On April 26, 2007, a friend and I attended a political event on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. It was a discussion by Bill Martin and Raymond Lotta of a book by Martin and Bob Avakian, Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics (Open Court, 2005). The following is based on a letter I sent out afterwards describing the event. At that time I hadn’t yet finished reading the book itself, so this report is mostly about the discussion between Martin and Lotta. —Scott H.
There were roughly 80 or 100 people at the event, with perhaps half of them University students or professors. Bill Martin, who teaches philosophy at DePaul University, spoke first, for about 25 minutes, talking about the book, about how it came about, about how he and Avakian got along, and so forth. He also put forward some of his own philosophical ideas which differ from those of Avakian and/or Marxism, and specifically discussed his affinity for Kantian ethics. (More on that later.)
Martin is ideologically very eclectic, being strongly influenced by Marxism, but also by Kant, Sartre, Badiou, and numerous others of various conflicting outlooks. His practical political stands are generally much more coherent, and much closer to Marxism than his theoretical ideas. I thought his long introduction to the book being discussed here was pretty good, especially when it comes to such things as replying to the standard uninformed criticisms of the Cultural Revolution in China that anti-communists have indoctrinated even into academics. He has a real knack for effectively starting to open cracks in that sort of brain-dirtying (as Avakian likes to call it), and I would hope that he would do a lot more of it.
However, Martin also sees his and Avakian’s roles as being part of “relaunching the Maoist project”, and as a step toward “post-Maoism”, etc. (Lotta also talked about “the Communist project”, and Avakian’s role in redefining it, etc. I had to laugh at the terms “Maoist project” and “Communist project”; isn’t this the sort of thing we used to call making revolution?!)
Martin also talked a bit about another passion of his, with regard to promoting animal rights, and indicated that this is another major area of difference between him and Avakian. (I won’t talk much about this here; although I have not carefully studied Avakian’s views on this, I think that I pretty much agree with him.) Two of the specific major moral wrongs that Martin gave emphasis to are the dropping of napalm on people (such as by the U.S. in the Vietnam War), and the mistreatment of animals.
Lotta, who is a high ranking member of the RCP and writer on Maoist political economy, then spoke for about the same time, and focused most of his comments on the views of Avakian, Avakian’s position on MLM ethical theory specifically, on how Avakian has supposedly put forth a “radical new model of socialist society”, and numerous other words of praise for Avakian. This is something that is apparently expected from every RCPer, and probably even required of them these days as their primary task. Personally, I think the RCP would win a lot more respect for Avakian and the Party if they just talked about the revolutionary views they hold and why, and let the audience decide for themselves just how great, wonderful, or original, Avakian is.
The whole focus of the RCP now seems to be on Avakian, not on revolution per se. The recent special issue of their newspaper, Revolution (April 8), is billed as a “Special issue on Bob Avakian”. (Aren’t they all, these days?) When the RCP changed the name of its newspaper a couple years ago from the Revolutionary Worker to Revolution, a friend of mine remarked: “They should have just changed it to Bob Avakian Speaks” (on the model of Mohammed Speaks).
The exchange of views between Martin and Avakian (and Lotta) was fairly interesting, but I wonder somewhat what the real purpose of it all was. I think the primary purpose of it—on the part of Avakian and the RCP—is to further promote Bob Avakian and the personality cult around him! There seems to be a major effort by the Party of late to further puff up Avakian’s credentials as a serious Marxist thinker and theorist as well as a “visionary”, and therefore it is helpful to have him engage in public discussions with a professional philosopher.
Anyway, instead of having any direct criticisms of each other’s views, or back and forth discussion such as that in the book itself, after their initial presentations Martin and Lotta just turned to the audience for questions. I thought that in general the answers to these questions were rather weak. The first question was along the lines of “How can we get beyond the ingrained emotional hatred even of the very word ‘communism’?” One of the things neither Martin or Lotta said in reply, is that sometimes people just have to gradually get used to a new way of thinking, and as they do their old emotional biases will also gradually change.
If I had been asked this question I would have brought up an event described to me many years ago by a revolutionary communist friend of mine (I’ll call her “Mary”), who used to work with my wife at the phone company. Mary was talking to an older woman at work one day and told the woman she was a Communist. “Oh!” said the woman in great alarm, “Card carrying?” “No,” said Mary, “revolutionary!” And here is the best part of the story: the woman then replied with great relief, “Oh, that’s good!” This woman obviously had a tremendously negative emotional response to the word ‘communist’, and an even greater negative reaction to the fuller term “card-carrying Communist”. But whereas the “card-carrying” so-called Communists of the CPUSA were actually just liberal social-democrats, she had been less conditioned to react negatively to the much more radical revolutionary Communists! And over time, as Mary continued her work with the woman, the negative emotions gradually weakened some more.
Another question raised by a UC professor, contrasted his own consequentialist ethical theory with Martin’s Kantian ethics. This actually could have been a very relevant and useful topic to get into, but it was asked and answered in much too esoteric terminology. (Consequentialism, in ethics, means that we must be primarily concerned with the actual consequences or results of our actions, not their supposed inherent goodness or badness. Therefore this issue does in fact bring out one of the essential flaws in Kantian ethics. But very few in the audience probably understood any of this.) As part of his answer to this question Martin also remarked totally erroneously that “Marx doesn’t have a moral code that condemns slavery either.”
Yet another good question was about ends and means, and again the answers from both Martin and Lotta were quite poor. Lotta, especially tried to dodge the obvious fact that sometimes our means toward a good end have to be rather unpleasant. He did not deny, however, that in a revolution people will have to be killed. The basic answer to this supposed conundrum is to simply say, first, that sometimes in order to attain a good end some means have to be used which by themselves cannot be considered good; but second, that these means are nevertheless completely justified on two conditions: A) that on balance, with both the ends and the means added together being considered, the result is still good and justifiable, and B) there is no clear less objectionable means to that same end available. I don’t yet know exactly what Avakian’s answer to the ends-means “puzzle” is (if he even has one), but the fact that Lotta couldn’t give this answer suggests to me that Avakian hasn’t fully understood and explained this basic point either. Martin, of course, was even more wrong in his Kantian answer, which mostly veered off into the separate side issue of whether human beings may ever properly be considered as means to any end.
Lotta also remarked, either in connection with this question or later, that “inevitability in Marxism, that things will inevitably happen, is wrong—that part is wrong”. This is way too absolute of a stance. Some things in society are in fact certainly inevitable, such as that many millions of people will spend their lives in misery under the capitalist system. Many things are quite inevitable given only some very few, quite plausible (and normally assumed) conditions, such as that (unless humanity is suddenly wiped out by an asteroid or in some other way, and as long as capitalism continues to exist) there will continue to be capitalist economic crises of overproduction. Yes, some things—such as socialist revolution—are not quite inevitable (since once again humanity might instead by wiped out by some natural or capitalist-made disaster), but if you include those few conditions as part of the assumptions, then socialist revolution is in fact inevitable at some point. We must either make such a revolution, or humanity will be wiped out.
Lotta, Avakian, and the RCP screwed up royally with their erroneous “1980s analysis”, which proclaimed at the beginning of the 1980s that either world war or revolution was “inevitable” during the decade. Eventually, when they finally, belatedly, summed up this error, they grossly overreacted, and came up with the erroneous methodological principle that nothing certain can be said about the future. I discuss this simple-minded conclusion in depth elsewhere.1
During the question and answer session Martin defended the Kantian view that “To talk about right and wrong is to talk about right and wrong,” not people’s needs, welfare or interests (which are all, according to the Kantians, unrelated different things than right or wrong). He added that “Taking moral language seriously means getting beyond the category of interest.” In reaction to this outrageously wrong position I raised a question to him, which I initially formulated roughly this way: “You said that ‘to talk about right and wrong is to talk about right and wrong’, and not ‘other’ matters such as interests or people’s welfare. You also said that two specific wrong things are dropping napalm on people and mistreating animals. So my question is: ‘Is eating a hamburger as wrong as dropping napalm on a peasant village?’” Of course he said “No!”, but he didn’t yet see the import of the question. I asked: “Why, precisely, is dropping napalm on people much worse, much more wrong, than eating a hamburger (and thereby mistreating some animal)? We are already supposing that both are wrong, so the difference is obviously not just a question of what is right or wrong. It must be something else! And the only things it can be are the sorts of things that you say are irrelevant to morality, namely needs, welfare, and interests.”
I think at this point Martin was beginning to see the difficulty, but many in the audience were getting hung up on the animal rights angle (and a couple even seemed to want to say that eating a hamburger is as wrong as dropping napalm on people! Jeez, college kids!). So I reformulated my question: “Let’s shift the question as follows, let’s say that someone unprovoked kicks someone else in the shin. That’s obviously wrong. And let’s compare that small wrong with the much greater wrong of dropping napalm on people. The question remains: Why is one thing so much more wrong than the other? It must be because much more important interests are involved in the one case than in the other. This shows that such things as interests really are the essence of morality.” Martin could give no real response to this question.
(I was cut off, for talking too long, before I could go on to explain the centrality of the common, collective interests of the people as being the fundamental basis of social morality, and—in class society, where different classes do not share most of their interests in common—it becomes the common, collective interests of each class which forms the basis of each class morality. I just add this note here so that no one misunderstands me as defending individual interests as the basis for morality, as Ayn Rand and some bourgeois libertarians do.)
There’s a couple things to note here about Martin’s inability to give any sort of answer to this important question. First it shows that he has never encountered this rather obvious objection to his theory before. (If he had, he would have certainly had some sort of response ready at hand.) But just as interesting, it shows that Avakian, in supposedly disputing Martin’s Kantian ethics, must not have used very powerful arguments either (or at least not this one). I still have to investigate all of Avakian’s comments about Kantian ethics, but I suspect that I will find that they are not very persuasive.
In fact, if you look in the index of the book, there are only two references to the concept of interests (and none to class interests). And those two references are not by Avakian, but by Martin! Lotta claimed that “Bob has gone further with this” than others [looking into the question of Marxism and ethics], but the fact that in this book, at least, Avakian does not even seem to mention the most central concept of ethics, i.e. interests (that which benefits people), shows that his own understanding of MLM ethics must not actually be very deep. I’m somewhat surprised at this, because I personally tried to emphasize this very issue to Avakian a number of years ago (though most likely he ignored what I sent him).2
This report is getting too long, so I’ll have to wrap it up. But I should mention that there were quite a number of other problems in both what Martin said, and what Lotta said. Just a few of the latter, about Avakian: Avakian’s supposed breakthrough answer to “what is the essential meaning of ‘the good’” is simply the answer that Lenin gave long ago in his speech, “The Tasks of the Youth Leagues”. And, moreover, that can be deepened in some respects as it was when the bourgeois philosopher Paul Ziff did a careful semantic investigation of the word ‘good’ and decided that the most general meaning of the word in all contexts (in morality and elsewhere) is “answering to certain interests” (where whose interests were at issue is determined by the context).3 (Again, the key concept of interests!) Next, Lotta says that according to Avakian “Communist morality is not a static, free-standing ideal” Well, whoever said it was? Not Engels! Not Marx! Not Lenin! Then there is Avakian’s supposed breakthrough in arguing for dissent in socialist society. Surely Avakian and Lotta are not unaware that Mao argued for the same thing, as did Lenin and Marx! And, anyway, this sounds totally hypocritical given the absence of the right of dissent within Avakian's own Party! (As one example, I was myself expelled years ago because I had a conception of the mass line which agreed with Mao and disagreed with that of the RCP.)4 Lotta simply did not come anywhere close to proving the humorous RCP claim that Avakian has deeply enriched MLM theory.
Was the forum a good thing? Well it was interesting to me, and I learned some more about the actual views of both Bill Martin and Avakian, Lotta and the RCP—and the great limitations to their views on a number of points. It left a whole lot to be desired on a number of levels, however!
_______________1 See my long essay entitled “Notes on Notes on Political Economy” at http://www.massline.org/PolitEcon/ScottH/NotesNPE.htm