Revolution #81, March 11, 2007


Critical Thinking and the Search for the Truth: Today and in Socialist Society

The search for the truth is a crucial part of knowing and changing the world. People need to and can understand how society works and how change comes about. People can learn about different spheres of knowledge, about the sciences and the scientific method. People do not have to cling to superstition, religion, and traditions that obscure the way things really are. People need to understand the world in order to change it. In short, people need to know what’s real and why it matters.

Getting at the truth has everything to do with the kind of liberating society that we as communists are aiming for. It also has to do with why we care about what is happening, or not happening, in the universities today.

The university is a place where knowledge of the world and society are deepened and where many people learn to think rigorously and critically about the world at large…and to act on that. What goes on in the “world of ideas” and in the university has immense influence on discourse and debate in society. In the 1960s, intellectual ferment and rebellion on campuses was radically eruptive, stimulating broader questioning and protest in society.

We believe that an important part of building the struggle for a new world is to defend critical thinking and to promote intellectual ferment in educational institutions today, as well as in society broadly. We also understand that this cannot be fully realized under the present order.

The University as Contested Zone

The university is part of the larger system of this society. If we look at how the universities are governed, at the awarding of contracts by the government and large corporations, at the funding and work of policy institutes, at the ways the university is linked into the web of the global economy and the U.S. military-research machine—we get a glimpse of how the university is dominated by the ruling interests of this society. And the university is the gateway through which many young people enter into the functioning not just of any society but of this society—with its values and its priorities.

But in this very same capitalist society, the university is also one of the few institutions where free inquiry and critical thinking have any kind of initiative. It is a contested arena: where intellectual currents and political movements come into opposition to the intellectual-political status quo…and where, today, powerful forces are seeking to clamp down on critical thinking.

Think about what it would mean to society if intellectual inquiry and questioning were locked down, if an atmosphere of intimidation reigned in the arts, if a regime of absolutist truths and unchallengeable certainties ruled people’s minds.

Think about what it would mean to the people of the world experiencing the rampages of Bush’s “war on terrorism” if sections of intellectuals in the “belly of the beast” were no longer speaking out with conviction (and, yes, courage) against these outrages—but instead uniformly marching in step with the program. The fact is, this conviction and courage is too rare today, including on campus; it must be greatly expanded, and fought for—not silenced.

Which is to say, the stakes are high in the battle to defend dissent and critical thinking in academia. And we see a link between this battle and bringing into being a radically different society in which critical and creative thinking and dissent flourish.

Communism Requires the Unfettered Search for Truth

We believe it is possible for humanity to get to a whole new place—where it has put an end to all forms of exploitation, overcome the division of society into classes, eliminated all oppressive institutions and social relations, and cast off all the values and ideas that reinforce oppressive institutions and relations.

Leading forward the process of getting to this kind of world is what communist leadership and a socialist state must be all about. And this must be a process of diverse thinking and action from all corners of society, and great ferment, dissent, and upheaval.

Thus far there have been two major attempts at the socialist transition to communism: the Soviet Union (from 1917 to 1956) and the People’s Republic of China (from 1949 to 1976, and the death of Mao). In both cases, “new bourgeois” forces rose to power and restored a form of capitalism—though each, at least initially, retained many of the trappings of socialism. Each of these experiences was epochal and, despite the slanders and conventional wisdom of today, accomplished unprecedented things. Each, however, also fell short in important ways. The work of summing up those experiences, more deeply analyzing the dynamics of the socialist period, and developing a new synthesis has been led—and continues to be led—by Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. What follows draws on this pathbreaking work.

Socialism is the crucial first step in getting to a communist society where people consciously learn about and transform the world. Socialism makes it possible to really meet the pressing needs of people, like meaningful work, health care, decent housing, and stimulating education…to uproot racism and overcome the oppression of women…to take care of the environment. But a truly emancipatory socialism must be much more than that. It must be a society in which the great majority are thrashing out questions of world affairs, philosophy, science, and art…taking increasing responsibility for the direction and future of society…and increasingly making all spheres of society their province. 

Those on the bottom of society have historically been locked out of the realm of “working with ideas.” The system of capitalism creates islands and pockets where a minority can engage in this realm, while the great majority of humanity is exploited and prevented from pursuing intellectual-creative activity. Socialism has to enable the formerly oppressed whose lives have been brutally circumscribed, or restricted, by the struggle for survival to increasingly work with ideas and to participate in society in an all-round way.

At the same time, socialist society needs to give scope and space to intellectuals, artists, and scientists. Socialism will not be a liberating society if it stifles and straitjackets intellectuals. It will not be able to move forward to a society of freely associating human beings if it is not unleashing the critical, searching, and exploratory spirit of intellectuals. Scientists, intellectuals, and artists will be continuing their work and deepening the store of knowledge, even as barriers are broken down between intellectual/artistic work and much broader sections of society.

Socialist society requires the fullest possible contesting of ideas and wrangling to get at the truth, and in order to transform society in a liberating direction. All this has important implications for issues of academic freedom under socialism.

The educational system under socialism will have a core curriculum. This will be based on what is known to be true in particular spheres of human knowledge. At the same time, there must be substantial space for inquiry and instruction that fall outside that curriculum, and for theories and intellectual currents that “go against the grain.” That is important because this is the kind of society, pulsing with new ideas and discovery, that socialism needs to be. And what is known to be true today—important as it is to stand on and learn while applying it—may be shown to be partially or wholly wrong tomorrow. As for theories proven to be wrong, like “creationism,” they will not be part of the educational system, although people will still be able to voice those theories.

Marxism will be promoted in the universities and throughout socialist society. The reason is that Marxism provides the most scientific approach to understanding the world, and for achieving the richest possible synthesis of different ideas and insights from particular disciplines and fields. Many scholars and intellectuals do not embrace Marxism and will be pursuing scholarship in different philosophical frameworks. And other philosophies will be taught and studied. In fact, they will challenge and contend with Marxism. Marxism will be taken up and applied, will further develop, and influence people in this kind of atmosphere.

Here a question poses itself. Will the university under socialism be a site of critique of society and political protest? Yes, we want a society where students and intellectuals are raising concerns and making criticisms of government policies and social institutions and throwing up challenges to the program and vision of society. People must have the right and ability to speak out freely about all aspects of society. They must have the right to organize protest on their own—and not be confined to a controlled situation of “official” politics and channels. We are talking about “wide-openness” in the framework of a society that is moving to overcome all forms of exploitation, oppression, and social inequality. Political and intellectual ferment and dissent are vital to the process of deepening the understanding of reality and transforming society.

As Bob Avakian has said, if you really understand this epistemology—the unfettered search for the truth in relation to moving humanity to a whole new stage—you want people to challenge you. And if we are true to this, things will get unruly and wild.

Dissent, Protest and Ferment in Socialist Society

This presents big challenges to the socialist state. Let’s say people organize movements and struggles protesting the socialist state’s environmental policies. What if this takes a new turn with blockades and sit-ins causing disruptions to the economy? Well, you do have to continue to run an economy to meet people’s needs and the requirements of the socialist state. But you also have to thrash out the issues driving this protest, and what this means for developing a sustainable socialist economy, and draw more people in society into debate.

It won’t be clear where such upheavals are headed, and some will be challenging major policies and issues of direction and development of society. It would be easy for the socialist state simply to impose its authority. But, again, sorting out what is right and wrong and struggling for what is correct—and putting all the complexity of this before the people; struggling politically to solve problems, as with the above example of the economy functioning: this is what the socialist state and leadership has to ultimately rely on—and not force.

What about people who express opposition to the entire socialist project and who call for the return of capitalism? Will they have the right to dissent? Yes, it is important for these views to be heard and debated. It is important that the most devoted proponents of these ideas to be able to espouse and defend them—in the media, through publication, etc. Even if such criticisms are mainly wrong, they may still shed light on problems and defects in society, and on the deeper contradictions of society. People in society need to engage with these views as part of understanding the world more fully.

And it would have a negative effect if expressions of dissent that oppose the government were not allowed. It would put a chill in the atmosphere, both in academia and in society more broadly. We don’t want a situation where people are afraid to speak out against the government for fear of repression.

There is a crucial difference between people who are advocating that socialism should be replaced by capitalism, and forces organizing and carrying out actions to sabotage or overthrow socialism. And the importance of this distinction has to be popularized throughout socialist society and will be spelled out as a matter of law in the constitution.

History has shown that socialist states will have to repel imperialist attacks and invasions, and defeat counterrevolution and attempts to restore the old order. But the socialist state must not confound those actively organizing to sabotage or overthrow socialism with people who are expressing disagreements with or opposition to socialism. This distinction was not always handled well in previous socialist societies, even though, especially in China, in Mao's time, there was important positive experience in this, including in the Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, we have to do much better in the future.

It has proven relatively easy for the socialist state to suppress reactionary opposition—for a time. But what is difficult, and this is the great challenge, is to foster debate, experimentation, and ferment and to risk upheavals without losing power. We want a socialist state which is a powerful and necessary tool for the oppressed—as an active transition to get to a society of freely associating human beings, and a world without states and apparatuses of repression. We won’t get there without a socialist state and a communist leadership that values and fosters critical thinking and the wild contestation of ideas; without wide-ranging dissent and tumult; and without the unfettered search for the truth.

The richer this process is, the more desirable and emancipating will be the outcome.

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