Notes on Notes on Political Economy

Synopsis: This is a critique of a newly published RCP document, Notes on Political Economy. In the document, the RCP criticizes the analysis it made in the 1980s that interimperialist world war and/or revolution was virtually inevitable in that decade, attempts to analyze why it made that erroneous assessment, and provides a tentative analysis of the current world socioeconomic situation. The RCP blames its mistake on three methodological errors: the idea that there are "typical motions", or that history obeys fixed or always recurring patterns; the idea that there are absolute thresholds which when reached mean that some definite change must happen; and, they say, behind both of those ideas, a failure to recognize that social laws are just tendencies. The RCP thus puts forward three new methodological principles that negate or oppose those which it thinks got them into trouble. This critique argues that: 1) The three old principles were not the primary source of the RCP’s erroneous 1980’s analysis—the real sources were the Party’s failure to adequately investigate the situation in the Soviet Union, and their conception of "spiral/conjuncture motion" which I view as anti-dialectical; 2) The three new principles are not generally valid, even if there is something to them in some cases; 3) This new RCP methodological analysis represents a shift toward epistemological agnosticism; and 4) The RCP is continuing to make serious methodological, economic and other errors.

The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, has just published an interesting—and from my point of view important—document, Notes on Political Economy: Our Analysis of the 1980s, Issues of Methodology, and The Current World Situation (Chicago: RCP, 2000), 56 pp. [The booklet is available from Liberation Distributors, P. O. Box 5341, Chicago, IL 60680 for $5.00 plus $1.00 postage.] In what follows, I’ll refer to the document as NPE.

I say that the document is important, but that does not mean that I agree with it all. In fact, much of its importance comes about because it brings to the surface some errors that the RCP has been making—both past errors that it now publicly confesses, and other errors that it is still oblivious to. Nevertheless, there are also a number of insights into the world economic situation, the misery this is causing most of the world’s people, and related issues. Moreover the document really made me think and helped me work out some of my own ideas. Mostly, however, I will be focusing on the continuing errors in NPE, since there is not much point in repeating the points I agree with.

Although the work is not very long, as the title indicates, it covers quite a bit of ground. It includes a self-criticism of the RCP’s "1980’s analysis" (i.e., of the analysis of the world situation they adhered to during the 1980s), a discussion of methodology (philosophical method) including some new principles they have summed up in light of their past errors, and a tentative analysis of the current world economic situation. Comment on all these areas is appropriate, but in this critique I will concentrate mostly on methodological and philosophical issues.

This critical review is rather long, but it is unfortunately true that it usually takes a lot more space to expose and criticize errors than it does to make them in the first place. I don’t claim that I am presenting the "last word" on the topics that I address. My main object is to get the RCP and other revolutionary Marxists to think about some of these methodological issues a lot more carefully than they seem to have done so far.

A Public Confession of Error in the Party’s "1980’s Analysis"

In NPE the RCP at long last frankly admits that it made some major errors back in the 1980s in its analysis of the world situation. The specific error admitted to is their expectation at the time that the 1980s would see another world war, unless it was prevented by revolution:

Our view was that the principal contradiction in the world in the 1980s was the interimperialist contradiction. This contradiction was concentrated in the form of two rival and colliding imperialist blocs, one led by U.S. imperialism and the other led by Soviet social-imperialism. Our view was that this acute and intensifying contradiction, interacting with other contradictions, would lead to world war unless prevented by revolution in large and/or strategic parts of the world.

Plainly, this was not how things worked out. We have the responsibility of understanding why we reached certain incorrect conclusions, at the same time that we affirm what was correct about our analysis. [NPE, p. 5]

This public self-criticism is of course overdue, at least a decade overdue. But I won’t dwell on that. It is good that the Party is able, finally, to admit its error on this important matter. It is extremely important for parties, just as for individuals, to face up to their errors, analyze the reasons they made such errors, and do their utmost to correct things so that similar errors are not made again. And when people and parties actually do such things, we should respect them all the more for it.

However, even in this self-criticism there are some worrisome aspects. First, how thorough is it? The passage quoted above indicates that one of the spurs to their erroneous thinking in the 80s was their view that the principal contradiction in the world during that decade was the interimperialist contradiction (between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.). So what is their current view on the matter? Was that really the principal contradiction in the world during the 1980s? Is it still the principal contradiction in the world today? If not, what was/is the principal contradiction? You will not find an explicit answer to these questions in NPE. But reading between the lines in Part I of NPE it seems pretty likely that at least for the 1980s they still think they were right on this point. It is interesting, however, that they didn’t even think to discuss the issue, very probably because its truth still seems totally obvious to them. (It is difficult to bring yourself to carefully analyze things which seem "totally obvious" to you! And this is one of the RCP’s long-time, and continuing, problems—too much seems "totally obvious" to them! The Party isn’t doing enough analysis, enough thinking.) In a separate essay I will discuss in greater depth the issue of the principal contradiction—both in the 1980s, and today.

An even more important example of the narrowness of the RCP’s self-criticism concerns their expectations of revolution in the U.S. during the 1980s. In the passage above they say they expected world war unless it was prevented by revolution "in large and/or strategic parts of the world". But actually, at the beginning of the 1980s they were openly predicting revolution in the U.S. during the decade. For example, in 1980 RCP Chairman Bob Avakian wrote an article entitled "Is Revolution Really Possible This Decade and What Does May 1st Have to Do With It?" whose major intent seems to have been to convince the remaining doubters in or close to the Party that revolution was really possible in the U.S. "within the next few (say 5 to 10) years".[1] This was hopelessly out of touch with reality, and I would think that the Party should have long-since realized this and criticized this erroneous view too.

It is true that the most important single reason that the RCP expected a revolutionary storm within the U.S. during the 1980s is that they believed this would be the mass reaction to the developments leading in the direction of world war. So this error, to a considerable degree, grows out of the other error. But even if this excuse is accepted, it shows how narrow the RCP self-criticism is, even now. At least some of the more important ramifications of the primary error should have been gone into. And some of the additional errors being made in conjunction with it should also have been criticized. (Such things as a gross overestimation of the influence of the Party on the masses, a similar gross overestimation of the near-term revolutionary potential of the American people, and so forth.)

In the Communist Party of China during the Mao era, those making major errors were often asked to write up formal self-criticisms so that the Party could judge if they really understood their errors. If these written self-criticisms were inadequate, they would be returned to the erring comrade with the request that he or she do a better, more thorough job. This is kind of how I feel about the current RCP self-criticism. "It’s good, folks, that you have begun to admit your mistakes and try to understand and correct them. But your self-criticisms to date are still very inadequate. Go back and try again!"

The issue here is not whether the RCP self-criticism is sincere or not. I have no doubt that it is sincere. And the main issue for now is not even whether the self-criticism is too brief or not, or whether it neglects to get into all the important errors that were made. The most important immediate issue is really this: Has the Party even correctly analyzed the reasons it made the errors that it admits to making? Has it really gotten to the roots of its major error about the inevitability of world war in the 1980s? And, alas, I don’t think that it has. It has only succeeded in muddying the waters still more. I will try to demonstrate this below.

The Real Reasons for the RCP’s Erroneous 1980s Analysis

For a long time I have ascribed the real reason for the RCP’s erroneous 1980s analysis to one primary factor: an inadequate investigation and understanding of the Soviet Union. I think the Party was correct in its perception around 1980 that there were powerful developments in the direction of world war, certainly within the U.S. I think they were correct in their estimation that the U.S. bourgeoisie was unflinching, and determined to go for broke in their struggle with their Russian imperialist counterparts. If the Soviet imperialists, like the U.S. imperialists, had also been as strong and intransigent as they appeared on the surface to be, the RCP view, that "it’s obvious that world war is coming before long,"[2] might well have proven all too accurate.

In short, a critical spot were the RCP went most wrong in its analysis—and where virtually everybody else (including me), no matter what their political persuasion, was also completely out of touch with the actual objective situation—was in failing to recognize the extreme internal social and economic weaknesses in the Soviet Union and its empire. As one Brookings Institution analyst put it, the Soviet economy "was weaker than anybody thought".[3] We Marxists knew the Soviet Union and its sphere was moribund, but we had no idea how much so.

To a degree our partial recognition of the economic and other problems which the Soviets faced further misled us; we thought it would force them to opt even more strongly for war as the only solution to their difficulties. We did not see that they were already in such a state of crisis and internal decay that the dominant part of their top ruling establishment recognized very well that world war offered no solution for them either. The only economic solution left to Gorbachev and his supporters was to attempt to restructure Soviet state capitalism more along the lines of Western capitalism. The only political solution left for them was accommodation with the West. (Of course even these "solutions" turned out to mean the collapse of the Soviet Union altogether, which Gorbachev and company did not anticipate.)

We American Maoists knew full well the nature of imperialism, and we knew quite well the United States; but we did not sufficiently know the Soviet Union. That is the most important reason why our expectations of world war in the 1980s proved wrong. This is a simple explanation, but it is still a good one, a correct one, I think. Unfortunately, the RCP still does not seem to recognize the importance of its simple failure to adequately investigate the objective situation. Because of that, it is casting about looking for other explanations, other more subtle methodological errors that it might have made.

(There are, however, occasional signs that the RCP has an inkling that this was part of the problem. In NPE the only thing they seem to say about it this is: "Our analysis of the 1980s recognized the existence of a crisis of the world economy with particular dynamics and features in the U.S.—and Soviet-led blocs. We may have underestimated how deep the economic crisis was in the Soviet Union and its bloc." [p. 28] May have! Is there any doubt about it any more?! In any case, it is clear that the RCP does not begin to understand how important and how central its lack of understanding of the Soviet Union was in leading to its erroneous 1980s analysis.)

And in studying this new self-criticism in NPE, I find I have to agree with them in a way. There was an additional important cause for their erroneous 1980s analysis. But it was not so much the three methodological errors that they identify; instead it was their central doctrine of "spiral/conjunction motion" itself.

The "Spiral/Conjuncture Motion" Notion

We Marxists, or at least those of us who have gained some knowledge and appreciation of dialectics, believe it is important and necessary to analyze things in terms of the (dialectical) contradictions within them. However, we also recognize that most situations call for the consideration of multiple contradictions, and that these different contradictions at work in a given area, situation or process affect each other in various ways. Thus the problem presents itself of how one is to understand and deal with conglomerations of associated contradictions.

The RCP seems to think that it has discovered an important new way of doing this with its doctrine of "spiral/conjuncture motion". For example, in talking about their "1980s analysis" they say:

A major way in which we extended Lenin’s theory of imperialism was this: Lenin emphasized the law of uneven development as it expressed itself through interimperialist rivalry, shifting balances of strength, and a compulsion at particular times to forcibly redivide the world. We saw this as part of a larger dynamic, of what we have called "spiral/conjuncture" motion. We analyzed the ways in which crisis and rivalry interact with each other. We linked interimperialist rivalry and war with the destruction and restructuring dialectic of capital. And we sought to identify a characteristic (but not "typical" or always recurring) motion bound up with these processes. [NPE, p. 7]

I should note, first of all, that one can (and often should) talk about spirals with regard to the development of a single overriding contradiction (which of course always develops through the working out of subsidiary and related contradictions). There are different kinds of things that are called "spirals". One such is the flat wound-up spring in a single plane in a mechanical watch. But the form that people talking about dialectics have in mind is that of a helix, such as a curled-up telephone cord—a geometrical form in which things come around in a circular fashion but at a higher level each time around. A worthwhile thing to note here is that where you can properly talk about spirals, you can also properly talk about the dialectical notion of the negation of the negation. That is, the two ideas are getting at the same thing. (The RCP doesn’t understand this philosophical point at all, and totally rejects the law of the negation of the negation. But I can’t get any further into this side issue here.[4])

If you wish, you can view dialectical spirals as consisting of a series of related contradictions instead of stages in the development of a single contradiction. However, if you look carefully into what it means to say that these different contradictions are related, you will probably find that this is due to their being successive subsidiary contradictions within the development of a single larger (or more abstract) contradiction.

Thus, a classic example in historical materialism goes along these lines (sometimes with a few minor variations): Each stage in the development of class society may be viewed as part of a spiral, as a stage in the development of an overall "exploitation contradiction" (between an exploited class and an exploiter class). First there was slave society, with its slaves and slave owners; then there was feudalism, with its serfs and aristocracy; now we have capitalism, with its workers and capitalists. In each case we have an exploitative society, with the first class being exploited by the second class. In other words, the contradictions between slave and slave owners, between serfs and lords, and between workers and capitalists, are related. They are related in that they are all fundamental contradictions of various forms of human society; in that they are all specific examples of exploitative society (instances of the single, broader, more abstract contradiction); and in that the development of class society has led from one stage, to the next, and to the next. For reasons like these we consider slavery, feudalism and capitalism to be stages in the development of exploitation, and for each stage to mark a quasi-stable plateau in the spiral development of that overall contradiction.

(Note that the way I have set this up, there will not be another stage to the development of this overall exploitation contradiction, or contradiction between the oppressors and the economically oppressed. If we talk about the "next stage" here we are presumably talking about the next stage in the development of society, which requires the resolution of the exploitation contradiction (i.e. the ending of any form of exploitation). In other words, we are considering an even broader contradiction (which is difficult to express concisely in terms of its two poles) whose development started with primitive communalism (primitive communism), went through three stages of exploitative class society, will go through a transitional period of socialism, and will end up at the stage of modern communist society. And at that point further social development will be the result of yet other (or still more general) contradictions.)

But marking out the stages in the development of a single, overriding contradiction is apparently not what the RCP is up to with its doctrine of "spiral/conjuncture motion". In the paragraph I quoted above, for example, the key sentences are these: "We linked interimperialist rivalry and war with the destruction and restructuring dialectic of capital. And we sought to identify a characteristic (but not "typical" or always recurring) motion bound up with these processes." Note that ‘motion’ is singular while ‘processes’ is plural. In other words, they sought to talk about a single "motion" which represented two processes or developing contradictions, albeit two processes or contradictions that are related in various ways.

What I believe this meant in actual practice is that the Party saw two contradictions, and wanted to combine them—i.e., to treat them as one. Instead of keeping the two contradictions clear and distinct (while at the same time bringing out their many relationships and interactions), they in effect tried to combine them into a single contradiction. Such a methodology is bound to confuse things and lead to error.

The reader will have no doubt heard of the sin that we Maoists call "combining two into one". While this can mean simply failing to recognize a real contradiction in a thing and hence failing to recognize its two opposite, dialectical poles, it can also mean failing to recognize two different contradictions at work in a situation and attempting to treat them both as a single contradiction. (This second error here may actually amount to just one variation of the first error in the final analysis.)

Back in the Mao era there was an interesting article in Peking Review that said:

The law of the unity of opposites is the Marxist world outlook and methodology. Marxist world outlook means regarding all things as the unity of opposites in accordance with the law of self-movement and development of objective things, and Marxist methodology means using this law to know and change the world. This methodology is what is usually called the dialectical method of analysis. Lenin described it as "the splitting in two of a single whole" and Chairman Mao termed it "one divides into two".[5]

Of course there is more to the dialectical method of analysis than just the recognition of the actual contradictions in a thing, and recognizing the poles of those contradictions—though that is certainly the starting point. In particular, the next critical step is to determine the most important contradictions involved in the situation or process, both the most important overall (the "fundamental contradiction") and the most important at the given time (the "principal contradiction").

Thus the correct way to deal with a conglomeration of associated contradictions is not to confuse them together, to try to combine them into one "motion" somehow, and concentrate ones attention on them as a totality, but instead to further analyze them to see which are the most important contradictions and which are driving forward the process of development you are concerned with. After that, yet further analysis will reveal the subsidiary contradictions within the most important contradictions, which of the subsidiary contradictions are most important, how the subsidiary contradictions relate to each other, and so forth.

In short, I think the main methodological error with regard to the world situation that the RCP made back in the 1980s (other than an inadequate investigation of the objective situation) was not, as they see it, in the application of their conception of "spiral/conjuncture motion", but rather in the adoption and employment of that apparently metaphysical (undialectical) conception in the first place. Not only did this methodological error facilitate many of the worst mistakes in their "80s analysis", but it is still an important factor which prevents them from fully correcting those errors, and from analyzing the world situation today in a completely correct manner.

How the RCP Conception of "Spiral/Conjuncture Motion" Gets Them into Trouble

Now it might be argued that with its doctrine of "spiral/conjuncture motion" the RCP is not really merging two different contradictions and confusing them, but instead is simply trying to bring out the very important interrelationships of those two contradictions in detail. To see if this is really so, let’s look further into what they have to say.

The two contradictions that the RCP was (and is) attempting to treat as one (in my opinion), are these: The first contradiction was the interimperialist one between the Soviet bloc and the U.S. bloc. For short, I’ll call this the interimperialist political contradiction—though of course, like virtually all political contradictions, it had a material basis (in this case, a struggle over the world’s resources and the "right" to exploit the various parts of the world). The second contradiction is that behind capitalist economic difficulties and crises—which the NPE authors call here "the destruction and restructuring dialectic of capital". I’ll call this the internal economic contradiction—though of course it had/has all sorts of political and other ramifications.

(Of course each of these two contradictions themselves actually represents a subsidiary conglomeration of related contradictions. But within each of these two conglomerations there is a different leading, fundamental contradiction that we appropriately focus on. And reference to these fundamental contradictions often serves as a kind of shorthand reference to the respective conglomerations of contradictions as a whole. Also, at every level of analysis, contradictions governing processes below that level must be treated as a whole, as a totality. If you extend the analysis to those contradictions, you are moving to a more detailed or lower level of analysis. It is not always wrong to treat contradictions as a whole, as a totality, without considering their contradictory poles, their development, and so forth; it is only wrong to do so if these are important contradictions for the process you are considering, at the level of analysis you are working at.)

On page 1 of the Preface to NPE, we already find the statement that "‘Notes on Political Economy’ analyzes that the collapse of the social-imperialist Soviet Union and its bloc in 1989-91 represented a particular form of resolution of world contradictions that were coming to a head in the 1980s." Which contradictions in the world? All of them? All of the world contradictions that happened to be coming to a head at the time, regardless of their interconnections? It doesn’t say; it doesn’t even think to say. And that is because, under the influence of the spiral/conjuncture motion conception, it is lumping multiple contradictions together and treating them as a collective whole. Since it refers to "contradictions" here, in the plural, it presumably does not just mean the interimperialist political contradiction which was indeed clearly coming to a head in the 1980s. As for the other "world contradictions," it is not enough to assume that they must also have been coming to a head in the 1980s just because the interimperialist political contradiction was. (And even if some of them were also coming to a head at about the same time, it will not do to simply assume it was for the same reasons, or that the different contradictions were totally bound up as one.)

Dialectics (and specifically the law of the particularity of contradiction) demands that each contradiction must be analyzed separately, and that you cannot assume that all contradictions will develop in the same way, come to the head at the same time, be resolved in the same way, and so forth. In particular, if you want to claim that the world economic contradiction was also coming to a head in the 1980s you must provide specific evidence to show this, evidence essentially independent of that which you adduce to show that the interimperialist contradiction was coming to a head.

Note that of the two main contradictions the RCP was merging together, the one they gave emphasis to, the one they considered leading, was the interimperialist political contradiction:

We correctly stressed the role of politics and power relations, as opposed to seeing the "classical" capitalist cycle as the principal determinant of major leaps and transformations. We correctly analyzed the need of rival imperialisms to break out of a constricting framework of world relations. [NPE, p. 11]

Thus in the RCP analysis (both back in the 1980s and probably still today) it is the economic contradiction that gets subsumed into the interimperialist political contradiction, rather than vice-versa. (Doing it the other way around would be just as wrong, however.) Thus if the political contradiction is recognized as coming to a head, then the economic contradiction is assumed to also be coming to a head. If the political contradiction gets resolved, then the economic contradiction is also assumed to be resolved (at least pretty much so, and for the time being).

At one point the RCP suggests four possible interpretations of the 1989-91 "conjuncture":

How are we to understand the events and ramifications of 1989-91? How much of a turning point was this?

Four major explanations might be considered:

(A) There was a significant shift in interimperialist relations but this has not resulted in the overcoming of crisis—and thus no conjunctural resolution has occurred.

(B) This was a nodal point/conjunctural resolution, bringing about a breakdown in the "cold war" structure of international relations and a restructuring of the world imperialist economy—but a defining particularity of this resolution is the lack of expansiveness in the world economy.

(C) We are still on the same basic track as before the collapse of the Soviet Union—the alignments among the imperialists and manifold contradictions of the system are compelling violent redivision of the world.

(D) Not only has there been a major shift in interimperialist relations but in relation to this and owing to other dynamic factors in the world economy (notably globalization and new technologies), vast new possibilities have opened for capital; the world imperialist economy has, though not without bumps and adjustments, entered into an extended period of expansive accumulation and growth (perhaps even boom).

Our strong inclination is that (B) is correct, and this has been our working thesis. [NPE, p. 14.]

Now the first thing to note here is that all four of the above "major explanations" assume that the interimperialist political contradiction and the economic contradiction can be treated as a unity; that is, all four assume the "spiral/conjuncture motion" perspective. It does not even occur to the RCP to list any other possible interpretation of the 1989-91 events that does not lump these two contradictions together! They are so set in that way of thinking that they cannot imagine any other possibilities.

And thus, I for one, would say that the correct way to understand the events and ramifications of 1989-91 is as follows: It was indeed a resolution of the interimperialist political contradiction, and hence a nodal point in world history (I’ll avoid the word ‘conjuncture’!); but it was not a "resolution" of the world economic contradiction(s). It affected the economic contradiction(s), yes, but did not really resolve it/them. Western bloc economies have benefited to a small degree (so far anyway) by the new openings for investment on turf formerly closed to them, and on the other hand they have also been put at risk (again to a small degree overall) by the economic instabilities in the former Soviet bloc regions.

(Note, in particular, that my explanation is not the same as the RCP’s option (A): "There was a significant shift in interimperialist relations but this has not resulted in the overcoming of crisis—and thus no conjunctural resolution has occurred." It is hard to say what they might mean here by "significant shift in interimperialist relations", but with those words they are obviously shying away from the idea that maybe the interimperialist political contradiction was resolved. In fact they seem to be saying that if the economic contradiction did not get resolved, then the interimperialist political contradiction could not possibly have been resolved either, and hence only some "significant shift" in interimperialist relations would have occurred. They are so tied to the notion that the two contradictions must go hand in hand and get resolved together, that they cannot even put forward any other possibility—even for the purpose of dismissing it!)

Within the former Soviet Union, the economic contradictions—far from being resolved—have gotten hugely and qualitatively worse. Production has plummeted and economic life has been extremely chaotic. The life and condition of the masses has fallen precipitously, but even from the point of view of the now-openly-capitalist bourgeoisie in Russia, things are hardly going well. The plain fact is, both in the West and in Russia, the long-term, long-developing economic difficulties have not yet been resolved. Moreover, even most of the factors that have temporarily ameliorated those economic difficulties (in the U.S. in particular) have little or nothing to do with the fall of the Soviet Union. (One such factor is the colossal growth of consumer debt in the U.S.)

The RCP view here is really kind of weird. On the one hand they admit that there "is a lack of expansiveness in the world economy", but on the other hand they want to say that the economic contradiction was resolved. What kind of a "resolution" was that, for crying out loud?! According to Marx the resolution of an economic crisis of overproduction occurs through the destruction of excess capital, and at that point the stage is set for a renewed expansion. It seems to me that if you do not have that renewed expansion then you cannot possibly have had the resolution of the economic crisis yet. It really is that simple. (Or is it?! I’ll have to save any discussion of the "new economy", globalism, etc., for another occasion.)

The RCP remains very confused about all this. They qualify their "resolution" remark by saying: "But the specific resolution of contradictions was not very thorough, not very ‘purgative.’ This has resulted in certain particularities of this new spiral of development." [NPE, p. 14. Italics in original.] So, apparently they want to first say that the "conjuncture" of 1989-91 resolved both the world interimperialist political contradiction and the world economic contradiction, but then they want to come back and say in the fine print that the economic contradiction was only half-resolved, but that we are in the beginnings of a new (political and economic?) spiral anyway! And then, a few pages later, they say: "For these reasons, we do not think it is correct to characterize the overall situation faced by the imperialists today as one of ‘crisis’—or, more particularly, as one defined as the continuation of the same crisis that began in the mid-1970s." [NPE, pp. 18-19. Italics in original.] So they are back to saying that the economic crisis really was resolved, once again. This is the kind of mess, the kind of jumble, that you get into when you try to merge different contradictions together.

In reality, the long-running and long-developing economic crisis in the Western capitalist world (and the U.S. in particular), which began in the early 1970s, is by no means resolved! The RCP cannot see this basic fact about world capitalism for a variety of reasons: (1) they don’t correctly understand the nature of economic crises, including how they have changed in the imperialist era; (2) they are overly impressed by the house-of-cards financial/speculative boom in the U.S. during the 90s (i.e. their understanding of events is impressionistic or pragmatic); and, (3) getting back to the current document and theme, they have been misled by their anti-dialectical conception of spiral/conjuncture motion that in effect attempts to analyze and understand economic contradictions in terms of quite different political ones.

Eventually, the RCP document does get around to saying that:

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the "cold war" structure of international relations have brought the resolution of certain contradictions—at the same time that others persist and sharpen, and as some aspects and factors of the new situation already show signs of turning into their opposite, such as the financial turmoil in East Asia. [NPE, p. 23.]

They had to say something like that in light of the economic crisis in East Asia that broke out in 1997-98, and is still not totally over. They could not continue saying that everything got resolved (or "half-resolved") with all hell breaking out in Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, etc. And with comments such as that aspects of the new situation are showing "signs of turning into their opposite" they in effect cover themselves regardless of what happens in the future. But they still stick to their theory that a new economic or socioeconomic spiral began c. 1991, which could only have occurred if the old one was essentially resolved at that time.

In sum, the RCP sees correctly that the interimperialist contradiction between the U.S. and Soviet camps got resolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they still refuse to even consider the possibility that the major economic contradictions in the world might not have been resolved along with that political contradiction.

The "Spiral/Conjuncture Motion" Doctrine Should be Scrapped or At Least Modified

What is a "conjuncture" anyway? It is a coming-together of circumstances, events and developments, producing a crisis and/or turning point. That is what the word usually means. Do such things happen? Of course they do. And for that reason all talk about "conjunctures" is not wrong. The word, in fact, is a perfectly good one if not abused. But if someone interprets the notion of conjunctures in such a way that it means mashing together very different contradictions, ignoring the particularity of contradiction and "combining two into one", then they are definitely abusing the term.

Let’s look again at the RCP theory of "Spiral/Conjuncture Motions". In the NPE Glossary [p. 54], they give this definition:

Spiral/conjuncture motion: A particular motion in the working out of world contradictions in the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution.

A spiral of world development is a stage or period in the development of the contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation (which is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism). Each spiral is shaped by a specific set of contradictions and factors on a world scale—involving in particular, thus far in the history of imperialism, the relations among the imperialists (mainly their struggles over the division of the world) and the relations between the imperialists and the forces opposed to them. A spiral is also an international framework within which capital accumulates.

At certain points in the development of spirals, the contradictions of the world system become intensely heightened and tightly interwoven, leading to violent explosions (such as world wars and revolutions) and/or dramatic shifts (such as the collapse of the former Soviet Union). These are world-historic conjunctures through which the contradictions characteristic of a particular spiral are resolved (though only temporarily and partially) and through which there is a qualitative recasting of world relations.

Twice in this century, world wars were the nodal, or key turning, points of spirals.

Imperialism has developed through this spiral/conjuncture motion. And the development of the world proletarian revolution has so far taken place as part of this underlying motion of imperialism, while at the same time reacting back on it.

(Note that the RCP seems to say, at the beginning of the second paragraph quoted above, that, contrary to what I suggested earlier, spirals of world development in the imperialist era are indeed stages in the development of a single, general contradiction—specifically, the contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation. But as they themselves note, this is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism as a whole, and not just of the imperialist stage of capitalism. That is, it is too general a contradiction to by itself explain the spiral stages of development of imperialism. It still comes down to the fact that for "each spiral" they want to merge together political and economic contradictions, and treat them as a unity.)

I hope you can see by now what this all really amounts to. First you lump all the important "contradictions and factors" together into a big basket which you call "the current spiral". Then you assume, without discussion and without argument and without careful examination of the development of each of these contradictions, that at a certain critical point all these "contradictions of the world system become intensely heightened and tightly interwoven" which leads to an explosion of some kind. Then, again without any discussion or argument or careful examination of each contradiction, you assume that all the "contradictions characteristic of a particular spiral are resolved". And that, my friends, is a highly creative and excellent new way to get yourself into a hopeless metaphysical muddle.

There is another important thing to note. The definition above says that each spiral is shaped not only by interimperialist and economic contradictions, but also by "the relations between the imperialists and the forces opposed to them". Presumably this includes these two major contradictions: the world-wide contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie; and the contradiction between imperialist powers and countries they exploit and which to varying degrees are under their control, especially third-world countries.

An embarrassing question for the RCP: If you’re going to claim that all the major world contradictions were resolved with that 1989-91 "conjuncture", were these two contradictions also resolved? Well, actually, of course, the second of these contradictions was partially resolved. That is, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet imperialism also collapsed, and thus the contradiction between Soviet imperialism and most (not quite all) of the countries and regions under its imperial control was also resolved. Sometimes, indeed, this just meant switching over to the orbit of Germany or the U.S., or in other words, switching imperial masters (a process which in the era of neocolonialism takes a bit of time and is still going on). Nevertheless, the precise existing contradictions between Soviet social-imperialism and the countries under its thumb were in fact resolved. However, the 1989-91 "conjuncture" in no way resolved the contradictions between U.S. imperialism and other Western imperialist powers, on the one hand, and all the countries that they dominate and exploit, on the other hand. Indeed, as I suggested just above, this larger, more important part of the contradiction actually grew sharper.

Moreover, the first of these two contradictions, the world contradiction between the proletariat and the capitalists—which we Marxists have long considered to be the fundamental contradiction in the world—was in no conceivable way "resolved", not even partially, not even in one part of the world. If anything, it has greatly intensified, especially in the former Soviet bloc.

How is it, do you suppose, that the RCP did not notice this glaring inconsistency?! The answer is, they are not closely examining their own theories with a critical eye, and have not been interested—at least up to now—in listening to anyone outside the Party who critically examines their line either.

Where did this conception of "spiral/conjuncture motion" come from anyway? As far as I know it is a creation of the RCP itself, with the major exposition being in America in Decline (1984).[6] But, as with all ideas, good and bad, there is a historical development to the notion, and there are earlier hints and antecedents. In his 1984 book, A Horrible End, or An End to the Horror, Bob Avakian seems to trace the basic idea back to Stalin who said in 1924: "The significance of the imperialist war which broke out ten years ago lies, among other things, in the fact that it gathered all these contradictions into a single knot and threw them on to the scales, thereby accelerating and facilitating the revolutionary battles of the proletariat."[7] The contradictions that Stalin refers to here are the three main world political contradictions of the period, "the contradiction between labor and capital", "the contradiction among the various financial groups and imperialist Powers in their struggle for sources of raw materials, for foreign territory" (i.e., the interimperialist contradiction or contradictions), and "the contradiction between the handful of ruling, ‘civilized’ nations and the hundreds of millions of the colonial and dependent peoples of the world".[8]

Now, first of all, is Stalin a top-notch guide when it comes to matters of dialectics? Quite the opposite, as a number of his very major errors demonstrate (such as his denial that class contradictions continued under socialism). Compared to exquisite dialecticians like Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, Stalin cuts a very poor figure indeed, and his comments on the topic need to be treated with a great deal of skepticism. Still, in the sentence that Avakian quoted, Stalin at least is talking about three political contradictions coming together, and coming together in one particular historical circumstance. Moreover, he does not argue that they all got resolved together! In other words, there is a suggestion of some possible incorrect generalizations and extrapolations in Stalin’s remark, but he himself does not go down that road.

The RCP seems to have taken Stalin’s remark and run wild with it. First they generalized Stalin’s observation about World War I into a recurring spiral notion, with additional nodal points in World War II and in 1989-91. So far that seems ok (depending on what you do with such a generalization). Then they tried to further "deepen" it by mixing in specifically economic contradictions with the world political contradictions. Finally, they really threw caution to the winds and started treating (for each "conjuncture") the whole conglomeration of contradictions as one contradiction, with a single, uniform development, and a single mode and time of resolution. If they hadn’t taken this last foolish step, we might have looked at what they were doing as rather innocuous, even if it wasn’t totally correct. But blatantly ignoring the particularity of contradiction brings down the whole house of cards.

What the RCP has ended up doing with its doctrine of "spiral/conjuncture motion" is discrediting any talk about "conjunctures" at all. I, for one, will henceforth raise an extremely skeptical eye whenever I see them use that term. Really, the best thing for them to do at this point, would be to criticize themselves for adopting this metaphysical (anti-dialectical) doctrine, and then abandon it completely. However, that may be very hard for them to do. In 1984 Bob Avakian wrote that "It is crucial, then, to grasp this spiral/conjuncture motion in its sweeping historical dimension and as a basic orientation—including the fact that in a fundamental and overall sense the development of the world proletarian revolution has so far taken place as part of this motion and its ‘rhythm’…"[9] (My emphasis.) Hmmm, their basic orientation.

If the RCP is unable to throw out the whole doctrine of "spiral/conjuncture motion" as the bad penny it seems to be, at the very least they ought to renounce their inclusion within this doctrine of the anti-dialectical rejection of the particularity of contradiction. In other words, at the very least they ought to drastically reinterpret the doctrine.

The RCP Analysis of its Methodological Errors

The RCP has not recognized either the role that its failure to adequately investigate the actual world situation (specifically the Soviet Union) nor the role the "spiral/conjuncture motion" conception itself played in fostering the errors they now recognize in their 1980s analysis. Consequently, they are forced to look for other sources of their difficulties. There is probably some validity in criticizing some of these other sources of error—they actually did contribute, perhaps—, but they should really be recognized as secondary problems, as secondary sources of error. Moreover, there seems to be a tendency for the Party to go too far in some of their philosophical and methodological self-criticisms, and in the formulation of new methodological principles based on their recent negative experience. Since they are taking secondary problems to be the primary problems, they not only give undue emphasis to the dangers involved there, but tend to exaggerate certain tendencies as dangerous sources of error in general.

Here is one of their summaries of their methodological self-criticism:

One thing that has become apparent, both in reviewing our past theoretical work and in analyzing the present situation, is the need to make further ruptures with "Third International methodology." By this we mean notions of linear and preordained, or what we have sometimes called "typical," development—that is, history obeying fixed or always recurring patterns. This methodology also involves notions of "absolute thresholds"—development having a fixed end-point or reaching a point past which this or that has to happen. This methodology, which guided much of the theoretical work of the Third International of communist parties in the 1920s and 1930s, cuts against understanding the real dialectical process of social development and the dynamic role of conscious, revolutionary practice. [NPE, p. 6]

There are two main implicit principles that they have arrived at here, and I can’t quite go along with either one of them, though each has an element of truth in it. Let’s consider each in turn.

Does History Present "Typical" Developments, or Recurring Patterns?

"Laws are things which appear over and over, not accidentally, in the movements of phenomena." —Mao Zedong[10]

Does history present "typical" developments, or recurring patterns? Sometimes it does, and sometimes it does not. That is the actual truth of the matter. But the RCP seems now to be saying that it doesn’t, period. That is way too extreme of a position.

In his book The Character of Physical Law, the famous physicist Richard Feynman remarks that:

Every once in a while you read in the paper that physicists have discovered that one of their favorite laws is wrong. Is it then a mistake to say that a law is true in a region where you have not yet looked? If you will never say that a law is true in a region where you have not already looked you do not know anything. If the only laws that you find are those which you have just finished observing then you can never make any predictions. Yet the only utility of science is to go on to try to make guesses. So what we always do is to stick our necks out, and in the case of energy the most likely thing is that it is conserved in other places.[11]

Feynman exaggerates quite a bit here; it is wrong to call these generalizations "guesses". To guess, says the dictionary, is "to form an opinion of from little or no evidence". But of course the point of science is to develop theories that are based on good evidence, and in the best cases, on overwhelming evidence. These theories in turn allow us to make scientific predictions that are not mere guesses.[12]

But Feynman’s main point is entirely correct. As he puts it later in the same book, "In order to avoid simply describing experiments that have been done, we have to propose laws beyond their observed range."[13] If you can’t do this, you haven’t got a science yet. If you think you don’t need to do this, then you don’t even know what science is.

In the case of the historical sciences, our ability to carry out scientific experiments is very circumscribed. But we can study past developments, look for patterns, and see if we can come to understand the scientific laws behind these patterns. Then, if these laws are still operative, we can make predictions about the future, and specifically a scientific prediction that that same pattern will happen again.

This is exactly what Marx did in the case of capitalist economic crises, for example. He and many other people began to notice a pattern, that these crises were not one-time things, but that they recurred. Most capitalists and their apologists thought each crisis was due to some peculiar or accidental factor or misstep by the government, or whatever, and therefore future crises need not occur. A few, more realistic, people deduced that crises would continue to happen from time to time even though they couldn’t begin to say why. This was a kind of pragmatic guess-work, though with each additional crisis it became a more reasonable opinion. But Marx analyzed the economic laws that underlie capitalism and which inevitably result in crises. He found that crises are inherent in the very workings of capitalism. Since capitalism still existed, and since these laws of capitalist political economy were still operative, he was able to scientifically predict that capitalist economic crises would continue to break out in the future. And of course he has been proven correct.

Now suppose that an emissary from the RCP were to time-travel back to Marx’s day, and walk up and knock on Marx’s door. "Listen, Marx," this missionary for the "advanced" ideas of the present-day might say, "you’re making a big methodological mistake here by claiming you can predict that capitalist economic crises will occur in the future. You seem to think, Karl—may I call you Karl?—that history obeys fixed and always recurring patterns. It just ain’t so! You’re so mechanical, Karl, and stuck in what we call a ‘typical motion’ style of thinking. We advise you to wise up!"

Ah, my! Us moderns. I would love to be there to hear Marx’s response. I imagine it would be something along these lines: "Did you guys ever hear of something called science?!"

What the RCP appears to be implying is that we cannot make predictions in social science! Or at least that we cannot identify regularities in history which we can scientifically analyze, generalize and use to predict the future. This is a deeply anti-scientific point of view similar to that of Karl Popper and his anti-"historicism".

It is certainly true, of course, that our Marxist social science does not enable us to predict everything about the future! In some areas our science is capable of making very definite predictions, and in lots of other areas it is not. Sometimes we can scientifically predict that something will occur, but we can predict little about the timing. Marx’s analysis of capitalist crises, for example, was capable of predicting that they would definitely continue, but he could not predict the exact timing of them. (And we still can’t. It appears that the timing, and to some degree the nature, of crises has changed in the imperialist era, though no one has yet really explained why.)[14]

How the RCP Weakens Lenin’s Law that "Imperialism Means War"

Lenin’s law that "imperialism means war" is like this too. What it says is that, if imperialism continues to exist, eventually there will be interimperialist war. It doesn’t say when, or even under what precise conditions, it just says eventually. But like Marx’s predictions of future economic crises, Lenin’s law is based on a scientific analysis; i.e., it is, in my opinion, a genuine scientific law. (And not a mere impressionistic, or pragmatic recognition of regularities. After all, Lenin came up with it after just one interimperialist world war had developed, and before that first world war had even ended.)

There is a nice story in this connection. The liberal American journalist George Seldes interviewed Lenin in the early 1920s. Writing in 1929 about their conversation, Seldes said:

On another occasion he [Lenin] showed the same stubborn prejudices which characterize all the revolutionary leaders.

"When is the war between Japan and America coming?" he asked. He was assured there would be no war because there are no causes for war. "But there must be war," he insisted, "because capitalist countries cannot exist without wars."[15]

As I mention elsewhere, the funny thing about this is not that Lenin was so very prescient about a future war at a time when few if any others saw it coming, and which broke out 17 years after he died. The real humor comes from the fact that the bourgeois journalist Seldes was so cock-sure that Lenin must be wrong about it!

It is interesting to see how the RCP’s mis-prediction of world war in the 1980s, and their new anti-"typical motion" principle that they summed up because of it, is being used to attack Lenin’s law that "imperialism means war". Basically they tried to apply Lenin’s law mechanically during the 1980s (that is, without thorough investigation of the actual situation, especially the situation in the Soviet Union), and merely assumed that "because of this law" a world war was inevitable between the Soviet Union and the U.S. When it didn’t happen, they came up with a new methodological principle that says in effect, "you can’t really make laws like that", laws that predict any definite effect or result. However, they know that directly rejecting Lenin’s law that "imperialism means war" will raise more than a few doubtful eyebrows, and (perhaps for lingering dogmatic reasons) they are still pretty uneasy about rejecting it themselves—even if it does seem to be in conflict with their new methodological principle. So, for now, they are content to just water down the law.

Whereas the "typical thinker" Lenin said that interimperialist wars were inevitable, the RCP now says "not until imperialism is overthrown can the possibility of interimperialist wars be eliminated." [NPE, p. 9. Emphasis in original.] What used to be thought inevitable, is now only a "possibility".

As you read the following extract from NPE, keep in mind Lenin’s law that "imperialism means war":

Spirals do in fact reach a stage where violent resolution becomes necessary. World war has until now represented the most thorough resolution of the contradictions defining a particular spiral. And the imperialists do recognize and act on this necessity—in some form or another, at some level of consciousness or another, as expressed in policy as well as in intra-ruling-class struggle.

But the compulsion toward war need not lead only to all-out war, or to advances of the world revolution that qualitatively alter the matrix. Other pathways or outcomes are possible: trade and economic wars that grow more intense and enveloping, geopolitical maneuvering, proxy wars, cold wars, etc. In short, underlying compulsion does not always lead to the same results. But, to be clear, there is motion toward convulsive resolution, and twice in this century world war has been the form this has assumed… and this was a likely form of resolution of the contradictions of the 1980s. [NPE, pp. 9-10.]

This seems to suggest that heretofore and still today the RCP interprets Lenin’s law to mean that each new spiral of imperialism does involve a compulsion toward interimperialist world war. But whereas before they thought that the compulsion toward war would inevitably lead to war, now they recognize that sometimes the compulsion toward war does not lead to war. First of all, that is a very peculiar way of putting things! Why would you want to describe something that might just lead to "trade wars" and "geopolitical maneuvering" as a compulsion toward war in the first place? It really seems like a misuse of the words. I guess the RCP recognizes this, to a degree, and so they seem to suggest revising the old "compulsion toward war" formula to read: compulsion toward… "convulsive resolution".

But the deeper problem here is that they are still trying to combine Lenin’s law about imperialist war with their doctrine of spiral/conjuncture motion, and the two don’t fit together perfectly. Lenin never said that every imperialist spiral leads to war! It is the RCP that implicitly came up with this formulation in the 1980s, and it proved to be wrong in 1989-91 (even if it was correct the first two times around—WWI and WWII).

As far as I am concerned, the failure of the RCP’s "compound law of war" (that each imperialist spiral ends with an interimperialist war) in no way invalidates Lenin’s original law that interimperialist war is inevitable (unless imperialism is destroyed first). All it means is that it hasn’t happened yet. (And that not every interimperialist contention ends in war—though we knew that already. Didn’t we??)

It is indeed important to carefully examine the interimperialist struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet blocs, as the RCP is trying to do, to try to come to understand how it was that world war was avoided this last time. Because we did come damned close! (Far closer than most people realize.) Some new factors are undoubtedly very important, such as the unparalleled capability for destruction of both home countries via nuclear weapons. I’m sure this made both ruling classes a lot more cautious (especially the Soviets). In fact, I’m pretty sure that if it had not been for the existence of nuclear weapons, there would have actually been a world war between the two blocs, probably well before the 1980s.

But even if new factors like this invalidated the RCP’s "compound law of war" (by making it somewhat less likely that any particular imperialist struggle will lead to war between the contending parties), I don’t think they invalidate Lenin’s original law of interimperialist war. That is, I am still convinced that sooner or later, there will be at least one more interimperialist war (unless, as currently appears unlikely, world imperialism is overthrown first). In addition, there will of course be lots of regional and neocolonial wars, some of which will also very likely involve nuclear weapons. Even with the existence of weapons of mass destruction, we came extremely close to another world war at least twice in the second half of the 20th century. The 21st century is not going to be any heaven on earth, any more than the 20th century was. The imperialist nightmare continues.

This is one of the reasons that I am extremely suspicious of any new methodological principle that implies that laws such as Lenin’s law of interimperialist war may be outmoded, or "typical thinking". That sounds downright foolish and utopian to me.

Later on, NPE returns to these questions, and focuses more specifically on some basic Leninist theses:

The above analysis throws up an unsettling issue. If the resolution of acute interimperialist antagonism could be achieved through relatively "peaceful" means, does this call into question basic Leninist theses about this era? Does the fact the imperialists faced the need to avoid all-out war mean that Khrushchev was right after all about the "three peacefuls" (peaceful transition to socialism, peaceful coexistence between social systems, peaceful competition)? In particular does this mean that a prospect for peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism opens up?

The emphatic answer is: NO. We have discussed a historically specific interimperialist compulsion to avoid world war in the 1980s. But in relation to the basic class antagonism, the imperialist ruling classes do not face an equivalent compulsion. The defense and preservation of their class rule involves a qualitatively different contradiction. They do not face the necessity to voluntarily step aside and relinquish their class rule. The violent seizure of power remains necessary for resolving the fundamental class antagonism.

Nor does it follow from this account of the resolution of this particular interimperialist antagonism that Karl Kautsky has been vindicated about "ultra-imperialism"—the theory that the major powers could essentially manage their differences peacefully. There can be no more or less "permanent truce" among the imperialists. Even if they might avoid all-out nuclear war for a prolonged or indefinite period of time, there will continue to be imperialist wars of various kinds, including "indirect" military conflicts among the imperialists. For example, there are "proxy wars" in which the imperialists fight each other indirectly by means of client regimes, or movements they dominate or manipulate. [NPE, pp. 12-13.]

I’m happy to see, first of all, that the RCP continues to strongly defend most of Lenin’s theses with regard to imperialism and revolution. The last few sentences even seem to defend Lenin’s law that "imperialism means war".

However, once again here, they seem to be watering it down somewhat. They put the emphasis on insisting that other kinds imperialist wars will continue to happen, such as "proxy wars", and the like. They don’t explicitly rule out outright interimperialist world war, but they don’t reaffirm its inevitability either (unless imperialism is destroyed first).

Sometimes people learn "too much" from their negative experiences. Mark Twain remarked that

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.[16]

Like the singed cat, the RCP has generalized too much in summarizing the negative experience of its 1980s analysis. The new methodological principles (such as the anti-"typical motion" principle) that the RCP has summed up are not always, or even generally valid. And these principles are already leading the Party into further errors, such as with regard to their thinking about Lenin’s law of imperialist war. Under the influence of their new wishy-washy methodological principles, the RCP seems to me to be already leaning toward a number of wishy-washy political positions.

Thresholds and "Absolute" Thresholds

What about the second new RCP methodological principle, the rejection of "absolute thresholds", i.e., rejection of the idea that development has a fixed endpoint, or that when certain points (thresholds) are reached certain definite events must transpire?

First, to see that ideas about thresholds are not total nonsense, let’s consider a "simple" physical example, the boiling point of water. (I put "simple" in quotes because actually—like everything else when you look at it closely enough—boiling is a very complicated process.) When water is raised to 100° Celsius it boils. That is, when the temperature of water reaches a certain threshold, a qualitative change does in fact occur. So you cannot reasonably say that the notion of definite thresholds is incorrect. On the contrary, it is an important and often indispensable scientific conception.

"Ah!," but the RCP might say, "100 degrees is not an absolute threshold! That only holds at standard sea level pressures. If you go to the top of a mountain the boiling point of water is less than 100°, and if you boil water in a pressure cooker the boiling point is more than 100°."

And that is true. But at a given pressure the boiling point of a liquid is a constant and is defined as that temperature at which its maximum (or "saturated") vapor pressure is equal to the prevailing atmospheric pressure. Thus at a pressure of about 17 mm of mercury, water boils at room temperature.[17] So, for a given pressure, there is a definite threshold (boiling point) at which water boils.

However, that is not the end of the story either. (In science there is seldom really an "end" to the story!) The boiling point of water, like other liquids, changes if you dissolve substances in it, or if you mix it with other liquids with higher or lower volatility. Moreover, even at a given pressure, a pure liquid doesn’t necessarily boil at its boiling point! "If kept perfectly quiet, and especially if covered with a film of oil, water may be raised several degrees above its normal boiling point, before it suddenly boils with explosive violence; it then returns to its true boiling point."[18] A liquid raised above its boiling point without beginning to boil is called "superheated".

So does this all mean that the RCP point of view is correct here, that really there is no "absolute" threshold where water boils, even if you attempt to hold everything else constant? Well this begins to be a matter of semantics; just what do you mean by "absolute" in this context? It is probably true that there is no end to refinements one can make with regard to the boiling point of water, special conditions affecting it, and so forth. So in that sense, there is no "absolute" threshold, no infinitely precise point where water will inevitably begin to boil even if we do everything in our power to hold all the relevant conditions constant.

But this is actually rather disingenuous. In practice we can pretty easily hold enough of the relevant conditions sufficiently constant so that we can cause water to boil at a very definite threshold, its boiling point at that pressure, or at least so close to that point that measuring the difference becomes a very difficult problem. We can hold the pressure very close to constant—that is the first and most important task. And we can make sure the water is very close to pure (though never quite 100%)—that is a somewhat less important, though still relatively important task. We can pretty much avoid the problem of superheating in the laboratory by adding "small pieces of inert material having sharp corners" into the distillation flask. These sharp corners promote the formation of bubbles of vapor when the liquid reaches the boiling point.[19] This is a tertiary refinement to our procedure.

In short, it is really not very difficult in practice to set things up so that water boils at a very definite threshold (or within a very narrow range of temperatures around that threshold). It is really not very difficult to set things up so that water must boil at an "absolute" threshold—unless you are determined to be terribly pedantic about what that is supposed to mean. For all practical purposes it is indeed an absolute. And this is why I cannot go along with the new RCP principle against "absolute thresholds" as applied in science in general. To the extent that it is valid, it is ridiculously pedantic.

OK, suppose someone sympathetic to the RCP "anti-thresholds" principle agrees with me here for the case of boiling water and even for many other physical processes. It would still be open to them to say something like, "But what you are forgetting is that society is far more complex than water. The conditions affecting what will happen in society are far more variable, and include that most notorious of things, individual human states of mind, human psychology. Because of factors like that, which no one can really take into full account, it is simply impossible to ever say that anything in society must happen at any given ‘absolute’ threshold."

Is there anything to arguments like that? Well, of course there is. There is something to them, but not as much as people think!

First of all, physical processes too are very complex, far more complex than people tend to imagine. I think that most people imagine that boiling water is a rather simple process, even from a physics standpoint, but that is very far from the case. In addition to the complications I have already mentioned above there are many others. There are many different types of boiling for example, such as nucleate boiling (where the water directly touches the pan)—which comes in at least two varieties, subcooled nucleate boiling (local boiling that is soon extinguished as its heat is dispersed) and saturated nucleate boiling. Then there is film boiling, in which the steam being produced forms a film between the pan and the rest of the water. This cuts down on the efficiency of the heat transfer in complicated ways. Film boiling itself comes in several varieties.[20] I won’t go on any more about this, but I just want everyone to understand that the physics of boiling water is a very complicated subject, and I doubt that any scientist working in the field would claim that it is completely understood, even today.[21]

Those who say that physics is simple while social science is complex often don’t understand how complex physical science really is. Some of them have been misled by a few contemporary physicists and science writers with their foolish talk about some hoped-for "theory of everything" and how a few simple equations will then "explain everything." I am sorry to inform you folks, the physical world is vastly more complicated than anything like that! Science doesn’t even know everything there is to know about plain old water (even though what it does know about water would fill at least one very fat book), let alone everything about everything that exists in the universe.

I think that in some ways social science is actually simpler than physics or biology. One of the reasons that it appears so complex is that lower level sciences need to be brought in sometimes, such as psychology, biology, and yes, even chemistry and physics on occasion (such as in discussions of social environmental problems). But overall, social science is at a much higher level of abstraction and analysis than are the physical sciences, and has its own emergent phenomena (such as social classes, capital, and surplus value) and its own scientific laws concerning these phenomena. There are no doubt more laws of society to be discovered and further refinements to existing laws, but those laws that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and others have discovered so far are not really mind-numbingly complex. This is more than you can say about quantum electrodynamics or the complexities of molecular biology. Even the most complex and involved area of genuine social science, namely the Marxist political economy of capitalism, is pretty simple and straightforward compared to cell biology, for instance.

Let me make an analogy here. Consider the complexities of automobiles or sewing machines on the one hand, compared to the complexities of quantum mechanics and particle physics which supposedly explain the functioning of everything in the world at a much lower level (including cars and sewing machines). Which is worse? Which is hardest to understand? Well, surely quantum mechanics is (and that is true even if we avoid the notorious philosophical questions that the interpretation of quantum mechanics gets us into). Sure, cars and sewing machines are complicated, and it takes some study and effort to understand exactly how they work. But this is something that ordinary people can do if they choose. You don’t have to be a mathematical whiz, or get a Ph.D., or anything. But think about what this means! It means that sometimes, at least, understanding how things work at a higher level of analysis is easier than understanding the world at a lower level of analysis. It is quite possible that the scientific laws governing society might be far simpler than the scientific laws governing the life of a single cell in your skin for example. Personally, I have no doubt that this is really the case.

So I’m just not very impressed by the claims we frequently hear that society or political economy is just so terribly complicated compared to the subject matter of biology or physics—let alone the claims that many bourgeois writers make, that society is too complex to understand at all!

Many findings and laws in all spheres of science are formulated in terms of thresholds. They must be formulated in such terms, because thresholds are the essence of these facts or laws! In physics we have all kinds of thresholds, including what we may reasonably consider fixed or "absolute" thresholds under certain conditions. We have boiling points, freezing points, all kinds of critical values (such as the threshold energy for knocking an electron loose from a particular atom), critical masses (for different elements prone to radioactive chain-reactions), orbital velocity, escape velocity, the Schwarzschild radius (for black holes), and many, many others. In biology we have neuron firing thresholds, myriad thresholds concerned with cell biochemistry, and so forth. Physiology is a gold mine of important thresholds. Our eyes are capable of seeing electromagnetic radiation when its wavelength reaches a certain threshold (violet light at just under 400 mm) and does not exceed another threshold (red light up to just under 700 mm). Normal human beings with good hearing can first detect sounds (at the optimal frequency of 2000 Hz) at a threshold pressure of .0002 dynes per square centimeter (which is conventionally called 0 decibels). The frequency of sounds that a normal, young human being can hear range from around 30 Hz to 20,000 Hz, which are thus two auditory thresholds of another type. (Alas, in old age the range narrows to 50 Hz – 8,000 Hz, or less.) If the partial pressure of oxygen in the lungs exceeds the threshold of about 1520 mm of mercury, oxygen poisoning results. The list goes on and on.[22]

Thresholds pervade science! And a great many of them, including most or all of those mentioned above, are usually in practice fixed or "absolute" thresholds. In the strictest sense none of these may be "absolute" thresholds, but in specific contexts, under standard conditions and so forth, and within reasonable limits, virtually all of them are. That is their utility.

But what about social science, and political economy specifically? Here too we find many thresholds, and many of them are pretty much fixed, or "absolute", under standard conditions and in specific contexts. When, for example, do the capitalists invest in new plants and machinery? Although there are individual exceptions and miscalculations, in general, and normally, they invest when they have a reasonable expectation that the new investment will return profits at least at the level of the prevailing average rate of profit. That is, they invest when profit expectations reach a certain threshold, and not before. Another example comes in the concept of differential rent, which in agriculture is the rent over and above the threshold level of absolute rent (the rent a land owner can still obtain on the worst land being farmed). Likewise, the prices of agricultural commodities must rise to the threshold value determined by the production conditions on the worst plots of land which it is necessary to farm to meet market demand.

It is true, of course, that in social science and political economy—as in other spheres of science—not all thresholds are definite and fixed (even under standard or prevailing conditions) in the way that the examples mentioned above are. Sometimes we really do have to talk about a much more vague type of threshold. Marx gave a classic example of this in his famous presentation of the principles of historical materialism in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.[23]

Marx is evidently talking about a threshold of sorts here, a stage in the development of an economic system when the relations of production become more of a hindrance than a force propelling production forward. But this is at a very high level of abstraction and generality. At what year in European feudal society was this threshold reached? When, even, in the development of capitalism did it happen, exactly? There is no precise answer to such questions, and not simply because our knowledge of history is incomplete. These are not quite the same sorts of definite thresholds that boiling points are.

It may even be true that this vaguer, more indefinite type of threshold may be more common in social science than in the physical and biological sciences (though they occur there as well). That is a question I will have to think about some more.

It is not my intention to deny that there is ever any validity to the new RCP methodological "principle" against "absolute" thresholds. But I am convinced that it is not generally valid, and I know for sure that it is not always valid, even in social science—let alone in science in general.

When we talk about principles we usually have in mind certain general statements which are either always true, or at least generally true. If you enshrine generalizations which are only sometimes true as principles, you are doing something which is very likely to mislead both you and others in the future. And this is true even if those "principles" might actually be valid, or partly valid, in the particular case you are summing up.

You’ve got to be pretty careful with new abstract principles! Give them a great deal of thought before you adopt them and promote them. If they are only half-truths (or less!), these "principles" are very dangerous indeed!

Tendencies and Tendential Laws

A third new methodological "principle", one which the RCP says lies behind the other two, is the claim that social laws are only tendencies. Do they really mean to say that all social laws are only tendencies? Apparently so. At the beginning of Part I of NPE, the authors state:

Theory is a complex and ordered structure of abstractions that is drawn from reality, which has different levels of determination, and it enables us to more deeply know and change reality. Human society, like other processes, is dynamic, changing, and full of contingency (chance, accident, the role of unpredictable developments and events, etc.). But the development of human society is regulated by laws and is knowable—although these laws do not operate mechanically and in a straight-line way but rather as tendencies. [NPE, p. 7]

Much of what they literally say here is correct, though some of the implications may not be. In any case, the assertion about tendencies in the last sentence is not correct. You could argue that the assertion about tendencies is totally incorrect; but I will only argue that it too absolute, too extreme. So let’s consider that last sentence carefully.

First, it is indeed true that social laws do not operate "mechanically", but which scientific laws do operate mechanically?! If you look closely at the world, you will find that none of them do! Well, of course that depends on what you mean by "mechanical". If all you mean by "mechanical" is operating like a mechanism, then a mechanical pocket watch does indeed operate according to mechanical laws (which include the laws of quantum electrodynamics, plus some higher level "laws" or principles appropriate to the type of mechanism—watches). But there is also a different use of the word ‘mechanical’ in Marxist philosophy. There it means something like "undialectical". And in that sense there are no genuine scientific laws that are truly "mechanical"—whether we are talking about the physical world, or biology or human society.

If NPE is just saying here that social laws, like all scientific laws, are dialectical and not mechanical, then I agree with them. But if they are suggesting that social laws, unlike scientific laws in physics and biology, are never at all like the physical laws governing "mechanisms"—then I disagree with them. In that case they are very mistaken and quite dogmatic.

My initial point here is just that the RCP is talking about several different things at once (which seems to be a tendency of theirs!). One can agree with them that social laws "do not operate mechanically and in a straight-line way" and yet disagree with them that social laws always operate as "tendencies".

What are tendencies anyway? Let’s really think about that for a few minutes. The dictionary says that a tendency is a "direction or approach toward a place, object, effect, or limit" or that it is "a proneness to a particular kind of thought or action". In talking about various related words, it says that "Tendency implies an inclination sometimes amounting to an impelling force [as in] ‘a general tendency towards inflation’".[24] I would assume, then, that in saying that social laws are tendencies, the RCP is saying something along the lines of that last dictionary comment, that social laws merely express inclinations, but inclinations which (always? often? sometimes?) amount to an impelling force.

Even with that "impelling force" bit added on, talking about inclinations, or something being prone to happen, is obviously pretty weak in comparison with saying that, under certain specified conditions, something will happen. It is very much a watering-down of the concept of scientific laws. In fact, you could reasonably argue that if something is only a tendency, it is not a law at all. (I have a tendency to over-eat, but despite what my wife thinks, this is not a scientific law!) A law, in the sense of scientific law, is (according to the dictionary) "a statement of an order or relation of phenomena that so far as is known is invariable under the given conditions".[25] Note well that word invariable. The whole point in talking about scientific laws rather than mere tendencies is (normally at least) to say that something definite will happen under the stated (or implied) conditions. Thus to talk about all social "laws" as mere tendencies seems to be to deny that there really are any scientific laws of society, properly speaking.

"When we think of a law of nature we think of a statement not just true usually or for the most part, but strictly and universally true."[26] And that is the way we tend to think of not just laws of nature, but of all scientific laws. Moreover, when we find that under certain conditions some law does not actually hold true, we normally do not just say, "well that law is only a tendency then". Instead, we change the formulation of the law so that under the revised conditions stated it always does hold true. If we cannot specify any new set of conditions along these lines, we are most often forced to throw the law out completely, or at least we are reduced to talking about a rough approximation, or a "mere tendency", etc., instead of a law.

It could be argued that the RCP wants have it both ways. It says that it still believes in scientific laws of society, that "human society is regulated by laws and is knowable", but then goes on say that these "laws" are only tendencies. Someone could rather reasonably argue that the second claim puts a lie to the first claim—it is fundamentally in conflict with it. When you say something is only a tendency you are admitting that you do not know for sure what is going to happen.

Can’t you really have it both ways? Well, this is essentially a question of semantics of course. Do you want to use words the way others use them, or do you—for reasons of your own—want to use them in peculiar ways? Here are two possible positions on the matter (though there are undoubtedly other views):

A) If what you are really talking about are tendencies, why not call them tendencies? Why not reserve the word ‘law’ for the much stronger invariable result, in accordance with its usual meaning, and its standard meaning in the rest of the sciences? Is it perhaps because you want to make it seem like you know more than you do? Is it because you know that talking about mere tendencies is pretty weak and unconvincing stuff, compared to talking about scientific laws? Doesn’t it all amount to pseudo-scientific puffery and pretence?

B) Discovering a real tendency in nature or in society can be something pretty important, something pretty important to science. We could call such things "scientific tendencies", but what, really, is wrong with calling them scientific laws—especially if we make it clear that they are tendential laws? Moreover, many things—even in the natural world—which people consider to be laws are really only tendencies when you look at them closely. Your discussion above of boiling water suggests that "water boils at 100° C." is really only a tendency, not a law.

I can see that there is something to be said for both of these strongly conflicting positions, though I lean more toward the first one. Nevertheless, I would be willing to acquiesce in the idea that some very important scientific results are really just tendencies, and there is no real harm in calling them "laws" providing their tendential nature is never lost sight of.

The final claim in B) above, however, is dubious at best. As I said before with respect to "absolute" thresholds, the claim that water only has a "tendency" to boil at 100° C. (under the assumed standard conditions of 1 atmosphere pressure, close to pure condition of the water, reasonable controls against superheating, etc.) is ridiculously pedantic. To say such a thing under those standard conditions would also be extremely misleading. I think it is fair to say that any physicist who said such a thing would be laughed at, and rightly so. (I’ll discuss this example in more detail later.)

Moreover, the RCP seems to want to say that social laws are different in some essential way from scientific laws in other spheres, especially physical science. They seem to be suggesting that in social science laws are only tendencies, as opposed to the situation in physics—where many or all scientific laws are not just tendencies. Social science, they seem to be saying, is weaker, more vague, less precise, less definite, less capable of firm predictions, less… scientific, really, in the sense that physics is a science. And yet they still want to say that society is regulated by laws and is knowable, or in other words that there is such a thing as a science of society. I think that any fair-minded person would have to agree that there is a real tension there in the RCP position, some real problems. In actual fact, it is an untenable, ultimately anti-scientific position, in my opinion.

But I want to return, for a moment, to the secondary question of whether it is reasonable to talk about even some scientific laws as tendential. The main license the RCP has for this move, and frankly, the main reason I am willing to go along with it (in spite of what would probably otherwise be my better judgment), is that Marx does this in Capital, specifically in volume 3, part III, "The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall". (There are lots of other cases in the Marxist classics where tendencies are talked about, but few of them are explicitly called "laws". However, some of them seem to have as much right to this title as Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.)

(One example is Lenin’s assertion (law?) that imperialism has a tendency towards stagnation, parasitism and decay. See his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, (Peking: FLP, 1975 (1916)), p. 119. It is interesting to note why Lenin claims this; he says it is because imperialism is based on monopoly and that "like all monopoly, it inevitably engenders a tendency to stagnation and decay." Now since this is true, we should expect that if you have two competing imperialist powers (such as the U.S. and the Soviet Union), the one that has the higher degree of monopoly would be the one with the greater tendency to stagnation and decay. And this was in fact the actual situation. Of the two competing imperialist forms, the more monopolistic, and hence the more stagnant one, the one more subject to internal decay, was the Soviet Union.

This is such a simple point, but it is one that NPE completely fails to grasp. Instead, they say: "In examining and ‘weighting’ some of the ‘system-specific’ factors bound up with the collapse [of the Soviet Union], we have to be careful about how we treat state-monopoly capitalism. It is not the case the state capitalism is ‘less capitalistic’ or ‘less suited’ to capitalist accumulation. And there is no necessary evolution of state capitalism toward more juridical (legal-institutional) private forms." [NPE, p. 29.] As usual, there are several different issues mashed together here. State-monopoly capitalism is indeed just as "capitalistic" as Western-style capitalism. But the strong implication in this passage that Soviet-style state-monopoly capitalism is not less efficient nor more prone to stagnation than Western-style capitalism is very wrong. This wrong point of view is further evidence, I would say, that the RCP has never sufficiently investigated the nature of the Soviet Union.)

I should say that the current status of Marx’s "law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall" is far from clear, even within Marxist political economy. (And we are talking about a science here, so we should not simply assume it must be a valid scientific law just because Marx called it one.) The issue is not whether profits do fall at various times; obviously they do, and in particular they fall during capitalist economic crises. One important question at issue is whether this is a cause or effect, i.e. whether it is an important causative factor leading to crises, or only a result of more basic causative factors (such as a collapse of the market due to massive overproduction). Or is it perhaps a cause in one respect and a result in another respect? A different kind of question about this law comes about because of Marx’s dialectical method of presentation of political economy. He presents laws, then adduces complicating factors which necessitate the modification and qualification of laws. This is particularly obvious in this section of Capital, where he explicitly talks about a whole range of counteracting influences on the "tendency" of the rate of profit to fall. Some writers even claim that these counteracting influences really undermine the whole notion of there being a genuine tendency here, let alone a genuine law. (I haven’t studied this question deeply enough yet to have a worthwhile opinion about that.)

Marx himself had this to say about this law/tendency:

We have thus seen in a general way that the same influences which produce a tendency in the general rate of profit to fall, also call forth counter-effects, which hamper, retard, and partly paralyze this fall. The latter do not do away with the law, but impair its effect. Otherwise, it would not be the fall of the general rate of profit, but rather its relative slowness, that would be incomprehensible. Thus the law acts only as a tendency. And it is only under certain circumstances and only after long periods that its effects become strikingly pronounced.[27]

Although it is not completely clear, some have interpreted this passage (and other related ones) to mean that Marx first puts forward a "law"—that the general rate of profit will fall. He then discusses some important counteracting factors, which collectively undercut the "law" and reduce it to a mere tendency (and not really a law, properly speaking). But on the other hand, Marx does explicitly say here that "the law acts only as a tendency", which seems to validate his section title, "The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall". That is, he does really seem to still consider it a law, even if it is just a tendency.

Well, I’m still a little uneasy about it, but if Marx wants to talk about some laws being tendential laws, I will go along with that. Certainly he makes it very clear that he does consider this to be a tendential law, which is definitely important to do in such cases.

But what about the other laws of capitalist political economy and society that Marx presents; are they all tendential laws too? Well, in most cases, he provides not the slightest suggestion that they are. Since he was so careful to make this clear in the case of the "law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall", you would think that if he believed he was talking about tendential laws in other cases, he would have made that similarly very clear.

But there are some things about Marx’s dialectical method (and indeed the dialectical method of all science) which might lead some to falsely conclude that all of the socioeconomic laws that Marx adduced are indeed tendential, even if he didn’t say so. Consider, for example, the following passage in volume 1 of Capital:

The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labor, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, develop also the labor-power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases therefore with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labor-army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus-population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labor. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus-layers of the working-class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.[28]

Note particularly what Marx says in that last sentence: all scientific laws are modified in their working-out by many circumstances. I think that it true, and that it is a very important observation. But does it mean that all laws really just express tendencies? No, it does not.

What sort of modifications does Marx have in mind for this specific law, the "absolute general law of capitalist accumulation"? Well, one important circumstance is the internationalization of capitalism. It may seem that Marx’s "absolute general law of capitalist accumulation" is not valid because within a particular country there might be a tremendous labor shortage. Perhaps, like Germany a couple decades ago, it will even have to import millions of foreign "guest workers" (from Turkey, etc.), to make up the shortage. But this was only possible because of the simultaneous surplus of workers in Turkey. On a world scale Marx’s law is in fact correct. But this sort of modification of the law because of circumstances that affect it is no support at all for the notion that scientific laws are mere tendencies. It is really a refinement that makes the law more correct.

To say that a law is modified in its working by various circumstances is not the same as saying that the law is only a tendency! The simple physical law that water boils at 100° C., for example, is modified by various circumstances, such as the prevailing pressure. The more precise law, that water boils at 100° C. at a pressure of 1 atmosphere, takes that particular circumstance into account (though it leaves open other possible circumstances which may have an affect on the boiling point). In short, generalizing from this, we see that if any specific circumstances do affect a law, that only means that the law is not yet fully specified. To repeat, it does not mean the law is only a "tendency"!

As science develops, it refines the laws it has discovered. That is, it makes them more precise by taking into account more and more additional factors and special circumstances. But the fact that laws which have not yet been refined to take into account "all" special circumstances (if indeed that is really possible in the given case), and that therefore those laws are still somewhat imprecise, does not mean that these laws are only tendencies. A tendency is only an inclination, or a proneness, something that may or may not happen at all. A scientific law (in the usual sense) tells us that something definite will happen, and if it is an imprecise law, it still tells us that something definite will happen, but it can only specify a range of conditions when or where it will happen, not absolutely precise conditions.

In the case of water, for example, which is pure (or damned close to pure!), and under a pressure of 1 atmosphere (or damned close to that), we still cannot say with absolute certainty that it will boil at 100° C., because of the possibility of superheating. If we don’t take steps to ensure that superheating will not occur, however, we can still scientifically predict that the water will definitely boil, either at 100° C. or else within just a few degrees above that mark. It would be incorrect to say that water under these conditions only has a "tendency" to boil at 100° C. or within a few degrees above that. It is not a tendency at all—it is something that will in fact definitely happen! If we then go on to add to the flask some sharp-cornered inert object, we have taken the last of the major known circumstances affecting the boiling point of water into consideration. And in that case we can scientifically predict that the water will boil at 100° C., or at least within a fraction of a degree of that value. This again is not a "tendency", but something definite that will happen.

It is true that our imprecision about the actual atmospheric pressure and the actual purity of the water probably have some tiny affect on the boiling point, even in this case. It is probably also true that the sharp-pointed inert object is not perfectly effective in preventing a very small level of superheating of the water before boiling actually begins. It may even be true that there are other factors, including some which are as yet undiscovered, that have some very small effect on the boiling point of water, even under these very closely controlled laboratory conditions. But none of that really matters. Yes, these things may, and probably do, affect the boiling point to a very tiny fraction of a degree. Yes, we do have to admit that our law is not infinitely precise, even under these controlled conditions. But none of this provides any valid reason whatsoever for maintaining that the water only has "a tendency" to boil at very close to 100° C. That would be a ridiculous and totally incorrect conclusion.

The new RCP doctrine that all social laws are only "tendencies" is the sort of notion that has quite a bit of plausibility if you only think about it briefly and superficially. But if you check it against the sorts of things that we have been calling laws, or at least well-established law-like principles, it immediately loses its persuasiveness.

Let me give a little example of this. After Engels’ death Lenin wrote a tribute to him which included these words—which I will intersperse with questions about "tendencies":

Marx and Engels were the first to show that the working class and its demands are a necessary outcome of the present economic system, which together with the bourgeoisie inevitably creates and organizes the proletariat. [Is the creation of the working class only a "tendency" instead of an inevitable result of capitalism?] They showed that it is not the well-meaning efforts of noble-minded individuals, but the class struggle of the organized proletariat that will deliver humanity from the evils which now oppress it. [Is the class struggle of the proletariat the definite method by which humanity will free itself, or is it only a "tendency" in that direction?] In their scientific works, Marx and Engels were the first to explain that socialism is not the invention of dreamers, but the final aim and necessary result of the development of the productive forces in modern society. [Is socialism merely a "tendency" of the productive forces in modern society, instead of a "necessary result" as Lenin says?] All recorded history hitherto has been a history of class struggle, of the succession of the rule and victory of certain social classes over others. And this will continue until the foundations of class struggle and of class domination—private property and anarchic social production—disappear. [Was Lenin wrong here too? Is the continuation of this class struggle only a "tendency" and not an inevitable characteristic of any society based on private property?] The interests of the proletariat demand the destruction of these foundations, and therefore the conscious class struggle of the organized workers must be directed against them. [Or do the interests of the proletariat only have a "tendency" to demand the destruction of these foundations?][29]

I could go on and on in this vein, but I think you probably see the pattern here. And of course it is possible to quibble a bit on some of these questions if you are determined to do so. Thus you could say that socialism (communism) is not the necessary result of the development of the productive forces in modern society, since capitalism (or some natural disaster, like an asteroid hitting earth) might wipe out humanity entirely instead. But this sort of response is disingenuous, since an implicit premise of the argument is that humanity continues to exist. (Or if you like, you could say that the more precise law is this: Unless some unlikely natural disaster, or perhaps the hideous workings of capitalism itself, wipes out humanity entirely, communism will be the necessary result of the present capitalist social system. And that law is indeed definitely true, and certainly no mere "tendency".)

The general point is just that the new RCP principle that demands that all the laws and law-like principles of social science be viewed as mere tendencies looks down-right foolish when it is compared against the vast majority of those laws and law-like principles. How is it that the RCP didn’t notice this? Apparently the authors of this new doctrine never thought to compare it to the actual laws of society that have been discovered by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and others. Incredible as it seems, they apparently didn’t think to see if their new principle was valid in any cases other than the one which led them to it in the first place.

The Turn Toward Epistemological Agnosticism

So we have three new methodological "principles" here that the RCP has summed up in the course of criticizing the errors it made in developing its 1980s analysis: 1) history does not obey fixed or always recurring patterns; 2) there are not "absolute" thresholds which when reached produce some definite result; and, behind these two, the claim that 3) social laws only express tendencies. As I tried to show above, none of these new "principles" is always correct, or even generally correct, though there may be an element of truth in each of them in some specific situations.

The thing that these three new methodological "principles" enunciated by the RCP have in common, the thread that ties them together, is a shift toward epistemological agnosticism. Let me explain that term, for those who have not studied philosophy.

The term ‘agnosticism’ in ordinary speech usually means doubt about the existence of God, or (more strongly), the view that no one can know whether or not God exists. Epistemological (or philosophical) agnosticism is a generalization of that view to all of knowledge: it is the theory that no one can ever really know anything, or at least that no one can know anything for certain. The usual reason given for such a remarkable opinion is that it is conceivable that you might turn out to be wrong about any particular thing you think you know, and therefore you can’t really be said to "know it" after all.

Such "reasoning" (which goes back to Descartes) is actually quite absurd. It is conceivable that I might just be a brain in vat somewhere, hooked up to an extremely powerful computer that stimulates my nerves (optic, tactile, etc.) in such a way that I seem to see and feel things which are not in fact there. Perhaps in this scenario the earth and sun never even existed; my brain and vat might be in a different galaxy than what I think, or maybe there really are no such things as galaxies. There is of course no reason whatsoever to lend the slightest credence to such ideas, and plenty of good reasons to completely reject such bizarre foolishness. In short, although such things are indeed "conceivable", that in no way actually counts against the scientific knowledge we have about human beings, the existence of the earth and the sun, and so forth. For a more thorough discussion of this topic see my essay, "Do We Know for Certain that the Earth Goes Around the Sun?", at:

Even though it is really quite ridiculous and anti-scientific, we live in a society that has extremely strong tendencies toward epistemological agnosticism. Under the influence of the logical positivists, Karl Popper, and other bourgeois philosophers, even many scientists subscribe to epistemological agnosticism, to one degree or another. And on the "left", too, it is a powerful force these days. The "left" side of the humanities faculties at the universities is strongly infected by "post-modernist" philosophy, which takes epistemological agnosticism as an unquestioned, and unquestionable, point of basic dogma. And some Marxists too, who should know better, sometimes lean that same way these days.

So I guess it is not surprising that signs of such a cancerous "know-nothing" ideology might start to show up even within revolutionary Maoist organizations. Still, it is somewhat disheartening to see this actually happen.

To say that history never obeys fixed or always recurring patterns is really to say that we can make no scientific predictions about the future. Or, perhaps we can still talk about "tendencies", and maybe even probabilities, but no firm and definite predictions. To say that there are no "absolute" thresholds that produce definite results, similarly undercuts the possibility of a great many scientific laws which must be framed in terms of thresholds. Presumably the best we can now say is that when some threshold is reached, perhaps something might happen, and perhaps it won’t. Or maybe we are still able to talk about vague "likelihood’s" or some such thing, at given thresholds, if the RCP is willing to grant us that much. And if all social "laws" are really just tendencies, well then we obviously cannot know anything definite about society. What a gloomy, hopeless philosophy this all is!

That is, if you buy that philosophy. Personally I think it is just another trend of silly bourgeois anti-scientific pessimism, that has somehow been allowed to sneak into the Marxist camp. What strange ideas to be called Marxist! Our social understanding can at most amount to vague generalities. No firm and definite predictions can be made in social science. At most we can suggest a few tendencies here and there! The RCP’s ideas such as these are reflections within Marxism of the bourgeois hostility to genuine social science (Marxism).

The Rejection of "Third International Methodology"

It is interesting to see that the RCP does not just blame itself for its past errors, and in particular the supposed methodological errors which led to its erroneous 1980s analysis; it tries to shift part of the blame to the Marxist tradition, and in particular to the political economists of the Third International.

While it is true that Eugen (Eugene) Varga (1879-1964), and the other economists of the Third International, made their share of errors, they also had some notable successes. Varga, who was the leading economic spokesman for the Comintern, made his name by predicting during the 1920s the coming Great Depression.[30] Have the economists of the RCP ever done anything as impressive as that?

Varga was also a leading proponent of the "General Crisis Theory" which the Comintern economists championed between the world wars, and to some degree even after World War II. I can’t try to examine that major theory in this essay. There clearly is a lot wrong with it, as the RCP claims both in NPE and America in Decline. And yet, I think that some aspects of their criticism of GCT in AID are unjust and off the mark.[31]

Some of what Varga and the other Comintern economists came up with actually conforms with the RCP's "spiral/conjuncture motion" theory, to a degree, and may even amount to an unacknowledged (and perhaps unrecognized) partial source for that theory. For example, in 1961 Varga wrote that

The upsurge of production and the temporary absence of profound overproduction crises in the post-war period in the highly developed countries is primarily the result of World War II. Tens of millions of young men were taken into the army. Millions of others were employed in military enterprises producing instruments of destruction which were destroyed on the battlefields without any benefit to society. Arms and military equipment constituted about one-half of all production. Items intended for long use were not produced. New homes were not built and old ones were not repaired. Supplies of raw materials and manufactured goods were exhausted. Fixed capital was worn out, especially in non-military branches. Tremendous values were destroyed by aerial and artillery bombardments. Instead of real values, monetary means were accumulated: …deposits in savings banks, state loans in the hands of the urban population, and huge sums in bank deposits and government securities held by the capitalists. This extraordinary and significant expansion of the capitalist market led to an intense growth of post-war production in such countries as the United States and Canada, which were not theaters of war.[32]

Basically what we have here is a listing of some of the many ways that World War II served to destroy capital, and thus resolve the principal world economic contradiction that in its crisis/stagnation phase became the Great Depression. Thus, the "conjuncture" of World War II actually did resolve (temporarily!) both the principal political contradiction(s) in the world (which included the interimperialist political contradiction and the contradiction between the then-socialist Soviet Union and the German imperialists), and also the principal economic contradiction in the world in the 1930s.

Not only is this in accord with the RCP spiral/conjuncture motion theory—at least for the spiral that ended with World War II, but I agree with it myself. That is, I grant that the economic contradiction and the political contradiction did come together and get resolved together in that one spiral. And it happened because of the massive destruction of capital during World War II. That is, the resolution of the political contradiction led to the resolution of the economic contradiction because of the way the political contradiction was resolved. See my 1979 letter to Bob Avakian on imperialist war and capitalist economic cycles, where I argue for this point of view, at: I only deny that this is something that always happens, that the different major contradictions always get resolved together in every such spiral. (Perhaps in generalizing unreasonably from the World War II case the RCP still is guilty of a high-level version of "typical-motion thinking" here!)

Varga went on, in that same 1961 article, to predict that the post-war boom was drawing to a close (he was just a little premature on that) and implied that the (Western) capitalist countries might soon return to stagnation and depression (he was wrong on that—the development of the new crisis period which began around 1970 has so far been very drawn out and episodic).

So, considering these successes and failures, and in light of other hits and misses that I haven't mentioned, I think it is fair to say that, overall, the performance of the Comintern economists such as Varga was pretty spotty.

But what should we say about the RCP's vociferous attacks on "Third International methodology" both in AID and in NPE? It seems to me that it is pretty much unjustified and off base. To the extent that it is true that the RCP has been misled by the views of Comintern economists, whose fault is that? Should they be blaming others for misleading them, or blaming themselves for a tendency towards dogmatism and not thinking things out fully and carefully examining the current conditions? (You will, I hope, have noticed that the word ‘dogmatism’ does not appear in their self-criticism.)

If, in AID or elsewhere, they had elaborated a more respectable and solid alternative theory of the political economy of our era we might grant them the right to take a few shots at Varga. But in light of their own record that is worse than Varga’s… well, you wonder if they really know what they are talking about.

But the biggest problem I have with this latest round of attacks on Comintern methodology in NPE, is that—as we have seen—their own "anti-Comintern" methodological "principles" are not themselves generally valid! So all in all, I’m not at all convinced that they have proven that the methodology of the Comintern economists was totally screwed up. I rather suspect that Varga and his associates should be treated more dialectically, as people who promoted a mixture of correct and incorrect theories and ideas. Most of us, after all, are like that.

A Few More Comments on Economic Issues

This critique has focused on methodological issues championed by NPE, and most of my comments about political economy proper have just been asides. I won’t further try the reader’s patience by now getting into strictly economic matters at any great length. But there are a few relatively short points I wish to make.

The "Capital-Shortage Thesis"

First, I would like to point out that the "capital-shortage thesis" once again rears its ugly head in NPE. What is the capital-shortage thesis? Back in the 1970s several American business magazines, bourgeois economists, and Wall Street representatives, raised a tremendous alarm that the U.S. economic expansion might well falter because all the vast amounts of necessary capital for expansion could not be raised. And oddly enough, this theory was enthusiastically adopted and promoted at the time by the RCP as well. The strange thing about this is that the capital-shortage thesis is so obviously opposed to the usual Marxist understanding of economic crises. After all, if crises are crises of overproduction (as Marx, and even the RCP, calls them), then the problem cannot be that the capitalists can’t find the money for more investments, but rather that they find the money to invest too much.

This very simple-minded and erroneous capital-shortage theory was quickly proven false in practice and soon abandoned by the bourgeois ideologists themselves. But the RCP refused to drop it! There are suggestions of it in AID, and now we have two or three further hints of it in NPE. For example they say

For the advanced capitalist economies to maintain reasonable rates of growth, growth must also take place in the Third World. But such growth (and further restructuring) requires enormous infusions of capital, which appear to be beyond the capacities of the West. [NPE, p. 24.]

It is one thing for the RCP in its 1970s youth to have subscribed to such nonsense, but to still say things like that at this late date is a remarkable illustration of how poor their understanding of political economy remains to this very day. For a long essay of mine written in 1977 criticizing the RCP’s capital-shortage thesis, see:

NPE Demonstrates an Impressionistic View of the World Economy

A second point about the current RCP appraisal of the world economic situation is its impressionistic nature. "The [current] pattern seems to be," they say, "one of slow growth, intensifying economic competition and rivalry, and instability." [NPE, p. 51.] Only seems to be?? That is their impression of the world economic situation. (And lots of other people’s too, including mine.) But what we need is not an "impression" of what is happening as it happens, but an economic theory that tells us what is really happening and why, and what will happen (at least in general outlines) in the relatively near future. We need a scientific theory that penetrates immediate appearances to inform us of underlying essences, what is really going on, and what this will mean for the future. You won’t find anything like that in NPE.

A Failure to Understand the Nature and Continuation of the Long Economic Crisis

I briefly stated this point earlier, but I must reiterate it here because of its central importance: The basic fact about the political economy of the world today is that the world economic crisis that first began to be evident back in the early 1970s remains unresolved, and is still continuing to develop. The RCP clearly does not understand this, and in fact explicitly rejects this point of view. [See NPE, pp. 18-19.] They also remark that

The overall situation brought forward through the conjunctural resolution of 1989-91 is definitely different from the period of 1945-73, which was marked by growth and expansion unprecedented in the history of imperialism. But it is also different from the period of 1973-89, which was marked by global economic crisis, intensifying interimperialist rivalry, and motion toward war. [NPE, p. 15.]

They just can’t resist their overpowering urge to invalidly mix up the political contradiction with the economic contradiction, and for that reason they must insist that a new economic spiral began in 1989-91. Thus they say, "the current world situation is not mainly characterized by the same set of problems that existed prior to 1989-91." [NPE, p. 15.] With regard to political problems (contradictions) that is true (at least with regard to the interimperialist contradiction), but with regard to economic problems (contradictions) that is definitely false. They do admit that

owing to the particular nature of that conjunctural resolution, with certain contradictions not getting resolved so completely, some features from the previous period have "carried over" into the current situation. Examples of this are elements of the Third World debt crisis, an unstable and unreconstructed international monetary system, and so forth. [NPE, p. 15.]

But their basic point of view here is that with the 1989-91 conjunctural resolution "a new set of factors—a new mix of opportunities, options, problems, and contradictions—has been brought forward"—both politically and economically. "This, we feel, is what is principal" they add. [NPE, p. 15.]

Actually, all of the most important world economic problems today also existed (and were developing) before 1989-91. This includes the Third World debt crisis—which is worse than ever—and the unstable international monetary system—which is more unstable than ever. But the most basic aspect of it is the overproduction of capital, which manifests itself in various ways including the tremendous overcapacity in many key industries throughout the world (autos, steel, chemicals, electronics, textiles, and many others). The RCP takes note of this overcapacity itself [NPE, p. 19, and elsewhere.], but apparently does not recognize either its continuation and further development from the situation that existed before 1989, or its real significance.

It is true that the long-developing world economic crisis which began in the early 1970s has been quite different than anything in previous history—and that confuses people. In particular, its development has been very different from that of the Great Depression in the 1930s. It does have a variety of new features, some of which have been analyzed and discussed in the left economic literature, and many of which have not. The overall "long slide" aspect of it (so far!) has, for example, been emphasized by Robert Brenner[33] and others. But a long slide towards what? Brenner isn’t sure; perhaps the slide is over and things are now on the upswing, or perhaps it is a slide towards oblivion. In my opinion it is a long slide toward a precipice which, when arrived at, will mark the start of a new depression. (This is a prediction that my theoretical understanding of political economy leads me to, and I am quite willing to stick my neck out about it.) But within the overall slide towards that precipice are smaller ups and downs, all kinds of subsidiary economic crises and temporary recoveries, such as the Mexican crisis of 1994-95 and the (predominantly) Asian crisis which started in 1997 (and still isn’t totally over). Moreover, the subsidiary crises in some countries sometimes actually benefit other countries for awhile. In particular, the U.S. has so far benefited tremendously by world economic instabilities and problems elsewhere, causing the flight of capital to "safe havens", and so forth. This has created the illusion that the U.S. is not subject to the same factors, problems and laws that are working to destabilize the rest of the world. Those with a shallow or "impressionistic" understanding of what is happening are overly impressed with the expansion of the U.S. economy in the 1990s and jump to the conclusion that the developing world economic crisis of past decades must somehow have resolved itself without anybody even noticing!

My view is thus very different than that of the RCP in a great many respects. And in particular our basic economic expectations for the not-too-distant future are very different. They say that

Still, it would be quite wrong to base our work on the likelihood of a breakdown or collapse like that of 1929-31. The imperialists have learned from history. They have put certain institutions in place, and they will go to great lengths (as the central banks and IMF have done over the last 20 years) to prevent financial panic. But financial disturbances that can whipsaw through the world economy are inherent in the situation. And difficult-to-contain financial jolts will continue to destabilize the system. [NPE, p. 21.]

I agree that these "financial disturbances" will continue. Heck, just about everybody agrees with that! That’s why the bourgeoisie creates these "certain institutions" in the first place. But I predict that sooner or later (and more likely sooner than later) one of these disturbances will be more than just "difficult to contain"—it will prove to be impossible to contain. And this will indeed amount to a collapse "like that of 1929-31".

Even when such a qualitatively more serious leap in the developing crisis occurs, the bourgeoisie will almost certainly prove less helpless than they did in the 1930s. That is, they will surely resort to massive Keynesianism to try to "re-prime the pump", and so forth. And some of their maneuvers will no doubt ameliorate the situation to a degree and for a time. I predict that this will have the effect of drawing out the depression stage of the crisis much longer than what occurred in the 1930s, and will give it an even more secondary-up-and-down character than the first Great Depression (which had its own secondary ups and downs). Just like the long slide prior to the new depression, the eventual depression itself will likely be more "episodic", more irregular, and for essentially the same reasons—a much higher degree of state intervention than in the 1930s. But in the end it will be just as disastrous, and perhaps much more disastrous.

Well, I don’t want to go into my own ideas about what is going to happen any more than that right now, because I haven’t done the necessary study to present them in a thorough, scientific manner. We’ll just have to wait and see whose basic point of view is more correct, mine or the RCP’s.

But I do want to talk about one small issue here: Suppose I am right that the world economy is in a long slide toward depression. Is it then correct to call the whole overall period a period of crisis? Wouldn’t it be better to reserve that term for the depression phase itself? The way I think of it is like this. A man is up on a steep, slippery roof, and starts to slide down toward the edge of the roof. Occasionally he manages to grab hold of a shingle with his fingers, and even crawl back up a few feet. But then he loses his grip, and starts to slide again. Eventually, he slides to the edge and goes over. When did his crisis start? When he actually goes over the edge, or when he first started to slide? I think it is pretty reasonable to say that his basic crisis started when he first began to slide.

The NPE Political Economy is Essentially Useless as it Stands

My fourth, and final, point about the political-economic view presented in NPE is how useless it is. A deep understanding of the contradictions, trends and laws of motion working within the current national and world economy would allow us to make some predictions about what might be expected to happen in the future, at least the near future. It would give us a basis for our near-term political strategy and something solid to base our political work on. However, I don’t think the authors of NPE themselves feel comfortable enough about their level of understanding of the current imperialist economy to hazard much in the way of any definite projections and predictions. True, they appear to rule out a crash like 1929, but even in that regard they qualify things so much, with talk about the potential for "great upheaval" and "things turning into their opposite", that it is far from clear that they are making any definite predictions at all.

In fact, one thing that stands out in reading over NPE is the number of places where the authors frankly admit that they do not understand various important things about the current economic situation and recent trends, and which therefore mark areas where serious further investigations are required. I respect the authors and the Party for publicly stating this, and not trying to cover up their areas of ignorance or incomplete investigation. I respect people who are honest about such things. Moreover, it gives us a more rational basis for appraising the correctness of the conclusions that they do draw.

But the plain fact of the matter is that the RCP’s current level of understanding of political economy is so low that they really have no idea what is going to happen in the future. However, they can’t quite admit this, even to themselves. So the form this all takes is to make statements and predictions about the future, but to always endeavor to couch them in such a way that no matter what happens those statements and predictions will still turn out to be true.

This reminds me of the story about the ancient King who visited the Oracle at Delphi to try to divine the results that would ensue should he proceed with his plans to attack the neighboring kingdom. After due consideration, the Pythia (priestess) at the Oracle replied: "If you go to war a great kingdom will be destroyed." Overjoyed at the prospect of conquering his enemy, he began the war. And sure enough, a great kingdom was destroyed—his own.

Soothsayers have always depended strongly on the art of ambiguity to maintain their reputations. If you don’t have knowledge and science going for you, you’ve got to depend on vagueness and ambiguity. And when we today come across those whose predictions for the future are quite vague and ambiguous we are right to suspect that the authors of those "predictions" do not have much in the way of knowledge and science going for them.

Let’s look at a couple of the predictions, or implicit predictions, in NPE. Let’s start with what they themselves say is the most central one:

We have also developed some theses that are guiding our inquiry into the current world situation. Of particular salience, Bob Avakian has conceptualized this period (worldwide) as one of major transition with the potential for great upheaval. [NPE, p. 6.]

What future developments could possibly prove that statement incorrect? Suppose nothing very exciting happens for a few decades, no major wars, no new significant world economic crises, no pick-up of the revolutionary movement, and no revolutionary successes of note. Well, that’s compatible with the statement, since this could still be a period of transition to a time when things do start to happen! Or suppose all hell breaks lose; the world economy falls to pieces, we soon have a couple major regional wars involving nuclear weapons, a fascist regime comes to power in Russia and the "cold war" resumes with renewed ferociousness, and (mostly unrelated to Russia) genuine communist revolutions pick up great momentum and even succeed in capturing state power in several countries. Well, that scenario is compatible with the statement too—because it did talk about the potential for great upheaval. In actual fact, virtually every scenario—with or without great upheaval—is compatible with the statement.

If a statement cannot possibly be shown to be false, no matter what happens, it is not a scientific statement. (I am not defending Popper’s doctrine of "falsifiability" here. But it is true that a genuine scientific statement must say something about the world—something that could conceivably be otherwise.) The tip-off that this slogan of Avakian’s is totally vacuous should be obvious from the get-go. A period of major transition… from what to what? Not a hint, and almost certainly because Avakian has no idea of what to hint at.

(I am sorry to have to say something this harshly critical of Bob Avakian personally, because I still have a lot of respect for him and for the role he played in first getting the revolutionary movement off the ground in this country in the 1960s and 70s. But really, we revolutionaries, like umpires, do have to call ‘em as we sees ‘em. Commitment to truth comes first—because truth is in the people’s long-term interests.)

The more specific statements, projections, and predictions in NPE are really not much better:

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the "cold war" structure of international relations have brought the resolution of certain contradictions—at the same time that others persist and sharpen, and as some aspects and factors of the new situation already show signs of turning into their opposite, such as the financial turmoil in East Asia. [NPE, p. 23]

But what exactly does that mean? What is its import? Is the economy going up, or down, or staying pretty much the way it is? There are comments galore about this in NPE, but they point, at different times and places in the document, in every conceivable direction. So much so, that no matter what happens, it will "confirm" their predictions.

Recently I heard the comment about NPE that it really is an "agnostic document". I accused the NPE authors of epistemological agnosticism earlier in this paper, because of their new methodological stands that point in that direction. But when it comes to looking at their political-economic diagnosis for the world, it seems that it is profoundly agnostic too. They just do not know what is going on in the world economy, or what is going to happen in the future.

How Come the RCP is So Weak in Developing New Theoretical Positions These Days?

Like individuals, parties and organizations also have their strong and weak points. The RCP’s strongest point has always been their revolutionary staunchness. Political economy has always been a weak point with the RCP and remains so today. A much stronger point (especially in their earlier years) has been their general political analysis, though in some cases they go pretty badly wrong on that too.

Sometimes an important contributing factor in their mistakes in political analysis is their weak understanding of political economy. I think this is true of their erroneous "80s analysis". One of the reasons they didn’t understand the Soviet Union well enough, for example, is that they didn’t investigate the socioeconomic situation there carefully. And another reason is that they didn’t (and don’t) correctly understand the political economy of state capitalism, how economic crises develop under state capitalism, and so forth.

It is hard for any revolutionary party to get by without a pretty good understanding of the political economy of the situation they find themselves in.

But it seems that instead of getting stronger and better in their capabilities for theoretical analysis of both political and economic matters, and of the national and world situation, they are getting worse. Overall, their showing in these areas during the last couple decades is not very impressive, to say the least. The volume of their theoretical analysis has been quite small, and what has been produced has often been of questionable value and correctness.

What are the reasons for this? There are a number of things that come to mind. Their numbers are fairly small, and smaller than they were 25 years ago. Their best thinker and leader, Bob Avakian, has been in self-imposed exile and seems to be somewhat out of touch with the situation back home (especially the situation in his own Party!). They have apparently devoted few resources to theoretical investigations and summations. They entirely abandoned their theoretical journal in 1994 (and it didn’t appear very often in the decade prior to that either). Thus apparently they are not encouraging their own members to do much in the way of theoretical analysis or thinking. Bob Avakian and Raymond Lotta can’t do it all by themselves!

But the biggest problem that I see is that they have cut themselves off from the broader thinking of the revolutionary community, and appear to be functioning like a handful of scholars behind closed doors. They get set in certain narrow ways of thinking, and can’t break free of them. Even when they make an obvious mistake, like their 1980s analysis, it takes them forever to sum it up and criticize themselves—at least publicly. And even then the self-criticism seems very clearly to most outsiders to be woefully inadequate.

One of the interesting recent developments in the RCP is a series of renewed assertions on their part that they want input from others, from people who are not in the Party, to help them understand the world situation, and forge a political line capable of advancing the revolutionary movement. We saw this in the Party’s recent announcement that they intend to create a new Party Programme, where they explicitly called for outside contributions and talked—for the first time in ages—about using the mass line. And we see it again here in NPE, where they say

The RCP is publishing "Notes on Political Economy" as a contribution to discussion, debate, and theoretical work about the world situation and the prospects for fundamental change. With the new millennium upon us, we think the paper takes on particular relevance. Many people are reflecting about the "future of humanity," while the ideologues of imperialism spew out their hype about the wonders of free markets, imperialist-dominated technology, and globalization.

We welcome comments, criticisms, and suggestions—both to aid us in carrying this work forward and to stimulate broader dialogue, and further grappling by others, about these questions. [pp. 2-3.]

The problem, however, is that although the RCP does now genuinely seem to subjectively desire the contributions of non-Party revolutionaries and the masses, it has been so long since they have seriously tried to gather such contributions that they may have forgotten how to go about encouraging them effectively.

It is not enough just to call for outside contributions! You have got to prove to people that their contributions are desired, and will be carefully considered. For a long time the Party has been viewed as "a black hole". When people do submit their ideas to them, either verbally or in writing, there is rarely any significant feedback, and almost never any sign that the ideas are taken to heart or acted on. Because of this, many people with valid and constructive criticisms of the RCP, its line, and its methods of work, have given up even bothering to submit ideas and criticisms to them.

To change this dreadful state of affairs drastic and dramatic action is needed—both within the Party and publicly to the revolutionary movement. Something more than lip service to the mass line every few years is needed.

One concrete suggestion, which I have often made to them before (so far to no effect), is that they should resume publishing their theoretical journal, Revolution, and do so on a regular basis (such as quarterly). Moreover they should open it up broadly both to rank and file Party members and to lots of voices outside the Party. And they shouldn’t just print articles they fully agree with! (That is the sort of thing that got them into this pickle in the first place!) It would be entirely appropriate to include rebuttal articles or editorial criticisms of articles they disagree with, wholly or in part. But if they are important articles, and if they address important unresolved issues facing the revolutionary movement many of them should be printed anyway, even if they aren’t 100% correct. There are lots of serious revolutionaries out there who would really love to see a lively revolutionary journal of this sort. Over time it could have a huge impact.

I’m sure there are many other things that could be done too. But one thing is clear: If the Party doesn’t do some pretty drastic things along these lines pretty soon, there will be few people left in the revolutionary movement who take them at all seriously.

—S.H. (2/25/00)


[1] Bob Avakian, "Is Revolution Really Possible This Decade and What Does May 1st Have to Do With It?", Revolutionary Worker, #49, April 11, 1980.

[2] Ibid., p. S-2.

[3] Michael MccGwire [sic], quoted in The Economist, Feb. 2, 1991, p. 87.

[4] For the RCP's views on the negation of the negation see: Lenny Wolff, The Science of Revolution: An Introduction, (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1983), pp. 51-56. One of the main reasons they oppose the notion of the negation of the negation is that they think Mao did. Despite one quotation that seems to support this claim, this is rather doubtful. For further discussion about that issue see Nick Knight's introductory essay in: Nick Knight, Mao Zedong on Dialectical Materialism, (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1990).

[5] Hsueh Li, "The Theory of Two Points", Peking Review, Jan. 14, 1972. This article was reprinted by Yenan Books of Berkeley, Calif., in the mid-1970s in the collection Study Philosophy: Reprints from Peking Review.

[6] Raymond Lotta, with Frank Shannon, America in Decline: An Analysis of the Developments Toward War and Revolution, in the U.S. and Worldwide, in the 1980s, Vol. 1, (Chicago: Banner Press, 1984). No further volumes were ever published.

[7] Joseph Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism (Peking edition, 1970), p. 6. Quoted in Bob Avakian, A Horrible End, or An End to the Horror (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1984), p. 195.

[8] Stalin, ibid., pp. 4-5.

[9] Bob Avakian, A Horrible End, or An End to the Horror, p. 196.

[10] Mao Zedong, "Reading Notes on the Soviet Text Political Economy" (1961-62), in Mao Tsetung, A Critique of Soviet Economics (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1977), p. 113.

[11] Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1985 (1965)), p. 76.

[12] For more on this see my essay "Do We Know for Certain that the Earth Goes Around the Sun?" at:

[13] Richard Feyman, op. cit., p. 77.

[14] I hazard a few speculative ideas about this in my 1979 letter to Bob Avakian on imperialist war and capitalist economic cycles. See:

[15] George Seldes, You Can't Print That! (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., 1929), p. 221.

[16] Mark Twain quote, in Laurence J. Peter, ed., Peter's Quotations (NY: Bantam Books, 1979), p. 174.

[17] I have taken the technical information about boiling from Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, 5th edition, (NY: 1976), pp. 332-333.

[18] Ibid., p. 333.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., pp. 332-333. If you have time to do so, I recommend that you take a look at these articles on boiling in this book or one like it. I think you will be amazed at just how complex a thing boiling water really is. I have only mentioned a few highlights in my comments on the topic.

[21] The related subject of the freezing of water is also extremely complex and still not fully understood. There have been some recent breakthroughs in this area however. See John S. Wettlaufer & J. Greg Dash, "Melting Below Zero" in Scientific American, Feb. 2000, pp. 50-53.

[22] I have taken these examples of physiological thresholds from Arthur Guyton, Textbook of Medical Physiology, 6th ed., (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1981).

[23] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Moscow: Progress, 1970 (1859)), p. 21.

[24] Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (1993), entry on 'tendency'.

[25] Ibid., entry on 'law', entry 6a.

[26] Rom Harré, Laws of Nature (London: Duckworth, 1993), p. 9.

[27] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3, (NY: International Publishers, 1967), p. 239.

[28] Ibid., vol. 1, p. 644.

[29] V. I. Lenin, "Frederick Engels" (1896), Lenin: Collected Works, vol. 2, (Moscow: Progress, 1972), p. 19.

[30] For a brief discussion of Varga's predictions during the 1920s see M. C. Howard and J. E. King, A History of Marxian Economics, vol. 1, (Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 298. Howard and King say that when the Depression actually broke out, Varga seemed very prescient indeed. But they then discount this prescience because it was based on a version of Marxist economics (a kind of underconsumptionism) which they disagree with.

[31] For a brief and not very developed discussion of the AID critique of GCT see my "First Notes Towards a Critique of America in Decline", section 7, which is available at: I have some more extensive comments about the General Crisis of Capitalism thesis in my essay "Comments on Sison's 'Contradictions in the World Capitalist System and the Necessity of Socialist Revolution'" at:

[32] E. Varga, Kommunist, #17 (1961). Translated into English as "Marx's Capital and Contemporary Capitalism", Problems of Economics (IASP Translations from Original Soviet Sources), vol. 4, #9, Jan. 1962. The paragraph I quoted is on p. 62.

[33] Robert Brenner, "The Economics of Global Turbulence", New Left Review, #229 (May/June, 1998).

— End —

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