Standards and Truth--Class Interests and Reality:
Is There Any Sphere Where MLM Does Not Apply?

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #907, May 18, 1997

Here what I want to speak to is the question of relativism and standards--or, another way to get at this, objective truth and class interests. First off, when we talk about standards, we have to pose and answer the question: which standards, representing what social relations and which class interests? And, in the Morality essays--particularly in the critique of William Bennett's book, The Book of Virtues--I pointed out how the upholders of "traditional morality," like Bennett, rely on the force of habit and the "inertia" of the status quo and the established order, and the "superstitious awe" which is instilled in the masses toward the powers-that-be and the state and the other dominant institutions and ideas in society. Relying on all that, the upholders of "traditional morality" try to portray their "values" and "morals" as universal and transcendental, as really the only values and morals, when in fact they are the expressions of the outlook and interests of a class and a social system--which are reactionary, historically obsolete, moribund, putrid and decaying.

For example, in The Book of Virtues, Bennett puts forward "perseverance" as one of the "transcendental" virtues. He has all these little stories about perseverance--and in particular about people who persevered in doing hard work, even if they were being cruelly exploited, and other things like this. And in speaking to this, I brought out the example that Mao uses of the "Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountains." Mao used this story to illustrate the fact that the Chinese Communist Party had to persevere in the protracted people's war and win over the masses in the course of the war, and how eventually the masses would fully rally to their side and together with the masses they would be able to finally win victory in the revolutionary war and remove these mountains of oppression weighing on the people. And then I posed the obviously rhetorical question: is this the kind of perseverance that William Bennett is talking about? I don't think so. So the question is perseverance in the service of what, of which system, which class interests, which social relations? Perseverance is not some abstract, universal virtue that always and everywhere means the same thing; and, in fact, the way people like Bennett are putting it forward, perseverance always and everywhere serves the status quo and the oppressive and exploitative relations that such people uphold.

There's the question of our morals and values--communist morals and values--as directly opposed to theirs, and our ideology more generally as opposed to theirs. Very different and contending class outlooks and interests are represented by these different morals, values, and ideologies. Our ideology and morals are expressed in a concentrated way by the "4 alls": the abolition of all class distinctions; all the production relations on which these class distinctions rest; all the social relations corresponding to these production relations; and the revolutionizing of all ideas that are an expression of these social relations.

Our morals, and our ideology as a whole, must be given life, in an ongoing way, in a revolutionary struggle consistent with and advancing toward the achievement of those "4 alls." And it is also important to emphasize that not only are our morals directly opposed to theirs, but at the same time, our morals do have a certain universality in this era--not in some "transcendental," timeless sense--not divorced from historical development and material conditions and social relations, but in a sense of corresponding to the advance from the present bourgeois epoch to the epoch of world communism, which is the great leap that humanity must and can make in this era. In that sense, there is a certain universality to our morals and standards.

And there is not any such universality to the morals and values of the bourgeoisie in this era, precisely because in this era what is required is to overthrow and move beyond the bourgeois mode of production and all the social relations and ideas, including morals and values, that correspond to that mode of production. The morals, values, and standards of the bourgeoisie are obsolete, just as their overall system is obsolete. They are reactionary, just as their system is reactionary.

So, while all morals and standards are relative in one sense--in the sense that there is no one set of standards and morals that can be applied in every historical era and every form of society, but instead there are different standards and morals that correspond to different eras and different forms of society--in another sense, precisely in terms of what is "on the historical agenda" in this era, we do not hesitate to say that our morals and standards are superior to those of the bourgeois and other exploiting classes. Our morals and standards represent the radical rupture with all forms of exploitation, all division of society into oppressor and oppressed, and all ways of thinking that go along with such exploitative and oppressive divisions.

This understanding is opposed to the notions and assumptions that go along with the whole phenomenon of "group identity politics," which seems to be a fairly significant trend in the U.S. and in some other countries nowadays. What this phenomenon of "group identity politics" amounts to is reducing things down to smaller and smaller segments (or "sub-segments") within society, each of which has its own interests and "agendas," separately from, or in opposition to, other "identity groups." There is also a certain philosophical outlook that goes along with this--the philosophy of relativism, where each identity group has its own outlook and claims to have its "own truth," its own "centrism." This is as opposed to the kind of politics that's needed to actually confront the major contradictions in society and to transform things in the interests of the masses of people--and ultimately in the interests of humanity overall. What is needed is politics that is based on larger interests and concerned with the direction of society as a whole.

Marxism "Embraces But
Does Not Replace"

All this has to do with Mao's point in his talk at the "Yenan Forum" on literature and art, where he says that Marxism (or today we'd say Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) "embraces but does not replace" various fields or disciplines of science and the arts, and so on. What does this mean--"embraces but does not replace?"

Let's take the two aspects that make up this unity of opposites--embraces... but does not replace--and examine them in themselves and in their inter-relation. What does it mean that Marxism "embraces" these various fields, or disciplines? It means, as Mao said, that while dogmatists (and idealists generally) are lazy-bones and don't investigate things--or don't thoroughly and painstakingly investigate them--dialectical materialists can acquire real knowledge through hard work and investigation and by systematically applying the correct, scientific outlook and methodology. And with our scientific outlook and methodology, there's no field of human practice that we can't gain knowledge of. Or, to use another formulation of Mao's, there's no form of human practice that can escape the domain of dialectical and historical materialism. There's no human activity which can't be analyzed and synthesized by applying dialectical and historical materialism--nor, for that matter, is there anything in nature whose motion and development constitutes a refutation of (or an "exception to") dialectical materialism. In other words, our ideology--our stand, viewpoint and method--can be and has to be applied to every phenomena in the universe, whether it's natural or social, whether it's people's thinking or whatever. All this constitutes the "embrace" aspect.

The "doesn't replace" aspect goes back to the point that dogmatists (and idealists generally) are lazy-bones. It takes work--and, as Mao pointed out, work is struggle--to actually apply our stand, viewpoint, and method to a particular field, to use that stand, viewpoint, and method as a guide in grappling with the phenomena that are particular to that field, which have their own "laws" (or their own particular contradiction and motion). In order to understand a particular sphere of knowledge, you have to do investigation in that particular sphere of knowledge.

In socialist China, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the question was posed very sharply: could the masses give leadership to experts in various fields, including science and production? This became the focus of intense struggle during the Cultural Revolution, when it was posed in these terms: which is more important, being "red" (communist) or being expert. The revolutionary line which upheld the dictatorship of the proletariat and recognized the need to increasingly enable the masses to be masters of every sphere of society, insisted that red is the principal aspect--upholding and applying the communist stand, viewpoint, and method--that's the essence, that's the most important thing. Even masses who don't have specialized knowledge in a field can lead people who do have specialized knowledge. But this doesn't mean--and Mao and those following his leadership did not argue--that all you need is to be red. They said you should be red and expert--red first and above all, but also expert. They said, if you don't know something about a field and you're responsible for leading in that field, you have to learn about it--learn about it by applying Marxism to that particular field. This is why Mao stressed that the important thing is to be good at learning--and that what you don't know, you can learn.

Let's say you are responsible for leading in the scientific field, and somebody comes and says, "we're experimenting with the beryllium atom, what do you think about the results in this experiment?" You can't just tell them: "go study Mao's `On Contradiction'--that will tell you everything you need to know." That's not sufficient to give leadership in that sphere. You can sit down with people and read "On Contradiction," and you can study it yourself to figure out how to apply it concretely to the particular form of matter in motion that you're dealing with--in this case the beryllium atom--and in an overall sense it is very important to do this. But you still have to go on and actually apply this to the experiment in question, and you have to use MLM as a guide to learn the particular laws (of physics, chemistry, etc.) that relate to this experiment.

The same principle applies in art. How do we produce revolutionary literature and art? Just putting actors on stage shouting a few slogans about dialectical materialism? Who's gonna watch that! No one would, at least not for very long, unless something like this were very creatively integrated into a larger artistic synthesis. And I don't think you could do too many artistic productions that consisted of repetition of a slogan. For example, if you did an artistic work--whether a song or rap or a play or a movie or a poem--that endlessly repeated "MLM embraces but does not replace various fields of knowledge," I don't think anybody would want to have much to do with that--and they'd be right.

All fields of knowledge and activity--whether it's art, physics, political economy, or whatever--require work and struggle, to learn and apply the particular principles or "laws" relating to the particular field, to be able to do this in a living way. It is in this way that things can advance in particular spheres, and overall. It is in this way that red can lead expert--that people, including basic masses, who are armed with and apply MLM can lead others who specialize in a particular field and, at any given point, have more extensive knowledge of that particular field.

The Science of Warfare

Let's look at how this principle--this unity of opposites--"embraces but does not replace" applies to another, crucial sphere: military doctrine and warfare. Let me just be very clear on this--I think everybody's clear about this, but in case anybody isn't--when we get to the point where it is time to launch the armed insurrection, and overall in waging revolutionary war to overthrow the rule of capital and establish and consolidate the rule of the proletariat, we are not gonna throw books at the bourgeoisie! This goes back to what Marx said--that "the weapon of criticism can never equal the criticism of weapons." In other words, it's important to critique the other side, but ultimately you gotta get down on the ground and fight it out with them with real weapons. That's more powerful than criticism in the final analysis. He wasn't saying criticism, or the ideological struggle in general, is unimportant, but that's not ultimately what is going to achieve the revolutionary overthrow that is necessary. Material force must meet and defeat material force--the revolutionary war of the masses must defeat the counter-revolutionary war of the imperialists and reactionaries.

We're not gonna go out and chant slogans at the bourgeois army when we're trying to wage revolutionary war. We're gonna wage real people's war--in the U.S. this means AI/CW (armed insurrection followed by civil war)--with real weapons and real military forces guided by a concrete military doctrine. We'll learn warfare through warfare as we do that, but this is not gonna consist of chanting slogans and throwing books at the enemy.

So this is another example of "embraces but does not replace." Our outlook and methodology embraces military science, but it doesn't replace it. You've got to study warfare. You have to learn from the experience of revolutionary war, and especially revolutionary war in this era, led by the proletariat, but you also have to study what bourgeois historians (and others) say about military history. You can't say, "well they're bourgeois, they have a bourgeois outlook, or whatever, so we can't learn anything from them." They may have a lot of insights, even with their outlook and methodology--insights which they can't synthesize to the level that we can--but we still have to do some work in order to sift through and synthesize what can be synthesized, even out of the works of people who apply the enemy's outlook and ideology. So this, too, is a matter of "embraces but does not replace." We always have to uphold and apply this outlook and methodology, but we always have work to do to apply it concretely to various particular spheres. There is no sphere where it does not have to be concretely applied--and there is no sphere to which it does not apply.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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