that most of the Frankfurt School fled for their lives, first to Geneva, then to the U.S. But ultimately the relocation marched in lockstep with an accommodation to the imperialist status quo in their country of exile. This was reflected in a further withdrawal into pure academia, in perhaps what was even a calculated move to gain citizenship and prove their legitimacy by divorcing theory from social movements and working-class struggle.

I suppose that our own period, also being a product of defeat, in the wake of the counterrevolution that swept away the degenerated Soviet Union and the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe, parallels the defeat experienced by the Frankfurt School. So it is not surprising that it gives birth to a pessimism and a retreat by some clever men and women that also parallels that of the Frankfurt School. In one sense, I can see the seduction of it all. Many people undeniably feel a frustration in the streets when struggle is at a nadir, a feeling that activism is pointless, that every demonstration brings out only the “usual suspects” and that it is more an act of bearing moral witness than any sort of step forward. But one could also argue that, while many Platypus events are useful and at their best illuminating, the framework also has a certain sterility, theoretical acrobatics that seem more like mental masturbation than a genuine attempt to produce a new “unity of theory and practice.&dquo;

Contradictions of the RCP

Despite numerous references made by the RCP to the “new synthesis brought forward by Bob Avakian,” I don’t think future generations will condemn the RCP for withdrawing into an ivory tower or over-thinking questions of Marxist theory. In addition to the ISO, when I was first coming around politics, the RCP was another group you saw a lot of and I always appreciated its militancy. I was recruited to an ostensibly Trotskyist organization in 1992, via a front group they were running that was involved in a lot of abortion clinic defense work. These were direct-action campaigns that involved physically removing thugs from the pro-life organization Operation Rescue. Our best military bloc partners were Refuse and Resist, which was a sort of front group of the RCP. I had a certain respect for their tactics on the ground.

One thing I noticed even then, as a raw newbie, was that we did much better recruiting to our party and consolidating our members. A young lesbian comrade of mine, who had been around Refuse and Resist previously, explained to me that this was because the RCP had some truly backward position on sexual politics - essentially that gay men and lesbians were barred from joining the RCP. She characterized the RCP’s position as being that gay men preferred other men because they were too misogynistic to have relationships with women, and lesbians were lesbians out of a deformed reaction to patriarchal oppression. It seemed to me a total contradiction that a group that could have understood the need to fight for abortion rights, for the right of women to control their own bodies and reproductive choices, could have been so bad when it came to people’s sexual orientation. It made sense to me that no one from my generation who was attracted to the “left” would be able to stomach such a reactionary position. Certainly not the anarchist types who entered Refuse and Resist, presumably because of its militancy and military prowess, and then seemed to quickly exit via a revolving door.

This impression was confirmed to me when I had the opportunity to read the Kasama Projects pamphlet “Out of the Red Closet.” The experiences related in this all too accurately reflect my erstwhile comrade’s assessment. It is both heartbreaking and sickening to read the experiences of these former RCP contacts and comrades and reflect that this conduct was occurring in the last quarter of the 20th century within a party that trumpets itself as fighting for the emancipation of humanity.

I recently read the RCP’s 2010 publication, “Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft proposal).” In addition to reaffirming that Marx and Engels were correct – in contrast to their utopian predecessors – to resist this kind of elaborate speculation about what a future communist society would concretely look like, I must say that this is a strange book that reminds me a bit of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and a bit of Robert’s Rules of Order. But it does offer an interesting window into the mindset of the RCP. The 91-page book is “intended to set forth a basic model, and fundamental principles and guidelines, for the nature and functioning of a vastly different society and government than now exists: the New Socialist Republic in North America.” This “New Socialist Republic in North America” could, according to the RCP “only have been brought into being as a result of the heroic, self-sacrificing struggle carried out by millions of people … with the leadership of the … Revolutionary Communist Party, acting as the vanguard of the revolutionary process.” No false modesty there.

And so it goes through an 8-page preamble, followed by a 38-page article, outlining the future central government, including the legislature and how it will be elected, down to an 18-year-old voting age and special provisions to guarantee RCP electoral representation, the election from this body of an executive council, the future spheres of government, the economy, the environment, defense and security, justice and the rights of the people, international relations, education, science, health and medicine, the media and art and culture.

In the final 50 pages the RCP primarily focuses on many important issues of special oppression in the U.S., including black Americans (for whom they propose a referendum for an “autonomous African-American region”) and Mexican Americans (parts of the Mexican majority regions may be returned to Mexico or exercise self-determination to form an autonomous region). They also have chapters on Native Americans, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and on the oppression of women. I don’t generally think it’s good practice to polemicize against omissions since, as political people, we often have more to say than we have time to say it in or pages to print it on. But I find it interesting that in 91 pages there is only one reference to gays and lesbians, within a chapter dealing with the organization of the military of the future socialist state, where “discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited.” In other words, it appears the RCP is now in sync with where liberal Democrats and the most conservative wing of the LGBT movement were at a quarter century ago. The RCP advocates nothing more than the same policy Barack Obama has already technically instituted in the imperialist U.S. military. They spent more time elaborating their plans for gun control than they spent on gay rights.

It also might be worth reminding those with short historical memories that the RCP’s direct predecessor, the Revolutionary Union, opposed busing for school integration - the front page headline of the October 1974 issue of Revolution blared: “People must unite to smash Boston busing plan” (reprinted in “The Fight to Implement Busing: For Labor/Black Defence to Stop Racist Attacks and to Smash Fascist Threats,” p29). After capitulating to black-nationalist rhetoric on the subject of community control, they applied this with a consistency that led them to side with the white racists of Boston in their opposition to school integration.

Of course the problem with the RCP is not primarily that they are bad on gay rights, though this does perhaps reflect the social conservatism of Stalinism, the attitudes of party chairman Avakian and the role that party leaders play in Stalinist obedience cults.

Maoism is historically rooted in the Stalinized Chinese Communist Party. Aside from the U.S., the Chinese party is the only other one I can think of where a primary section of the leadership and founding cadre went over to the Left Opposition and was purged in a fairly hegemonic bloc. There are some interesting memoirs by Chinese Trotskyists that are recommended reading on this, including Wang Fan-hsi [Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary 1919–1949] and Zheng Chaolin [An Oppositionist for Life]. It is true, as I understand it, that Mao had significant autonomy from the Moscow line, probably at least partially attributable to the conditions of leading a guerilla resistance in isolated mountains. It was this Stalinized party, schooled in resistance, that led the massive peasant uprising to destroy capitalism in China and establish a workers state that was deformed at birth. The pressure of imperialism forced the Maoist bureaucracy to remain aligned with the USSR. It was ultimately the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire to escape the shadow of Moscow that led to the Sino-Soviet split rather than the absurd and metaphysical notion that the USSR became “state capitalist” when the last breath escaped from Joseph Stalin’s body.

The Chinese Stalinists received a rude awakening when it turned out that China was simply too poor to apply Soviet-style industrialization. This crisis culminated in the Great Leap Forward of 1958, a utopian-reactionary fantasy plan in which the party worked the peasantry to the limits of physical endurance. Mao was responsible for the Great Leap Forward, even defending the absurdity of backyard steel furnaces, and he never rejected the principles underlying this program that led China to the brink of starvation. During 1959–61, Mao lost stature due to the failure of this policy. The Liu regime that followed offered no more of a revolutionary solution, but rather relied on Bukharinite (that is, a right-Communist) economic policy. The inter-party struggle that followed between Mao and Liu represented no significant difference or alternative for the Chinese proletariat, nor did the anti-proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, in which Mao’s faction reconsolidated control of the party and conducted a vicious score-settling campaign against their opponents.

There is no rhyme or reason to these Stalinist zigzags except for capitulation to external pressures and an inconsistent program. In this sense, Chinese Stalinism too is a pessimistic capitulation to “actually existing reality.” And American Maoists, as its cheerleaders, implicitly accept responsibility for its irrational absurdities and numerous crimes.

Program and theory

Platypus mentions both Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in the short document they circulated to prompt discussion for this session. And that, I think, brings up a good point. I just finished reading Pierre Broué’s excellent history of the failed revolutions in Germany [The German Revolution 1917–1923], failures that reinforced the isolation of the USSR and encouraged those conservative and retreating elements in the USSR who supported Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” and led to the fascist triumph of Hitler within Germany itself. Much of the history of the 20th century is written large in the failure of the German revolutions.

Rosa Luxemburg was a great revolutionary. She saw, long before Lenin, the rot that had infested social democracy, particularly the flagship German section. But she was not won over to Lenin’s position on the vanguard party. Despite wishing to see the rightist and opportunist tendencies in German social democracy defeated, she had a hard time breaking from the conception of the party of the whole class. Only in the final days of her life, by which time it was too late, did she begin to recognize the need for German communists to strike out on their own as something more than an external faction. Partially this was because she looked to spontaneous renewal from the mass rank-and-file, but also because she pessimistically believed that a successful party could only be founded under more auspicious circumstances.

This reminds me, lest I be accused of living in a glasshouse, that historical pessimism took its toll on the Trotskyist movement as well. Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, was, as a representative of Polish Trotskyists, opposed to the founding the Fourth International. He believed, like Luxemburg, that the moment was waning and not ripe. This attitude finds reflection in the third and final volume of Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky [The Prophet Outcast], where he gives the crisis of the French section and Trotsky’s involvement with his U.S. supporters short shrift, regarding them apparently as distractions from the literary work Trotsky ought to be concentrating on. This is an assessment based on not understanding or not wanting to see the critical hopes Trotsky placed first on the French, then on the Americans, to lead the campaign to found the Fourth International. The American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon was able to see the thread of continuity that ran between Deutscher’s ideas and the theoretical foundation of Pabloite revisionism that wrecked the Fourth International.

Trotsky, like Luxemburg, was not an early adopter of Lenin’s vision of the party. He was won to it late and won to it the hard way. But once won to it, he didn’t waver. So, I know Platypus may struggle to understand this, since the IBT has a certain academic reputation ourselves, but at the end of the day program is paramount – a party based on the program and the revolutionary will to carry it out. There is a quote from Trotsky we really like. In fact we like it so much we put it on the cover of every issue of our paper:

“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour of action arrives – these are the rules of the Fourth International.”