Working with Ideas and Searching for Truth: A Reflection on Revolutionary Leadership and the Intellectual Process

Revolutionary Worker #1144, March 24, 2002, posted at

Editors note: From Ardea Skybreak--author of the book Of Primeval Steps and Future Leaps and "Some Ideas on the Social Role of Art" (RW#'s 1114, 1115, 1116 and 1117)--comes food for thought on working with ideas. We hope that this piece will provoke further thoughts and we welcome ideas and opinions from our readers.

[Note from the author: The following are some thoughts that I was inspired to write up after reading the excerpts from "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy," by Bob Avakian, which have recently been published in the RW.]


There is an important particularity to working with ideas (doing intellectual work) which is often not fully appreciated. And that is that this work will truly progress, break new ground and lead to new understandings of what is true only if its practitioners succeed in, at least temporarily, setting aside old ideas, established conventions, prejudices, preconceptions and untested assumptions. One has to be willing to explore and investigate reality with a truly open mind, following the trail of evidence wherever it may lead, regardless of how unexpected, unsettling or unwelcome the results might turn out to be.

This is different, for instance, than the process of building something out of bricks and mortar. There can of course be creativity and innovation in building a wall, as in all other productive activities. But by and large, and in an overall sense, if you want to build a successful wall it makes sense to rely on well-established tested formulas (to get the right mix of clay and sand to build your bricks), and it makes sense to make a plan or maybe draw up a blueprint of exactly how you want this wall to end up when you're done with it . If you encounter an unexpected problem or obstacle you might come up with an innovation and creative solution, but your basic objective (building a certain kind of wall a certain kind of way) is typically pre-set .

The process of working with ideas is typically very different. The bucket of raw material intellectuals plunge into is filled with lots and lots and lots of different ideas: old ones and new ones; conventional ones and unconventional ones; tested and untested ones; ideas which are invested and stamped with yet other ideas (including the outlooks of many different individuals and of whole social strata) in almost infinite nested succession; ideas that amicably parallel each other in mutual reinforcement; ideas that furiously clash and contend and are diametrically opposed, and so on.

Of course some ideas are demonstrably more "true" than others (in the sense that they can be shown to more closely correspond to actual objective material reality) and these relatively more true ideas have special value in that they build onto humanity's accumulated stores of understanding. (Mistaken and false ideas do this too, but only once they have demonstrably been shown to be untrue--until then they typically serve more to obfuscate and confuse).

The problem in all intellectual work is that you don't know at the outset which ideas are more relatively true than others: so you work like an archeologist, sifting through layer after layer of sediments, looking for the occasional distinctive tidbit which sticks out exactly because it has (at least in part, or to some extent) been shown to correspond to material reality. If you can gather up enough of these distinctively true tidbits together you might have the makings of a theory--not yet a greater definitive truth in itself, but at least something of a theoretical "framework" which can then serve to guide further thought and exploration, and which can itself be further tested through observation and experimentation to evaluate the degree to which it ultimately does or does not correspond to, and serve to explain, a portion of reality. Of course this latter part of the process can sometimes be a protracted one, as new ideas and theories have to be sent out into the world for a while if they are to be tested in such a way.

The fact that it can take quite some time for new syntheses or theories to be tested and verified (and the fact that many will be ultimately discarded as dead-ends or significantly re-worked) typically does not disturb intellectuals, for they accept this state of relative uncertainty over protracted periods of time as a necessary and unavoidable part of the process of expanding human knowledge and understanding. Newly emerging and developing syntheses should not be grown in a hothouse and they should also not be held close to the chest in miserly fashion: they need to be sent out in the world. Reasonable efforts should be made to avoid excessive sloppiness, the regurgitation of that which has already been shown to be false, or dismissive discounting of the efforts of others (of whatever perspectives) who have been working on similar questions. Efforts should also be made to properly distinguish (and label accordingly) that which is known from that which is not yet known, and indicate clearly what may simply be informed speculation. But beyond that, if the question is worth pondering and it is worth attempting to answer it, it is important not to be too "uptight" about the process and not to insist, in the name of accuracy and accountability, on dissecting and micromanaging every secondary or tertiary point of a work in progress. Failing to recognize the degree to which it is important to "let the reins go a bit" in the unfolding of intellectual work will result in a suffocating and stifling bureaucratized atmosphere and the production of a very few, slowly and laboriously crafted (overly labor and energy intensive!), good works. Many other works will never be undertaken at all (and in fact few intellectuals will ever want to work under such energy and morale-sapping strictures) and those few good works that do get produced may well contain many good points and minutely calibrated precisions...but they will also be stripped of much life, humor, artistry and especially of those thought-provoking tangents and ruminations which are the stuff on which further intellectual exchange and dialogue tends to build.

I have written before (on the subject of art) that I see some important distinctions in the process of getting at the truth and in the degree of social "accountability" required in the pursuit of art and in the pursuit of science. Work in the natural and social sciences typically seeks to reveal truth by uncovering and presenting for all to see elements, patterns, trends and so on, which can be shown to correspond--as directly and closely as possible--to the way things actually are (or have been) in objective reality. Artistic pursuits also serve to get at the truth of things but, by their generally understood character and purpose, are typically given more leeway to seek out and present truth in more oblique and fanciful ways and from some skewed angles and perspectives that (quite properly and purposefully in my opinion) do not have to be as strictly constrained and restrained as scientific explorations in order to be effective, and can look for and present truth more indirectly, and not necessarily in the most stringent or direct correspondence with the way things typically "are" in nature and/or society.

That being said, I think the best works, even in the sciences (and especially the works presenting new visions and which seek to break through the limiting overlays of established conventions) combine some aspects of science and of art, and different levels of accountability will attach to different parts. And in my opinion this is fine. In fact I think it is often (maybe always) necessary for this to take place if the work is to lay any stepping stones for further dialogue and advance.

In any case grappling with such questions is all part of the nature of intellectual work. It is only very rarely that a theoretical question can be presented as "essentially settled" (in the natural sciences the theory of evolution is often spoken about as one of those relatively rare "essentially settled" issues, which makes the creationist ravings all the more ironic!). I think in any important work (including on socially controversial questions) it is important to attempt to stick to high standards of accountability in relation to a handful of main points and themes (including being clear about what is known and what is not yet known and so on, and avoiding overly strong "statements" of fact that are actually just bits of subjective "belief"). But within a given work (and in the process of intellectual work more generally) I believe it is possible, and even very important and necessary, to make room for more open-ended discussions, and even frank speculations. Some of it might get "taken back" or corrected or modified in later works, but that is also fine. And I think the inclusion of more "open-ended reflections" are an absolutely essential part of the intellectual "leavening" which is necessary for the application of the mass line (in and out of a revolutionary party) to intellectual work.

And I don't believe that only intellectuals outside a vanguard party should work this way (though "they" all do). A general atmosphere promoting a wide-ranging exploration and wrangling over a wide variety of topics should prevail both inside and outside such a party, and both before and after the seizure of power. And while I think work undertaken and attributed to individuals (signed pieces for instance) may allow more flexibility in this regard, I am not prepared to say that it should not also apply to collective efforts. This is not always an easy contradiction to handle well but it is an important one to consciously undertake to resolve in relation to particular works and in relation to leading intellectuals and intellectual work more generally. After all, the collectivity (not just individuals) also needs to "breathe."

It seems to me that another very important aspect of the intellectual process is that sometimes, sifting through the great bucket of ideas, there comes the frustrating realization that there are no really distinctive tidbits of truth sticking out of the mix at that particular time. Either they aren't there at all (leading one to go "sift" yet further afield) or they are present but covered up in muck and still unrecognizable as such.

Every genuine intellectual who is sincerely trying to get at the truth knows that there is no better way to make tidbits of truth (or even large truths) come to light in such situations than to shake things up and hose them down, so to speak, and then to do it all over again and again: to try to pit those different elements against each other, "throw them up and see what sticks," make them clash up against each other and see what comes of it. Being willing to stand on the more reasonable, but yet explore the seemingly more unlikely or even outrageous is an important principle of intellectual work.

Sometimes nothing much comes of all this clashing and contrasting, and little that is new is uncovered. And sometimes people latch on to what appear at first to be tantalizing glints of truth which, upon further inspection, turn out to have been no more than the crumbling stuff of fantasy. But sometimes, on relatively rare occasions, through what must be a combination of well-grounded methodology as well as some measure of luck, hard work, persistence, and (especially) minds fully open to the unexpected, the unconventional, to seeing things from fresh angles free of preconceptions or preset notions of what is to be found, it happens that brand new truths do emerge: not fantasies or distortions of reality but actual new truths, perhaps emerging out of formerly ignored or underappreciated tidbits, or out of previously unrecognized patterns and connections.

Therein lies the creativity of the intellectual process. Being bold, fresh, and open, and giving life to this process--researching, wrangling, wielding, and, yes, "playing" with ideas-- this is the lifeblood of genuine intellectuals whose aim is not just to learn what is already known but to uncover brand-new truths and so contribute to humanity's accumulated store of knowledge.

Maoist intellectuals tend to understand better than most that it is necessary to actively interact with and transform reality (including through the infusion of revolutionary ideological line and methods into the great intellectual wranglings of the day) to gain a more genuine understanding of reality and in so doing have a better basis to transform reality. And genuine revolutionary intellectuals recognize (or at least should recognize, though historical experience seems to have been uneven on this) that "working with ideas," and the process of wide-ranging intellectual wrangling and discovery of new truths, is not just some kind of helpful or useful "adjunct" to the "main" business of revolution: it is a crucial, necessary and integral part of the revolutionary process itself.

Unfortunately, while many MLMers claim to reject political and ideological pragmatism and will pay lip-service to the fact that "without revolutionary theory there can be no revolution," there seems to have been an ongoing historical tendency to view this in overly narrow terms--perhaps mainly "appreciating" how developments in political theory can lead to advances in political or military line, but failing to also appreciate that a truly wide range of intellectual work, cutting across many different spheres and disciplines and leading to new or deepened understanding of "truths" across all of nature and society, will also have significant bearing on the cardinal affairs of society (including in terms of contributing to the basis for sharpening ideological two-line struggle over many and varied questions) and is therefore crucial for revolutionaries to undertake, encourage, support, and properly lead, both inside and outside the revolutionary party.

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