Ethics and Maoism
Recently Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP, USA) member and self proclaimed Maoist Economist Raymond Lotta and Professor Bill Martin (also a self titled Maoist and American Philosopher) gave a talk and had a dialog at Columbia University around the recent book co-authored by Professor Martin and RCP chairman Bob Avakian, Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics. This book which documents a back and forth discussion between Martin and Avakian is to say the least quite interesting. One of the issues that this book brings up is the question of Ethics itself and its place in the Communist movement. To briefly summarize positions, Martin feels there is a space for the Kantian concept of the Categorical Imperative within the Maoist movement. Far from proposing a simple false synthesis, Martin has been grappling with the question of morality and contingency within the Marxist framework challenging a lot of the instrumentalist dogma of the Base/Super-structure relationship. In stark contrast Avakian argues for a more orthodox and rigid understanding of morality based on class relationships in society.
Some time in the future, Martin promises us a fuller comprehensive document on his thoughts; however in the mean time we should engage in this question of the place of morality within Communist politics, and in this I can feel a certain affinity with Martin in his attempt to realize a better understanding of Ethics. In a certain sense, I feel that this question overall reveals a certain shallowness within RCP around questions that were usually tossed away to the realm of “Metaphysics,” and as well with some of my fellow comrades. It also begins to show, despite the relationship Martin has with the RCP, that behind this there are major theoretical issues that separate them, and also that the “Epistemological Break” promoted by RCP in regards to the recent writings of Bob Avakian may not be a “break” at all.
To give a brief oversight of some issues in Ethics, and the differences between Martin, Avakian, and his representative at this event, Raymond Lotta, we must begin with one of the biggest names in German Idealism, Immanuel Kant. Kant in every way strikes a Communists with immediate repulsion. Kant refers to his philosophy as “transcendental Idealism,” he is employed by the repressive Prussian kingdom, who he seemingly defends the State Apparatus by stating you need to “do your Duty,” and he challenges the correspondence theory of truth. He and David Hume occupy the title of “agnostics” in V.I. Lenin's Materialism and Empirico-criticism. It is for these reasons that there is a certain Kantophobia amongst the Communist movement historically. We shall keep to Kant's theoretical insights on morality, and not engage his ontology or epistemology. Kant's most well known position is that of the Categorical Imperative, which are propositional maxims that are consistent and universal, as well as being willed by the subject. A common simplification of this is referring to “means as ends,” or that every action should take on universal principles. This is in some ways contra to Marx, who proposed Ethics itself being a product of social construction. It also must be stated that in some regards, the question of ethics and morality are almost insignificant to the work of Karl Marx who sought to create a scientific analysis of History. And in many respects, the ambitious project of Marx to systematize our knowledge of History on the basis of class struggle (what became the science of Historical Materialism) instrumentalized people's struggle toward a bound “wheel of history.” It is for Marx only possible for Capitalism, once a “revolutionary” mode of production to develop through the slavery of Africans in the Americas. Marx himself was horrified of the faith of Africans in the Americas; however he consistently took the position that despite the moral degradation of people involved, it is only a part of a natural process, one that only the development of the proletariat can possibly stop and transform. Marx is himself a conflicted character as his hero was Spartacus; however his same theoretical system held that slave rebellion did not suite an objective development of the mode of production.
It is only through Lenin and more so with Mao Zedong that we find the actual consistent space for Kant and Ethics. Lenin is the first to analyze that the conditions of the Third World couldn't be “revolutionized” by the Western Capitalists, that they in fact were in the business of underdevelopment and the exploitation of its resources. The accumulation of Capital did not take place in these colonial nations, Imperialists powers stripped it of its wealth. Lenin set in motion, despite the orthodoxies and dogmatisms of the likes of Trotsky and Mensheviks, forward the possibility for the Communist movement to spread into the colonial world. No longer was the exploitation and oppression of the Peasantry considered a part of the necessary transformation from Feudalism to Capitalism. The Peasant was no longer considered reactionary, a mere leftover of the feudal era, but an actual revolutionary ally of the Proletariat in its historical struggle. But it is only with Mao Zedong does this change effectively happen. Mao Zedong led largely a Peasant class in China against the centuries of feudal land lords, comprador Bourgeoisie, and Imperialist powers. Mao understood that the instrumentalist view of the dogmatists was wrong, the social mode of production and one's relations to the means of production isn't the determining factor in being a revolutionary. He understood the Peasant is an oppressed exploited class that can be a leading force towards Socialism. Mao once remarked that Marxism can be summed into one principle, “rebellion is justified.” This became a maxim of Truth through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Maxims such as “Serve the People,” “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win,” all became universal principles of the ethics of Revolution itself. In a sense, do your duty for the Revolution, for the People. Is not Mass Line itself, the Maoist method of leadership, not consistent with the Categorical Imperative rather the utilization of people as “cogs” toward historical goals? Rather than the past commandist errors of Communists, the errors Mao outlined in “Be Concerned with the Well Being of the Masses” and “Questions of Methods of Leadership,” Mao set forward a methodology that held responsible to the people the Vanguard Party. The use of Mass Line is consistent with the very goal of Socialism, it is an ends to ends rather than means to them.
In critique of Bill Martin. I can't not speak fully of the views of Bill Martin of Kant and Communism, as his book on the subject has yet to come out (perhaps I might come back to this later in another essay), but it seems to me that Martin might sometimes confuse the ethics of Leftism today with Maoist Truth. For example, Martin in his talk referred to the Meat Industry and its mistreatment and abuses of animals. Martin himself is a vegetarian for this same reason. SHOULD such politics and ethical causes be a part of the Maoist movement? I say why not, but let us speak to our actual projected maxims. Maoist maxims reflect the class struggle and the liberation struggle of the oppressed, that Masses are the makers of history, this is our partisan legacy. It should not be confused with ethical causes which are not necessarily a part of the future goals and aims of Communists. Our maxims come out of the partisan position of being Maoists, they are indeed political and class truths, our projection of what SHOULD be. That has not necessarily much to due to with the rights of animals, a concern which is not particular to Maoists. How can we also speak about violent action, action which potentially will take another's life. For the Humanist this is impossible, real revolution can't occur because it is violent. For Maoists, it is irresponsible not to lead the masses toward revolution, not to engage the world in practice and get our hands dirty, and in a sense “break some eggs,” as Zizek's preface to Martin and Avakian's book suggests to do. Revolutionary violence is not only necessary but actually an ethical act of revolution itself. When Mussolini gets stringed up to a poll by the people, is that the “revenge line” as RCP suggests or People's Justice as I think it properly is.
But we reveal something that is indeed interesting. Is there a “class morality,” we can only say yes and no. Ethics can ever have a direct casual relation to a specific mode of production, what is ethical can only be universal to the subject not to the object world, as we have stated before Ethics has no objective existence, it can't be grasped like a physical entity. However the dialectical relationship between the subject and his social being is unavoidable, in a certain sense he does, but there is no uniformed “Bourgeois Morality.” The very implication is wrong if one notices that we Communists have to unfortunately be born out of Capitalism, yet we don't consider our political and ethical thoughts at all “bourgeois.” Ethics always requires a certain partisanship which is determined by our will, that is there is very much a “Christian Morality” as there is a “Hindu Morality” in the same Capitalist system, there can also be at the same time a “Communist Morality.” They can all be said to be casualty of the Bourgeois system, but they require a certain contingency on our part to decide. The ethics and politics of Communists is bound to a class consciousness, it discloses the world to us.
It brings us to the point of Epistemology, of Truth, that which discloses the world to us. In other words, why the RCP has gotten it wayward. Let us assume the position of RCP that there is no “class truths,” or political truths for that matter, how can it at the same time speak of a Proletarian Morality, or for that matter the development of morality based on the productive forces? We ask this question because it reveals a fundamental problem, the rejection of Maoist ethical truths themselves. If rebellion is justified, why is it justified? Why is it correct and right? It is not because this maxim as we pointed out materially exists in the world but rather it is the partisan position of Communism, of the class consciousness of the Proletariat. In other words it is a political truth, the truth of the Proletariat Revolution. Truth in ethics can only be realized through this partisan position, it is a truth proper to the ideology of MLM.