Professor Toad's Swamp

An exciting new biography of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, based on a careful examination of all the available sources, has concluded that in his sixty one years of life the great thinker never actually came into physical contact with a single blade of grass.

In contrast, successive generations of biographers of Karl Marx have absolutely refused to discuss his rumored extensive activities in city parks, back gardens, clear spots in junkyards, and overgrown stretches of town dumps, invariably retreating into disgusted silence when asked.

Vacuuming is when state and quasi-state actors work to neutralize and disorganize the left by pushing forward a flashy and exciting organizer or organization and encouraging all other organizations to fall in behind or fold themselves into the vacuuming project. The vacuuming project can be given preferential media treatment, be allowed to break the law in ways other activists would not be, and can involve paid professionals, in contrast to most leftists who are stuck with day jobs.

Often, respected members of the activist community will enthusiastically promote the new project. This promotion may come from people seemingly ideologically very distant from each other, so that the vacuuming project appears to be the one thing everyone agrees on.

These carrots are sometimes combined with a stick, i.e. some kind of attack on groups and individuals that remain aloof from the project.

The vacuuming project is typically everything to everyone: It is anarchist if you are an anarchist, Trotskyist if you are a Trotskyist. If you're just a progressive Democrat? Go Bernie.

Generally it actually has little or no meaningful ideology. As a result, participation in it tends to result only in burn out for honest activists — which, after all, is the point.

Vacuuming on a grand scale is a well-known tactic. One example is Father Gapon, a Tsarist secret service agent who was assigned to create a fake workers movement in pre-revolutionary Russia. His movement was allowed to organize freely, of course. Another would be the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, which was allowed to organize and even given state help to organize in fascist Spain, with the result that once fascism fell, the Socialist Workers Party and not the communists emerged as the leading left force.

Vacuuming is also a known tactic in the US. For example, in Los Angeles, the FBI heavily repressed the Black Panthers while aiding an ersatz black liberation organization, the US Organization, which it even helped to murder Panthers such as Bunchy Carter.

In fact, vacuuming occurs constantly in the US, on small, medium and large scales today.

The main way to respond to vacuuming is to not respond to it directly at all. There's rarely anything to be gained by pointing out how stupid the project actually is behind the shiny bits. The vacuumers must instead be out organized. You'll know you've won this round when the backwards people start coming to your events again.

The worst way to respond to it is to succumb to it, to give up whatever you have built — however small and fragile — to join this larger, exciting, but ultimately utterly sterile project.

If you haven't run across humanists yet, lucky you. But you probably will sooner or later. First thing you will probably notice is their incredible self-conceit. They are very, very sure that they understand Marx and almost no one else does: Not you, not Lenin, not Engels, and certainly not such nobodies as Fidel or Stalin.

What is this profound insight that only the big-brained can discover? Why it's this: They will tell you that ultimately Marx aimed not merely at the liberation of the working class but at the liberation of all of humanity, of all social classes, who suffer from the same problem: man's alienation from his essential species being.

Actually they'll probably just say alienation. Alienation is kind of their word. But alienation can refer to a LOT of things, like in the “inalienable rights” in the US Declaration of Independence, or in the Grundrisse where Marx talks about “the involuntary alienation of feudal landed property”. If you actually UNDERSTAND the word alienation, you get that it's just a synonym for estrangement, and a lot of things can get alienated from a lot of things.

No, the alienation our humanists are concerned with is one particular alienation: man's alienation from his own essential nature.

I hope that once we clarify what “man” is being alienated from here, it's obvious to you that this is dumb. Things don't HAVE essential, unchanging natures. If you have any background in hard sciences at all you know that. You're descended from a monkey, sure, but before that, going back far enough, a mushroom, and before that, a little amoeba-like organism. What is the essential thing that has stayed the same in all that time? And if you have changed so much from your ancestors, why shouldn't your descendants continue to change?

In fact, a major aspect of Marx's project is precisely to show that things in the social and ideological sphere change, just as things in biology or cosmology change... That capitalism evolved, had a beginning, and will have an end, just as much as the solar system evolved, had a beginning, and will have an end.

Take this, from the Manifesto:

The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property – historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.

Right? All this shit we have been told is eternal, based in human nature, etc., is actually just particular to a certain state of society.

It IS actually true that in a few of his earliest, most obscure writings, Marx talked about man's alienation from his species being and this kind of crap. And the humanists think they are very clever for having discovered that. But they have somehow FAILED to discover Marx's later refutation and dissection of these views, including in his LEAST obscure work, the Manifesto.

Let's start with this example from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 — called manuscripts because they were not published in Marx's lifetime nor at all until the Soviets published them in the 1930s:

Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.

Right? Human self-estrangement, or, if you like, self-alienation. Communism as the “return of man to himself”. This is the crucial idea that, according to the humanists, is necessary if you want to understand Marx's later works. (Yes, the vital key to unlock the true meaning of Marxism is in a book Marx never bothered to have published in his own lifetime.)

Now, let's go forward to the German Ideology, which Marx started in 1845, only about a year after the Manuscripts:

The individuals, who are no longer subject to the division of labour, have been conceived by the philosophers as an ideal, under the name “Man”. They have conceived the whole process which we have outlined as the evolutionary process of “Man,” so that at every historical stage “Man” was substituted for the individuals and shown as the motive force of history. The whole process was thus conceived as a process of the self-estrangement of “Man,” and this was essentially due to the fact that the average individual of the later stage was always foisted on to the earlier stage, and the consciousness of a later age on to the individuals of an earlier. Through this inversion, which from the first is an abstract image of the actual conditions, it was possible to transform the whole of history into an evolutionary process of consciousness.

If you study that closely, and figure out what he actually means, here we are DISSECTING the concept of “Man” and refuting the notion of “self-estrangement of 'Man'”. That is, in this passage, Marx is demolishing exactly the basic ideas that our humanists will tell you are the hidden essence of Marx. Note also that now Marx has started putting “Man” in scare quotes, because he is beginning to analyze not an abstract man, but concrete human beings who are not all just about the same as each other, but are divided into social classes. From here on out, “Man” ceases to be the subject of Marx's inquiry, and instead we see the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, and so on.

The German Ideology is relatively obscure, but I point this part out to you for two reasons. One is that it shows how quickly Marx moved past the ideas of the Manuscripts, refuting them only about a year later. The second is that Marx actually takes the time and trouble here to work through the errors of reasoning in the Manuscripts.

In the Manifesto, he is much less gentle:

It is well known how the monks wrote silly lives of Catholic Saints over the manuscripts on which the classical works of ancient heathendom had been written. The German literati reversed this process with the profane French literature. They wrote their philosophical nonsense beneath the French original. For instance, beneath the French criticism of the economic functions of money, they wrote “Alienation of Humanity”, and beneath the French criticism of the bourgeois state they wrote “Dethronement of the Category of the General”, and so forth.

Now, that is literally the only appearance of the word “alienation” — this allegedly key concept of Marxism — in the whole of the Manifesto. He does say, specifically, “Alienation of Humanity”, which is exactly what our humanists are talking about. And Marx is plainly mocking this self-alienation of Man junk.

But the dunking, though hilarious, actually has deep content behind it. That passage occurs in the larger section of the Manifesto concerned with the “True Socialists”. And in there, he explains how it all got twisted. The section is not long. You've probably read it before. You should read it again and think a little more about what it means. But the bottom line is this:

German idealists took notice of socialism because it emerged as a political demand as part of a real struggle taking place in France. The same struggle was NOT taking place in Germany, so the Germans had no direct connection to it. And they took these real world political ideas — ideas emerging from real political struggles and not philosophical mumbo jumbo — and worked them into their idealist philosophical systems — Hegelianism or Feuerbachianism or whatever — and distorted them in the process. “Silly”, Marx calls it, and “philosophical nonsense.”

So, where does that leave us? Marx had a humanistic phase early on, but he grew out of it.

This isn't odd. Not remotely. If you understand the first thing about dialectics, you understand that everything changes. Obviously Marx isn't exempt from that. And if you are a communist who comes from a non-socialist country — as Marx did — then you know very well that you also had a political development: You probably started out as a capitalist and went through one or more stages of more vague anti-capitalism — anarchy or Trotskyism or whatever — before arriving at Leninism. Well, Marx also had a political development.

Particularly, Marx had a political development of emerging from German academic philosophy — Hegel, Kant, Feuerbach, etc. You probably know that about him. He had a doctorate. He read an absolutely stunning amount. And he devoured libraries full of German idealism. This German idealism was very intellectually compelling as philosophies go. So, yes, Marx's early writings are tainted by German idealism. How would they NOT be?

To be clear, also, it was not a process of pure thought that brought Marx out of idealism. In January of 1843, Marx's newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, was ordered suppressed. The True Socialists were no help. Marx then had to flee to France, where he connected with the real, living socialist movement.

However, Marx's political and philosophical transition is not difficult to understand or to see, even just reading Marx's work themselves. Our humanists are too smart to understand it.

So, that's the intellectual content of humanism: taking some ideas from the Manuscripts and missing the parts of Marx's later works where he explains why those ideas are wrong — not to mention having a poor enough grasp of dialectical materialism that you can't, yourself, see the problem in these ideas. Intellectually, humanism is actually not all that.

The POLITICAL content of humanism is where the meat is, the reason that it continues to pop up every so often. Humanism was important in dismantling the communist movement in Europe in the second half of the 20th century. It was a favorite of Krushchevites and Eurocommunists. Humanism was used as an ideological weapon against the USSR. The notion was that Soviet Marxism left out a crucial element of Marxism — the crucial element actually being German idealism. And in this way humanism was used to cut the Marxist legs out from under the Soviet Union by accusing the Soviets of being bad Marxists. Furthermore, the notion of a basic human nature which was the same across all social classes played into Khrushchev's idea of the “state of the whole people”.

Humanism is a distortion of Marxism that serves the interest of the bourgeoisie.

There are two other relatively minor points that relate to this. One is that the transition we are talking about was actually occurring in 1845 and 1846, and was largely complete by the time of the Manifesto in 1848. That's important if you get on a Marx kick and start reading every bit of his stuff. It will help you make sense of the early stuff and why it is so absolutely impenetrable and so hard to reconcile with Marx's later, well, materialism.

The second is that Marx had to dig his way out of German idealism. Some Marxists mix this up, study Hegel, and start substituting Hegel's idealism for the mature Marx's materialism. If you read Hegel, whatever, but it won't illuminate Marx's ideas for you, because those are the ideas Marx had to dig his way out of. Reading Hegel will not make you smarter, but if you aren't careful, it MIGHT make you dumber.

Finally, I should mention that the key ideas in this are ripped pretty directly from Louis Althusser's For Marx. (If I was a classier person, I would probably have put that at the start.) So, if you want a much fuller discussion of all of this, but written in the language of a top French academic and devoid of the illustrative examples from Marx's writings, Althusser's your guy.

If you're new to the left, maybe you haven't run across a zombie party yet. If you've been around a while, you know them, even if you haven't heard them called that.

I'm speaking for no one but myself here, and even them I'm anonymous, so I can name names. The US Socialist Workers Party is one. Revolutionary Communist Party USA is another. One is post-Trotskyist; the other is post-Maoist. So what do they have in common (besides the “post” thing, which I'll actually come back to)?

They're zombie parties. They used to have some life to them, but now? Not so much.

Socialist Workers Party, before most of you were born, was the US branch of Trotskyism. It had tens of thousands of members, was heavily targeted by Hoover's boys, and played a noticeable role in important social movements. At some point it was surely the second biggest left party in the US, after CPUSA. Before the FBI sent Richard Aoki to spy on the Panthers, they had him detailed to keep an eye on the SWP. Then it died. It hasn't done anything useful, anything important, in many years. But it lumbers on, aimless and mindless.

RCP was perhaps the largest, or best organized, or largest well-organized, product of the new communist movement. It played a major role in the Revolutionary International Movement, the Maoist international that united serious revolutionary forces like the Nepalese Communist Party Maoist and the Peruvian Shining Path. But that was also a long time ago.

What Are Zombie Parties Missing Out On?

In the United States, there is no equivalent to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), no parallel to the Argentinian Workers' Left Front, certainly nothing comparable to the Venezuelan United Socialist Party. Every single left group in the US is pitifully small by comparison to any of these groups, and none of them hold a single governorship or effectively control the election of a single member of Congress — leaving out, obviously, a handful of Democratic Party congresspeople who also associate with DSA, but are otherwise more or less indistinguishable from the more progressive wing of the Democrats.

So, in one way, zombie parties are like all the other parties: They're not a major, national electoral opposition. But other left parties ARE doing things, and historically have done things, that zombie parties aren't, and those things are important.

For one thing, other left parties are growing, in many cases explosively. I'm not going to go too far into the reasons for this here, but the sheer passage of time since Fukuyama's end of history, the growth of the Latin American left, and the increasing polarization of US society surely all have something to do with it. These conditions, and whatever others, have allowed several left parties to emerge from almost nothing to very noticeable presences, on and off line.

The zombie parties haven't benefited from this surge at all. In fact, if you know SWP people, you have probably noticed that every SWP person you know seems to have been in the party for well over ten years. In RCP, there may be more turnover, but, again, no indication that the total number is up at all — in spite of some fantastic publicity, like the time Bob Avakian got to publicly debate Cornell West.

That ought to be a wake up call for the people in these parties. Here is this huge surge in interest in socialism, and they don't benefit from it at all. But they keep going the same as ever.

Another difference between zombie parties and the rest of the left is that they don't play a useful role in actual, live social movements. One of the core tenets of Marxism is that class struggle is a constant thing in any class society. The fact that a certain party isn't involved in it doesn't mean the class struggle isn't going on; it just tells us a lot about that party.

Take, for example, the George Floyd uprising that began in the summer of 2020. This was the most explosive outburst of class struggle in the US for many years. Several left parties participated in it and many helped to organize it.

How did our zombie parties relate to the George Floyd uprising?

Well, the Socialist Workers Party was basically against it. They denounced “the nightly burnings, looting and destruction by groups of provocateurs, anarchists, opportunists, and those driven by frustration and demoralization” in the uprising itself. 1 As for the trial that finally sent the notoriously violent Derek Chauvin to prison, the SWP complained that it “dealt blows to rights workers need”.2 I'm not making that up; I'm not that funny. The footnotes have links here.

The Revolutionary Communist Party's approach is also wrong, but more subtly. They have participated in the movement, but as a separate element within it, with the clearest of lines drawn between them and the rest of everybody. RCP participants are readily identifiable in nearly every case by t-shirts and signs identifying them either with the RCP or with its so-called mass group, Refuse Fascism, which in practice is little more than RCP itself. RCP may call a Refuse Fascism protest. It may attempt to hijack someone else's protest. But it won't integrate into any sort of broader coalition work. As a result, rather than an organic part of the black livers matter movement, it remains a strange group of outsiders who show up to rallies sometimes. The overall effect on the movement is probably negative, based just on the pure weirdness. In any case, the movement grows, the movement ebbs, the movement evolves, and RCP just stays RCP.

The Resilience of Zombie Parties

In the 1970s in the United States there were literally dozens of different party-building efforts based on several different ideologies. This explosion of party building efforts is down to what certainly looked to a lot of people like a revolutionary situation in the 1970s, combined with the obvious uselessness of the existing communist party. However, almost all of these groups — parties, pre-parties and others — dissipated by the mid-1980s. Even among the handful that survived, there is a long history of mergers, splits and transmutations that left the modern organization very different in terms of names, leadership, and ideology from its original roots.

There are several causes for this instability. One is the extremely fervent debate among the party builders in this period. Another is the ebb of that apparent revolutionary situation once the Vietnam War ended and the Carter Administration gave way to the bleak days of Reaganism. Still another is the collapse of the USSR, which on one side was demoralizing to revolutionaries and then on the other offered new perspectives on Soviet history and the role of the USSR.

By contrast, RCP has existed under the same leader for approximately fifty years. It has been immune from the storms caused by internal debate or external changes precisely because it has no internal debate and is powerfully disconnected from the living world outside it. The one obvious ideological development it has undergone is the adoption of the so-called New Synthesis.3 This development has been entirely internally driven and in fact has only served to isolate the RCP further, severing its ties to the world Maoist movement. The process has also apparently been driven entirely by the RCP's leader, so internal debate was apparently not a factor.

The Strange Contradiction of Zombie Party Membership

Membership in a revolutionary party is a pretty serious commitment. It will take up your time. It will take at least some of your money. It will sooner or later interfere with your social life, maybe even your family life. It may land you in jail or in danger.

But membership in a zombie party usually takes more. For example, it's not unusual for SWP to have members pick up and move across the country, severing their social ties, interfering with whatever family life they have, and surely also hitting them hard in the pocketbook.

People make these sacrifices because they believe in revolution.

Here we are, as I write this in early 2022, and we are seeing, at least, the beginnings of a people's movement in the United States. It's far from a revolutionary movement, but it may one day develop into one.

But for a Marxist who is a big-time dreamer — and a zombie party member has got to be that — it must really look like a revolutionary movement.

And yet, for all the sacrifices zombie party members have made to be ready for this moment across decades of their lives, here they are, sitting on the outside of it.

This is only the latest knock they must have taken, though. Throughout their lives there have been outbreaks of class struggle, the thing they, at least on paper, live for, and they've been outside of it. All along they've put their faith in their party growing into a major revolutionary force, and they've seen none of that.

What Keeps People in Zombie Parties

So why keep going?

Some of the answers, of course, can be found in the isolation of the group itself. The small group dynamics, the lack of outside social contacts, create a situation where the members reinforce one another's faith. At the same time, it gives them less to leave to, and less to leave for. There is no group of friends, and very little family, on the outside pulling them away from the work. There are also questions about the psychology of the leadership, and maybe other more obscure factors. All of these ideas, while they have some merit, are discussed enough in the hostile, anti-communist critiques of these groups that they don't need a lot of rehashing here. There are some other, less understood, aspects of this that are more worth fleshing out.

“Why We're Practically the US Branch of ______”

For one thing, there is the question of international ties. When the Shining Path headquarters was raided in Lima in 1992, a picture of RCP's leader, Bob Avakian, was hanging on the wall. Whatever criticisms there are of the Shining Path, at that point it controlled at least 20% of the Peruvian countryside. No doubt in the minds of RCP members, this connection and others like it is very powerful. In reality, it is surely just a big misunderstanding. Even into the 2000s, South Asian Maoist groups would at times feel the need to engage with RCP's increasingly strange documents. But this can only be because it is very difficult for a group with little or no presence in the US to understand how completely marginal the RCP truly is.

Socialist Workers Party, on the other hand, makes a great deal of its ties to the Cuban government. It isn't clear how strong those are, or how strong they ever were, but certainly SWP members have visited Cuba and probably met with government officials. The Cuban government is happy to accept friends in the United States, without feeling the need to really vet them. But, again, surely this all seems meaningful to SWP members.

Probably every zombie party in the country boasts internally of some kind of international ties. Anyone who has done the work of building international ties for a US political group knows exactly how easy it is to find friends abroad. But the average zombie party member hasn't, so it seems like a very big deal to them. To be fair, even the people building those ties might not realize how many other people have built how many other ties for how many other parties.

“If the Feds Hate Us, We Must be on the Right Track”

Another hardly discussed factor is that in many of these zombie parties there is a clear understanding that the US government has taken an interest in them and infiltrated them. The book Heavy Radicals documents the heavy US government repression of Maoist groups, including the RCP, in the 1970s. Maoists at the time knew about this and took pride in it. Socialist Workers Party successfully sued the United States government in the 1980s for the extensive disruption and infiltration campaign the feds had conducted against them.4

People in these parties see the government targeting them as an acknowledgment by the government that they are dangerous, and take it as proof that they are on the right track. But this logic shows much too much faith in the US government's thinking. In reality, the US government has no idea what group or what ideas are dangerous to it in anything but the most immediate term. As a result, it takes a broad approach and infiltrates every possible nucleus of dissent from mosques to vegan societies. The mere fact that every single zombie party thinks it is great because it is infiltrated is enough to prove how worthless of a criterion that really is. They can't ALL be the one true party.

Look at All Our Resources

The zombie are relics of past periods of revolutionary upsurge, periods when the revolutionary movement in the United States was a very real thing... For RCP, the 1970s, and for the SWP, the 1930s, and then surviving on through every subsequent upswing. This is true of almost all the zombie parties. And during these periods of heightened activity, some of them have been able to accumulate substantial resources that newer groups can only envy. To leave a zombie party means to abandon those material resources and start over with nothing in a time when its much more difficult to build.

Look How Much We Know

Just as their origins in periods of revolutionary fervor have allowed zombie parties to accumulate material resources, they have allowed them to accumulate real sophistication as well. The discussion above about police infiltration is a good example. More recent parties are often painfully oblivious to police infiltration. Even if they are aware of it, they typically underestimate the problem and have no serious process to confront it. For a zombie party member, it must be hard to imagine leaving a group that is so much more sophisticated for one that is still fresh-faced and naive.

Still, the zombie parties never stop to consider that what they think they know about police infiltration may not be all there is to know. A real possibility exists that they have fooled themselves into thinking they have the police infiltration problem managed. For at least some, overconfidence in this area probably leaves them actually more vulnerable to manipulation by the state than other, more naive, groups.

Here it is worth considering the case of the English army spy known as Stakeknife. Stakeknife infiltrated the Provisional Irish Republican Army over a period that included almost all of the troubles. During that time he was involved in counterintelligence within the IRA. He helped the IRA to identify actual spies sent by a separate arm of the state, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and even was involved in executing some of them, all for the purpose of keeping his own identity secret and furthering his own infiltration of the IRA. One police spy was sacrificed to bolster the credibility of another.

Zombie parties which assume they are being targeted by a really unified state apparatus and rely in part on observing networking among state agents may very well have made a terrible mistake.

Taxidermy, Not Survival

However, in the end, however much zombie parties may be able to say for themselves in all these ways, in the end, it's no more than pointing out how sharp the claws are on a taxidermied lion. These parties have isolated themselves completely from the wider mass movement. Unless they can find some way to return to it, whatever strengths they have are useless.

Revolutionary Genius

RCP is a post-Maoist party. Though it emerged from Maoism, it now upholds an outlook known as the New Synthesis. SWP is a post-Trotskyist party. Though it comes out of Trotskyism, during the late 70s and 80s it reoriented itself towards support for the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions — truly scandalous from a Trotskyist point of view. Its analysis since then has been even more fluid, and it has gone from unorthodox but basically positive developments in Trotskyism to its current, near Trumpish, orientation.

Zombie parties taking up novel theoretical positions is not accidental. One of the main things holding people in zombie parties is a belief that their party and their party alone has the correct theoretical orientation. The idea is that a revolution can't be made without a correct theory, so abandoning the only party with a correct theory would be abandoning revolution itself.5

It isn't an accident either that the theoretical positions are often comical. After all, if a zombie party's reason for existing was a theoretical position that was sensible, sane, or even worse, grounded in reality, there would be a real risk someone else would stumble on to their Great Truth and they would lose their monopoly.

But how is that these zombie parties happen to be the only ones who have discovered a correct revolutionary orientation? After all, it would be a lot more natural for developments in revolutionary theory to occur where revolutionary activity is more widespread and where more people are engaged in it. And these great developments not only occur in the US, where revolutionary activity is consistently at a relatively low level, but always during downturns in revolutionary activity even by US standards.

The answer is typically that zombie parties are blessed to contain within their ranks a true revolutionary genius. A revolutionary genius here is a person who is, alone or almost alone, able to solve the revolutionary problems not only of the United States, but of the entire world.

As incredible as it sounds, this is how RCP more or less openly talks about its leader, Bob Avakian: “Bob Avakian (BA) is the most important political thinker and leader in the world today.”6

RCP's treatment of Bob Avakian is unfortunately not too out of place in the wider Maoist movement. That's plainly a result of the way that Mao was talked about during certain periods in Chinese history. The Chinese opportunist and coup plotter Lin Biao was partly responsible for this kind of error,7 but he wasn't alone.

The SWP's long-time leader, Jack Barnes, is not given the accolades that Bob Avakian does. But the web is full of accounts from ex SWP members suggesting his authority in the group is hardly less.8 Barnes has attempted to export his inventions across the world to countries he has little understanding of. The Pathfinder Tendency, which he leads as much as he does the SWP itself, at one time had branches in over a half dozen countries.9

What Have We Learned?

This article is aimed first of all at zombie party members, in an effort to deconstruct the clever tricks by which the leaders of these parties keep their members. If I reach even a few, I'll have considered it worth writing. As a consolation prize, I'll accept it if someone steps back from POSSIBLE membership in one of these museums as a result of reading this article.

But there are at least a couple of broader lessons contained here.

In his book “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin warns us that if we refuse to work in reactionary trade unions we abandon the broad masses of workers to the leadership of the labor lieutenants of capital. When revolutionaries stand aloof from working class struggles, that is the fate of the workers. Zombie parties are the fate of the revolutionaries.

Another lesson is a reminder to handle with great caution any claims of great theoretical advances that come without corresponding practical successes. Marxism is ultimately a practical science, one that is aimed at bringing about real-world change. The greatness of zombie party theory exists only in the world of the imagination; in the material world, their genius ideas have accomplished nothing.

Finally, I would say that for revolutionary organizations, there is a fate worse than death. A revolutionary party that preserves itself by coating itself in shellac only prevents good revolutionaries from looking for other organizational homes. Though almost all the parties that came out of the new left have dissolved, many of the people from those parties have gone on to newer, more promising prospects, prospects rooted in the current time, current conditions, and modern thinking.




3. Albert Einstein once said that if you can't explain an idea simply, you don't understand it well. If he was right, no one understands the New Synthesis. If you ask for an explanation in simple terms, you'll only get a link to a series of Bob Avakian videos. Best I can tell, it's all about using a huge number of words to hide how little actual content is in it.

4. The 70-some page judgment can be found here:

5. Of course, if an analysis is CORRECT, it shouldn't be unusual for more than one person to reach it. So even if a zombie party had the correct analysis of some point and no one else did, you would expect other groups actually involved in living revolutionary practice to eventually arrive at the same, correct conclusion in any case. This is like the case of Joseph Dietzgen, a German tanner who independently arrived at many of the same conclusions as Marx and Engels, or for that matter like Newton and Liebniz who seem to have each invented calculus at about the same time.


It doesn't end there, either. The RCP website contains a constitution for a future socialist republic in North America, written, obviously, by Bob Avakian. Boldly running the risk of being called immodest, Avakian has written himself into the constitution, specifically Article J-5, talking about the culture of the future socialist republic:

Also, through funds and resources provided by the government– not to exceed ½ the value of that provided for independent art and culture–and through support it receives directly from its own members and others more broadly in society, the Revolutionary Communist Party will produce and work to popularize a variety of artistic creations which also strive to meet the needs of the people for culture with a high artistic quality while also inspiring people with the outlook and values of communism, as this has been further developed through the new synthesis brought forward by Bob Avakian.

If for some reason you want to read the whole thing, it's here in PDF form:

7. For example:

Comrade Mao Tse-tung is the greatest Marxist-Leninist of our era. He has inherited, defended and developed Marxism-Leninism with genius, creatively and comprehensively and has brought it to a higher and completely new stage.

Lin Biao, Foreword to the Second Edition of Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-tung,

I've explored this tendency in Maoism more generally a little bit more thoroughly in another post, here:

8. Somewhat differing analysis from several different former SWP members reaching generally the same conclusions about Barnes' role in the organization can be found here:

9. Just as RCP's treatment of Avakian is rooted in Maoist traditions, the megalomaniacal treatment of Jack Barnes may have its origins in Trotsky's own incredible self conceptions.

As an example of Trotsky's general self-importance, consider this from his biography:

On the night of the 24th, the members of the Revolutionary Committee went out into the various districts, and I was left alone. Later on, Kamenev came in. He was opposed to the uprising, but he had come to spend that deciding night with me, and together we stayed in the tiny corner room on the third floor, so like the captain’s bridge on that deciding night of the revolution.

Or take the way that, by the 1930s, he was referring to every other Soviet leader other than Lenin and Sverdlov (who by then were dead) as “epigones”, a snob's word for a lesser imitator. You can find an example of that here:

Or consider his quite incredible pontificating about China, a country he had never visited and obviously knew virtually nothing about. In 1932, at a time when China was about 95% rural and large patches of it were controlled by landlord-organized militias, Trotsky wrote:

But in the words just quoted there was nevertheless a kernel of truth: there is almost no estate of landlords in China, the landowners are much more intimately bound up with the capitalists than in Tsarist Russia, and the specific weight of the agrarian question in China is therefore much lighter than in Tsarist Russia...

This is a question that comes up periodically. The MLM groups in North America as a whole have made a very sad showing... Whether we're talking about the open wreckerism of the Red Guards clowns or the ultra-leftism and rapid collapse of the Canadian PCR-RCP. However, the label still seems to have its attractions. Part of it may be just holdover ideas from the Cultural Revolution days that have now been inherited by a new generation. Certainly partly it is the important work that is being done by the Communist Party of the Philippines. But we can't decide the usefulness of the label either on the basis of unexamined dogma or on the basis that a single group, however good their work, employs it. We need to look at the label itself, where it comes from and what it implies.

In the end, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, as a term, is basically a concession to idealism. It also implies a break from Leninism that doesn't really exist.

What I mean by a concession to idealism is this: Leninism isn't defined by the great genius of Lenin or of anyone else. Leninism, as Stalin explained, is Marxism in the era of imperialism and revolution. The objective conditions of the world are the driving factor here, and Marxism has adapted to them. Lenin wasn't even the only one involved in adapting Marxism. Stalin, for example, was a major contributor to Leninist theories on the national question. In fact, if Lenin had never existed, sooner or later someone else would have reached the same conclusions that he did, because they are nothing but an accurate theoretical description of the world as it now is. Just as two people looking at the same animal should describe it similarly, two Marxists studying the capitalism of the modern period ought to reach mostly the same conclusions about it.

Marxism, likewise, isn't best understood as the product of the genius of Karl Marx. Of course, Marx was a genius, and Marxism developed much more rapidly because of his prodigious talent and labor. But Marx's ideas couldn't have come about much before Marx's time, because the proletariat was not yet developed enough to reveal its importance as a revolutionary subject. Also, like Lenin, Marx was not alone in the theoretical work that bears his name. Engels in reality was a major contributor, and there were others. And it has been pointed out that Joseph Dietzgen developed many of the same conclusions as Marx independently of him.

And this is how ideas come about in other areas as well. No doubt Newton was a genius for inventing calculus, but of course it is thought to have been invented almost simultaneously by Leibniz, possibly because the two were working on similar practical problems related to physics which demanded the new mathematical ideas. Maybe in the end the technological advances that made the telescope possible ultimately deserve more credit than either mathematician for the invention of calculus.

So, then, if Marxism-Leninism is Marxism in a new era, Marxism in the era of imperialism and world revolution, what newer era demands a newer Marxism? There obviously isn't one; we're still in the period of imperialism and world revolution. In the Cultural Revolution, some people suggested we were in the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but if anybody said that today they'd just get laughed at.

What we're left with is the idea that Mao's great genius opened up a new era in Marxism. That is, literally, a Maoist position, in as many words. Here is Chairman Gonzalo himself explaining it in a 1988 interview:

Why do we say that we are facing a new, third, and higher stage, namely Maoism? We say this because looking at the three constituent parts of Marxism it is patently evident that President Mao Zedong has developed each of these three parts.1

Now, you may be inclined to sideline or minimize the importance of Gonzalo's thinking on the subject. But if you are, I suspect it's because you aren't very well aware of the history of the emergence of the concept of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Here is how noted Canadian Maoist J. Moufawad-Paul explains it, in a recent obituary for President Gonzalo:

As the Chair of the Communist Party of Peru's (PCP) Central Committee, Gonzalo was responsible for leading the People's War in Peru and initiating the theorization of Maoism as a third stage of revolutionary science. Moreover, the now defunct Revolutionary Internationalist Movement responsible for crystallizing Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (as opposed to “Mao Zedong Thought”) was only able to reach the ideological and organizational heights it once had due to the participation and influence of the Gonzalo-led PCP. For those of us who all ourselves “Maoists” because we recognize Maoism as a development in the same sense that Leninism was (however we position ourselves in the international debate about the meaning of MLM now) there is no avoiding or denying the significance of Gonzalo.2

Now, not only is the sudden appearance of great geniuses not how inventions work, but it's a very dangerous idea, that has contributed to the construction of cults of personality in far too many Maoist groups. Once we've accepted that a single individual's genius opened up a whole new era in Marxism, why shouldn't we expect to find great geniuses in our own work?

In any case, there is the practical side. The word Marxism-Leninism reflected a real break in the world socialist movement. From Lenin's time forward, every socialist revolution that has actually occurred has been led by Marxist-Leninists.

In Lenin's time, the movement split in two, between those that backed the Soviet Union and continued on a revolutionary path, and those who turned to bourgeois reformism. Accepting the theories of Marxism-Leninism was the dividing line between the two camps in the realm of theory.

We can't say the same about the Chinese revolution and Maoism, since even into the 1980s, socialist revolutions continued to occur and continued to be led by Marxist-Leninists such as Thomas Sankara. This even includes the Chinese revolution. Not only did the Chinese consider themselves Marxist-Leninists rather than Maoists at the time of the revolution, but many of the key ideas of Maoism had not yet been developed — ideas related to the growth of revisionism in socialist societies and the need for cultural revolution, to name two.

This break, in which everyone who wasn't a Maoist would go over into social democracy, just didn't occur. Sure, it continues to be a part of the rhetoric of many Maoist groups. But that's mainly because their ideas unfortunately often just dogmatically reproduce the thinking of this or that faction from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, without giving any attention to what has happened in the world since that time, or what theoretical lessons world events hold for us. Looking at events in revolutionary history since the Cultural Revolution, it's clear enough.

One of the many great things about the Communist Party of the Philippines is that they do not make this mistake. They maintain close ties with the Communist Party of Cuba, for example, thought the Communist Party of Cuba defines itself as Marxist-Leninist.

So, to sum up, the name Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is wrong because it idealistically elevates the thinking of an individual human over the development of the material world. Consequently, it implies a break between Maoist groups and Leninist groups that isn't reflected in the real world, and tends to instigate dangerous sectarianism.


1. The text is from Sol Rojo. The translation is mine.

2. J. Moufawad-Paul published that here.

Think I'm going to make a robot with a strong artificial intelligence component, a web connection, and a boxing glove attachment. It will identify people likely to use the word “praxis”, go to them, and wait until they use it, at which point it will deploy the boxing glove.

I'll fund this admittedly niche machine by making another that targets the word “utilize”.

Praxis is just a razzle-dazzle word, one that people pull out like a stage magician with a handkerchief, drawing your eye away from the reality that they have no argument... Or intimidating you into assuming that since they use bigger words than you, they must be smarter than you, must be better Marxists than you, until you turn your brain off and uncritically accept their nonsense.

Discussions of Marxism have to be democratic, in the sense that they have to be couched in ways that ordinary people, and not just some intellectual elite, can understand what's being said and what the differences of opinion are. A Marxist who won't write for people who didn't even get to finish high school isn't a genius; they're a fuck up at best and a con artist at worst.

Professor Toad is an ugly and mean revolutionary. It is HIGHLY doubtful that he he is actually a toad or a professor or anything.

If you want to say something to him, you can write to him at

On the US left, the free breakfast program carried out by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense is legendary, and there are almost constant attempts to imitate it.

And why shouldn't people want to copy it? It filled a tremendous need in the community, and embarrassed the state enough to where today most US school children have access to a similar program through the state. It also did a great deal to build support for the Panthers in the community.

But no one ever really manages it, though God knows plenty have tried. The short answer to why it hasn't been matched is that it takes a tremendous amount of resources, and the left in the US doesn't have those resources right now.

Most of the time people set out to imitate it, they hold a big community feed. A LOT of times, this is anarchists doing it, so in addition to the other problems, they're serving people vegan soup, which isn't necessarily the most popular thing they could put out.

But whatever food they serve, what they don't do is feed hundreds of children every day for literally years, as the Panthers did in Oakland and other towns. People aim at weekly feeds, but hardly ever really manage that.

As a result, they connect to very few people, and they don't connect all that strongly to those. Recruitment really is a numbers game. You've got to sift through a lot of people to find a handful that are really going to go all in for the revolution. And feeding five or ten people isn't going to get you very far.

Even if you serve plenty of food, as anybody that has run a business knows, you've got to be out there and consistent for a while before you build up a clientele. The first time you do it, if you've got food for a hundred people, you're probably going to end up throwing a lot of it out.

And if you're thinking, well, my idea is clothes, or legal help, or whatever, that's fine, and one or another alternative may be a better idea than food in your town, but I don't see where that changes the basic math.

There are groups that build up a strong working class constituency through service programs, and turn that into some political mobilizing power. But these aren't revolutionary groups. These are pretty consistently NGOs, and they can do it because they have full time staff whose job it is to do the work, and usually a brick and mortar office to work out of.

So, if you're a revolutionary and you want to do this, then I think there's a few things you're going to have to do to really get traction.

One, you're going to have to raise money and other resources, so you have a place to work out of and you have things to distribute. You're going to have to do this in a serious, consistent way, and to the tune of probably thousands per month. And no, you may not have to buy the food. The Panthers didn't. But it's work to guilt people into donating it, it's work to collect, and it's work to prepare and distribute it. To do that on a large scale you will need a large number of people each one putting in a large number of hours.

Two, you're going to have to dedicate yourself to it, and probably live without working, or anyway while only half-working. That's quite a position to put yourself in, for a lot of reasons. First is that you're going to be relying on the generosity of others to live, and if that dries up, you're going to be kind of screwed. Second is what happens if you get sick or disabled. And third is it's going to be difficult or impossible to maintain a family life.

Three, you're going to need a strong organization to back you. And very few organizations in the US are really strong enough to consistently back anything at this time. Almost all of them still have terrible internal contradictions... But that's a different topic.

Otherwise, this is a kind of organizing that the left is not going to do very much with for a while yet.