Revolution#112, December 16, 2007


Historical Experience and the New Synthesis

Editors’ Note: The following is the eighth in a series of excerpts from a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA earlier this year (2007). This has been edited for publication and footnotes have been added (among other things, in preparing this for publication, the author has considerably expanded the section on Karl Popper). These excerpts are being published in two parts. Both Part 1 and Part 2 are now available in their entirety, as two documents, at The following concludes the series of excerpts from Part 1. The excerpts comprising Part 2 will be published as a series in Revolution starting in our next issue.

Historical Experience and the New Synthesis

The crimes of this system—and the rationalizations for these crimes

In the history of the communist movement and of socialist society, the basic orientation has been one of dealing with the material reality and the conditions of the masses of people as the priority, as the focus and as the foundation, as opposed to the bourgeois approach of ignoring—or, in fact, reinforcing—the oppressive conditions of the masses of people, the great majority of humanity. And it is very important to grasp firmly that, in the name of the individual and “individual rights,” advocates in one form or another of this bourgeois approach actually uphold the interests of a class—and the dynamics of a system in which that class, the bourgeoisie, rules—where masses of people, literally billions of individuals within the exploited and oppressed classes, are mercilessly ground down and chewed up, and where their individuality and any notion of their individual dignity is counted as nothing.

Think of the children in India, millions of them, as young as four years old sometimes, working 12 hours a day, every day of the week, in conditions that are extremely injurious to their health—and that is way understating the matter. Or think of the children in Africa living in unspeakable slums. Think of the people throughout the Third World, living in the most undescribable conditions, literally amidst shit and other filth, as their everyday environment. How does this capitalist system count their individuality? It counts it as nothing.

Sometimes, as a comrade recently said to me, even we underestimate or don’t have a full and fully living sense of the towering crimes of this system. Anywhere you look, if you look with the penetrating gaze of science—if you take a real, honest and scientific look at the history of what has gone on, and what is going on today, in the world (and what is going on in this country, for example), if you think about the first part of the talk on the “Revolution” DVD and what it brings to light about the history of this country, down to the present day, you will see that the most monstrous crimes have been carried out by this system and with the backing of those who rule it. Think about the reality that this system embodies and the reality of what that means for the people who have been subjected to this, who are bound up in this, in literal slavery sometimes even today1 (and for generations in the history of this country), but in horrific conditions no matter what the particular forms. Think of what this system actually means while they’re pontificating about “the individual” and “the rights of individuals.” For whom—for which class of people—does that apply, and for whom and for which classes does that have no application and meaning, other than the most bitter and mocking irony?

And, as we know, they’ve always got excuses. People who rule in this way have to have a lot of excuses. The ruling class and its apologists in this country will say: “We had to do certain things—pulling off a coup and putting the butcher Pinochet in power in Chile, doing the same kind of thing in Guatemala and Indonesia, Iran and other places—because of a greater evil, you see.” “We were up against a greater evil,” is a constant refrain of theirs. Today it’s Islamic fundamentalism or “Islamo fascism.” Previously it was other forms of “totalitarianism”—and, of course, communism in particular.

Well, leaving aside for the moment the distortions and slanders of what communism, the communist movement, and the experience of socialist states have actually been about, let’s speak to this argument. Okay, then, what about the Philippines? You invaded the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, betrayed your promises to the people in the Philippines fighting for independence, waged a war of aggression to colonize the Philippines, massacred Philippine people in the hundreds of thousands and carried out unspeakable atrocities in the process—not just murdering people but parading around with the body parts of those who were killed, and all the rest that is so characteristic of your armed forces. Where was the Soviet Union then? Where was the People’s Republic of China, when you did all this? They didn’t even exist yet.

Or let’s go back a little further. What about the genocide against the native peoples (the original peoples on this continent)? What about the enslavement of the African peoples, in the millions and millions, and all the consequences of that? Guess what? Karl Marx wasn’t even born when you started doing that.

Your answer that you have done these things in response to greater evils is merely covering up a fundamental truth: I don’t like to use the word evil (especially because of its religious connotations or “echoes”), but if “evil” has any meaning you are it. You and your system are the concentration in the modern world of the horrors of what humanity is put through, and the fundamental cause of the horrors that humanity is put through. And you have been carrying this out for centuries now—this has been carried out from the beginning of this country (and in the period of European settlement and conquest that led to the establishment of this country). And, yes it is true, these horrors are far greater than even we communists usually are capable of comprehending and giving voice to.

A “Ted Bundy” Country, a “Ted Bundy” System

Yet you hear people, including people with progressive sentiments, say: “Yes, I know, all that’s true, but, you see, we have our founders” (they don’t call them “founding fathers” any more, that doesn’t square with their progressive sentiments, or pretensions—it is too obviously patriarchal) “we have our founders, and they bequeathed to us this democratic system of government which has its checks and balances and all the rest.” And for many people, far too many people—whether more aggressively and grotesquely in the form of the “neo-conservatives” and the overt exponents of imperialism, or in the more muted terms of those who are, at least objectively, “progressive” apologists for this system—this notion of “American exceptionalism,” in a “positive” sense, keeps coming through: Yes, the more “liberal” and “progressive” among these people will acknowledge, there are many horrible things that this country has done and is still doing, but “there is just something about this system that’s inherently good when you get down to the real nature of it.”

Now, in this connection there is a very telling analogy that was made by a comrade in the leadership of our Party. He described this as “the Ted Bundy phenomenon.” Ted Bundy, as most of you know (and for those of you who don’t know) was a serial rapist and serial killer several decades ago. But he was college-educated and somewhat “refined.” He carried out these horrific crimes of brutalizing, raping and then murdering women over a number of years, before he was finally caught and convicted and eventually was executed. But there was just something about that Ted Bundy. He didn’t fit the stereotype of a frightening, and perhaps demented-looking, serial killer. He was very polished and smooth. Yes, he committed all these terrible crimes. He was a serial rapist in the most brutal terms. He was a serial killer. But—to continue the analogy this comrade made—“there’s just something about that Ted Bundy; if you just put what he did in perspective and you see his larger qualities, there is something still, at the core, that is good about that Ted Bundy.” Well, as this comrade pointed out, this, by analogy, is the way a lot of radical, and not-so-radical, bourgeois democrats look at this country, their country. Yes, they’ll readily agree, our government has committed and is committing all these horrible crimes, but: “There is just something about that constitutional form of government and that democratic system we have. Yes, you can chronicle the crimes from slavery here to mass slaughter around the world, but there’s just something about this America that our founders gave us that we just have to hang onto.” As though all that (the form of government, and so on) is somehow separable from “the Ted Bundy essence” of this system on a greatly magnified and international scale.

The same comrade who came up with this “Ted Bundy” analogy also made the point that the crimes of this system, once again, are even worse and even more monstrous than even we realize—until we examine them concretely and really dig more fully and deeply into the reality of this. And this comrade made a very good suggestion in this regard: We should challenge anyone, and especially anyone who tries to say that there is still something inherently good about this system, to look at any part of the world and actually examine what this system has done and confront the actual horrors this has involved for the masses of people—and then tell us why you want to preserve any part of this.

Setting the Record Straight

This brings out another dimension to the importance of the Set the Record Straight project. People’s sights have been lowered by the “verdict” on communism and the experience of socialist states led by communists—a verdict which, in fact, has been “passed” and relentlessly propagated by the rulers of this imperialist system and their “intellectual camp followers.” Many people who should know better—and even some who once did know better—have in effect been reduced down to these kind of “Ted Bundy” rationalizations, because their sights have been lowered by the notion that what they once thought was good, or what they might in other times have been attracted to as an alternative to this whole society and this whole imperialist-dominated world, is unworkable at best and a nightmare of tyranny at worst. This gives further emphasis to the importance of honestly and scientifically examining the great achievements as well as the real shortcomings of the socialist countries that have existed so far—and of comparing and contrasting this with what imperialism and bourgeois rule has actually done and has actually meant for the masses of people of the earth. For example, in the main presentation2 of the Set the Record Straight project, a comparison is made between the claims (even the most exaggerated and extravagant claims) of the lives that communism has cost vis-à-vis the reality of the deaths that were caused by the ongoing operation of the system just in the country of India during the same period—what has actually happened to the masses of people in India, in “the world’s largest democracy” (as it is repeatedly referred to in the bourgeois media and by bourgeois commentators).

It is very important—and this is one of the things that is brought out through the Set the Record Straight Project—to keep in mind what socialist states have had to go up against: the necessity they have had to deal with, including the legacy of the past societies from which they emerged—which they overthrew—the remnants of those societies in both the economic base and the political and ideological superstructure, and the continuing existence of class forces hostile to the existence of socialism and to the continuation of socialist transformation—all this intertwined and interacting with the continued presence and encirclement of hostile imperialist powers and other reactionary states.

House and the Experience of Socialist Society So Far

Here I think an analogy to the TV program House is very relevant. If you watch House, you see that a constant motif in this program, and in the unfolding of the plot in various episodes, involves the way in which the main character, Dr. House, in his own way, goes to the brink. He is a very unorthodox doctor, and when he’s faced with extreme cases, he will do things which, if they fail, may actually kill the patient. In episode after episode, there is this tremendous tension: will House discover by these means the actual cause of the disease and be able to save the patient, or is he going to kill the patient by the means he is using to try to discover the cause? This is a constant tension in House. Now, if you walked into the middle of a show and you didn’t understand what was going on and why House is doing these things, imagine how monstrous you would think House is. “My God” (if you’ll pardon the expression), “he’s actually doing things that could kill the patient.” And it’s not just that he try tries one of those dangerous and seemingly “extreme” measures once; if one doesn’t work, he tries another—and if that doesn’t work, he tries yet another. And, in the short run, many times he actually causes the suffering of the patient to increase. Why? Because he’s a demented, sadistic tyrant? Or because he’s trying to get to the essence of a disease and cure it?

Well, there’s an analogy here to socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. If you “walked into the middle” of this experience—or if you viewed it through bourgeois blinders—and you saw that certain measures were being taken that seemed “extreme,” but you didn’t know, or didn’t understand, what the “disease” was that was being dealt with; or, more fundamentally, if you didn’t even know that there was a disease to begin with—if, to speak more directly, you thought that the societies where socialism has come into being were places where everything was fine for the majority of people, and they were doing very well, instead of understanding that, on the contrary, for the great majority of people the old society was a very real horror, and that they were exploited, oppressed, degraded and demeaned in a thousand ways every day in that society—if you didn’t have any understanding of that, you could look at some measures that were being taken to overcome all that, and to prevent new and old exploiters from bringing back all that, and you could think: “What a terrible thing this socialism is. Look at what they’re doing, look what they’re putting people through.”

And not only that, you would miss the many ways in which, right then, people’s lives were being vastly improved and the nature of the relations among people, and the outlook and values of the people, were being radically changed, in a very positive direction. You would miss the ways in which this was increasingly happening through the conscious initiative of the masses of people themselves.

But even taking all that into account, including the House analogy and its very real meaning, and without ignoring the daunting necessity that socialist societies have been confronted with, it is still important to sum up that in dealing with all this, in the historical experience of socialist states so far, along with the very great achievements, which are in fact the main thing, there have also been secondary but nonetheless important ways in which things have gone off track, and in some instances seriously so, with undeniably negative consequences. There has been a definite tendency toward positivism and reductionism—toward, if you will, flattening out contradictions and applying a mechanical approach, including in the manner of treating the superstructure as too closely linked to the goal of economic transformation at any given time, linking things in the superstructure too closely to the immediate tasks at hand, particularly with regard to the economic base. And then, in turn, economic transformation, especially in the experience of the Soviet Union, even when it was socialist, was too much reduced to mere economic expansion on the basis of state ownership, without sufficient attention to the transformation of the relations among people in production, in various aspects, as well as other social relations, and the expression of all this in the superstructure.

Along with this, as spoken to earlier, there has been a tendency toward the reification of the proletariat (by this I mean the tendency, which is linked to positivism, to equate the proletariat, as a class, with individual members of that class, and in so doing to reduce, diminish, and undermine the revolutionary cause to which the interests of the proletariat, as a class, actually correspond): a tendency—which is linked to positivism—toward viewing things in such a way that whether or not someone is a proletarian is a crucial factor in determining whether or not that someone has the truth in their hands, so to speak. This tendency was very pronounced in the Soviet Union, although it also existed—even if to a lesser degree, and even if contradicted and counteracted by other, more correct approaches—in China when it was socialist, with the leadership of Mao.

And, along with this reification of the proletariat, there was, in the Soviet Union especially, a reification of socialism itself in a certain sense—viewing socialism as a static thing and more or less an end in itself, rather than its being understood as a very dynamic process and a transition to communism. This is something that, especially after a number of years of the experience of socialism in China, Mao recognized and began to combat, but it nonetheless remained a real tendency, even in socialist China.

This involved—once again, qualitatively more so in the Soviet Union than in China—a constriction, or a tendency toward constriction, of the process of socialist transformation; and, insofar as this tendency exerted itself, it led to some mishandling of the relation between the goal and the process, so that whatever was happening at a given time became, or tended to be identified with, the goal itself—rather than being understood as part of a process toward a larger goal. And, along with this, there was a constriction of the relation between the necessary main direction, in fundamental terms, and what were objectively “detours” or departures from—but were seen and treated as dangerous deviations from—that main direction. This, to a certain degree and sometimes to a considerable degree, led to a stifling of creativity, initiative, individual expression and, yes, individual rights in the overall process, especially when these appeared to conflict—or actually did conflict, in the short run—with the expressed goals of the socialist state and its leading party.

The New Synthesis

How does the “new synthesis” relate to this experience? To try to concentrate—or to present a basic synthesis—of what is represented by this new synthesis, it can be said:

This new synthesis involves a recasting and recombining of the positive aspects of the experience so far of the communist movement and of socialist society, while learning from the negative aspects of this experience, in the philosophical and ideological as well as the political dimensions, so as to have a more deeply and firmly rooted scientific orientation, method and approach with regard not only to making revolution and seizing power but then, yes, to meeting the material requirements of society and the needs of the masses of people, in an increasingly expanding way, in socialist society—overcoming the deep scars of the past and continuing the revolutionary transformation of society, while at the same time actively supporting the world revolutionary struggle and acting on the recognition that the world arena and the world struggle are most fundamental and important, in an overall sense—together with opening up qualitatively more space to give expression to the intellectual and cultural needs of the people, broadly understood, and enabling a more diverse and rich process of exploration and experimentation in the realms of science, art and culture, and intellectual life overall, with increasing scope for the contention of different ideas and schools of thought and for individual initiative and creativity and protection of individual rights, including space for individuals to interact in “civil society” independently of the state—all within an overall cooperative and collective framework and at the same time as state power is maintained and further developed as a revolutionary state power serving the interests of the proletarian revolution, in the particular country and worldwide, with this state being the leading and central element in the economy and in the overall direction of society, while the state itself is being continually transformed into something radically different from all previous states, as a crucial part of the advance toward the eventual abolition of the state with the achievement of communism on a world scale.

In a sense, it could be said that the new synthesis is a synthesis of the previous experience of socialist society and of the international communist movement more broadly, on the one hand, and of the criticisms, of various kinds and from various standpoints, of that experience, on the other hand. That does not mean that this new synthesis represents a mere “pasting together” of that experience on the one hand, and the criticisms on the other hand. It is not an eclectic combination of these things, but a sifting through, a recasting and recombining on the basis of a scientific, materialist and dialectical outlook and method, and of the need to continue advancing toward communism, a need and objective which this outlook and method continues to point to—and, the more thoroughly and deeply it is taken up and applied, the more firmly it points to this need and objective.

If you really grasp what this is about, you will understand why I continually talk about going to the brink of being drawn and quartered in terms of providing leadership to the communist movement and the future socialist society. Some sense of that was brought alive, I believe, in the article recently published in Revolution—or a letter from a reader criticizing a previous article (on elections, in capitalist and socialist society, and larger questions bound up with this) and then a response from the editors.3

Now, this is not a formulation that is being lightly thrown around—going to the brink of being drawn and quartered. Let’s remember what drawn and quartered means. Especially in feudal society, and particularly for offenses like treason, the punishment was often being drawn and quartered: this meant that your body was pulled apart in four directions. That’s what “drawn and quartered” means. And if you understand what’s being talked about here, in terms of being the core of leadership—yes, an ever broadening core, but being at the core of this whole revolutionary process and leading this in the ways I have been speaking to, not as a tightly controlled process but one where people are, as I’ve put it, “running in all kinds of directions”—then you see that there will be tremendous pressure and tension pulling on you. Why? Because you can’t let go of the reins, ultimately, but you also cannot hold the reins too tightly. You have to keep all this going toward the objective of communism, which is scientifically established as a necessity, but without keeping things tightly under your control throughout the process. And that does repeatedly—and will repeatedly if you’re doing what you should be doing—bring you to the brink of being drawn and quartered. And if we’re not willing to do that, then we don’t deserve to lead—and, more fundamentally and importantly, we’re not going to get where we need to go.

Now, this whole approach, this new synthesis, has been encapsulated in the formulation, “solid core with a lot of elasticity.” But this formulation must be understood precisely as a concentration—a concentrated expression of this whole rich process—and must not be turned into yet another meaningless phrase, or some sort of religious concept, which is repeatedly uttered without any substance. What is captured in “solid core with a lot of elasticity” must be grasped, and applied, in a living way, all throughout the process of revolution—before and then after the seizure of power and the establishment of the socialist state. And, in fact, this basic concept—“solid core with a lot of elasticity”—will apply even in communist society, although in a different way, when there is no longer a state nor an ongoing and institutionalized core of leadership.

I have spoken before about the four objectives of the solid core, in socialist society—namely: to maintain power for the proletarian revolution; to expand the solid core to the greatest extent possible at any given time; to work to constantly narrow, and work toward finally overcoming, the difference between the solid core and the rest of society (this speaks to “the withering away of the state”); and to foster the maximum elasticity on the basis of the necessary solid core at any given time. All four of these objectives form a unity and are mutually interdependent and mutually influence each other, one way or the other. And, as I’ve said, even in communist society—although in a radically different way—this same principle will still apply, because it conforms to, or is an expression of, the nature of reality and its development through contradictory motion.

In concluding on this point, I want to stress that it is very important not to underestimate the significance and potential positive force of this new synthesis: criticizing and rupturing with significant errors and shortcomings while bringing forward and recasting what has been positive from the historical experience of the international communist movements and the socialist countries that have so far existed; in a real sense reviving—on a new, more advanced basis—the viability and, yes, the desirability of a whole new and radically different world, and placing this on an even firmer foundation of materialism and dialectics. This new synthesis is bound up with and interpenetrates closely with key ruptures in the realm of epistemology—ruptures with instrumentalism and apriorism, dogmatism and religiosity, positivism, empiricism and pragmatism, as well as nationalism in the realm of how we view the whole process of advancing to communism.

So, we should not underestimate the potential of this as a source of hope and of daring on a solid scientific foundation. In the 1960s, when the Black Panther Party emerged on the scene, Eldridge Cleaver made the pungent observation that the old revisionist Communist Party had “ideologized” revolution off the scene, but the Panthers had ideologized it back on the scene. In the present period in the U.S., revolution has once more been “ideologized” off the scene. And in the world as a whole, to a very large degree, revolution aiming for communism and the vision of a communist world—this has been “ideologized” off the scene—and with it the only road that actually represents the possibility of a radically different and far better world, in the real world, one that people really would want to live in and would really thrive in. The new synthesis has objectively “ideologized” this back on the scene once more, on a higher level and in a potentially very powerful way.

But what will be done with this? Will it become a powerful political as well as ideological force? It is up to us to take this out everywhere—very, very boldly and with substance, linking it with the widespread, if still largely latent, desire for another way, for another world—and engage ever growing numbers of people with this new synthesis in a good, lively and living way.


The excerpts comprising Part 2 of this talk will begin in the next issue of Revolution.

  1. The talk by Bob Avakian, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, and What It’s All About, begins with “They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging,” vividly describing lynching and other horrendous ways in which Black people have been oppressed and terrorized throughout the history of the U.S.

For exposure of some of the horrors of modern-day slavery—including the enslavement of children—see “21st Century Slavery Under Global Capitalism,” in Revolution #102, September 23, 2007, which also provides references for further reading on this subject.[back]

2. The Set the Record Straight project provides an analysis of important aspects of the actual experience of socialism in the Soviet Union and in China—including very real mistakes and shortcomings as well as historically unprecedented achievements—and answers slanders and distortions of this experience. This can be accessed, and more information about this provided, online at The main presentation of this project, referred to here, is a speech by Raymond Lotta, “Socialism is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be a Far Better World.”[back]

3. Bob Avakian introduced this metaphor of leaders in the communist movement and socialist society facing the prospect of being “drawn and quartered” if they did not correctly handle difficult contradictions, in “Bob Avakian in a Discussion with Comrades on Epistemology: On Knowing and Changing the World,” which is found in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy (Chicago: Insight Press, 2005). The article referred to here by Bob Avakian (letter from a reader and reply by the editors of Revolution concerning elections in capitalist and in socialist society and larger questions bound up with this) appeared in Revolution #96, July 22, 2007.[back]


Part 2 of
Now on Web

Revolution is excited to announce that Part 2 of Bob Avakian’s new talk, MAKING REVOLUTION AND EMANCIPATING HUMANITY, is now available at The second part is entitled EVERYTHING WE’RE DOING IS ABOUT REVOLUTION, and goes into essential thinking on the actual content of building a revolutionary and communist movement. The talk will be serialized in Revolution at the conclusion of the serialization of part 1.

In an important sense this second part of MAKING REVOLUTION AND EMANCIPATING HUMANITY sets out an essential scaffolding for building such a revolutionary movement. There is surely work to be done in construction, and further thinking to do as we carry out and sum up that work, and as the world develops—but this talk sets out a coherent framework and approach for doing that work. It also applies—and exemplifies—a method that everyone can learn from and utilize: it gives a living sense of the multilayered and multilevel and dynamically changing character of reality and a way to comprehend reality in its motion and development and to transform it. In doing this, it builds off the first part of the talk, now being serialized, with its discussion not only of the overarching goal of the struggle, but also of the scientific method.

Every revolutionary and every person intent on, and grappling with, how to make, fundamental social change should get into this talk. We look forward to your comments and response on this work.

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