Revolution #174, August 30, 2009
RUMINATIONS AND WRANGLINGS
On the Importance of Marxist Materialism, Communism as a Science,
Meaningful Revolutionary Work, and a Life with Meaning
[Editors’ note: The following is the 10th excerpt from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian, earlier this year, which is being serialized in Revolution, beginning with issue #163. Parts 1-9 appeared in issues #163, #164, #165, #166, #167, #169, #171, #172, and #173. Part 10 is the section titled “Communism as a Science—Not a ‘Scientific Ideology,’” which includes three subsections: “Some observations on what science is and some essential aspects of the scientific method”; “Once again on objective truth, relative truth, and the fundamental opposition between scientific materialism and relativism”; and “A correct understanding of the relation between science and philosophy.” The text of the talk has been edited and footnotes have been added for publication. The entire talk can be found online at revcom.us/avakian/ruminations/BA-ruminations-en.html]
Next I want to speak to the question of communism as a science and why it is not correct to conceive of it as a "scientific ideology," as someone has raised recently in a written criticism of the characterization in our party's Constitution, in the opening sentence of the Appendix, where it says: "Communism is both a science and a revolutionary political movement." The opposition that is expressed by this criticism, with the formulation "scientific ideology," represents another two into one. It is another version of a trend in the international movement toward reification of the proletariat (in effect, reducing the overall and fundamental interests of the proletariat to identification with individual proletarians) and of "class truth" ("proletarian truth") and a notion of, in effect "proletarian science." It is a form of relativism—which, in fact, "class truth" is, in essential terms—it is (to put it in the popular parlance of our times) another form of "identity politics," with the corresponding relativism.
Now, in discussion of this criticism, some important points have been made by some comrades in refutation of this argument about "scientific ideology." It has been pointed out that this argument amounts to an attempt to create ideology and philosophy which stand outside or above science—ideology and philosophy which are, in the words of this criticism, "a higher level of abstraction" than science.
It is worthwhile getting into this further here, because this touches on some fundamental principles and questions of outlook and methodology which are not only relevant for our party but are crucial for our movement overall and its fundamental objectives.
Part of this argument for why we should call communism a "scientific ideology" explicitly involves a reference to—but in fact a misuse or a misunderstanding of—an analogy I once made, comparing the understanding of reality to the handling of fire (or a burning object): you can't pick up something that is burning with your bare hands, you need an instrument with which to handle that burning object. This is true—there is validity to the analogy, properly understood—but it in no way negates the need for what we could call "scientific objectivity." Applying this analogy, the "instrument" we need for understanding and transforming reality, in all its complexity, is an outlook and method that is not subjective ("class truth"), but one that correctly reflects objective reality—dialectical materialism, which, as I have repeatedly stressed, provides the means for being scientific in the most consistent, systematic, and comprehensive way, if it is correctly grasped and applied, and is not vitiated with subjectivity of one kind or another, including what amount to instrumentalist notions of "class truth."
That such subjectivity is what the author of this criticism has fallen into is shown by the fact that he goes on to argue that we need a certain partisan ideology, in the wrong sense—in the manner of arguing, in effect, that everybody approaches things with certain preconceptions, and communism represents our partisan approach, embodying our set of assumptions, or preconceptions. This is a way of treating ideologies as "narratives," and including communist ideology in this—subjective—category of "narratives." This ends up negating the scientific character of communism, even while calling it a "scientific ideology." It goes along with a misunderstanding, and misuse, of the fact that, yes, everyone does come to anything, including science and any scientific process, with certain assumptions. It falls into—or at least lends itself to—the relativist argument that, since everyone is proceeding according to certain assumptions, then there is no basis for (so to speak) "separating out the subjective from the objective," and really arriving at the truth. It negates the fact that, even with regard to assumptions from which people may be proceeding, it is possible to determine, and to distinguish, which are valid and objectively true assumptions and which are not.
In other words, the fact that we come to things with certain assumptions, or preconceptions, does not rule out the fact—the very important fact—that even those assumptions or preconceptions can, and should, be repeatedly subjected to scientific analysis themselves, to see if they have been and if they remain valid (which, however, does not mean calling everything into question all the time). There is an objective basis, as well as an objective need, to test the assumptions, as well as the conclusions, with which people enter into and with which they carry out the process of science of any kind, including the scientific process of making revolution. Ultimately, this characterization of communism as "scientific ideology," and the arguments in support of this formulation, actually negate not only the scientific character of communism in particular but also the scientific character of science and of the scientific method in general.
This argument in favor of characterizing communism as a "scientific ideology" also insists that "philosophy regulates theory." There is truth in the assertion that one's particular ideological standpoint determines—or has a major influence on—how one develops theory and to what use one puts theory. But, once again, a serious problem enters in when ideology is reduced to a subjective standpoint—which is what is done in this line of argumentation, whether or not that is the conscious intent. This argumentation, including specifically the assertion that "philosophy regulates theory," negates the scientific standard and scientific criteria for evaluating philosophy itself as well as particular theories. Does the philosophy (or the theory) actually correctly reflect reality, or does it not? That is a test that can be applied, and should be applied, by proceeding according to the scientific method—and, above all, the scientific outlook and method of dialectical materialism.
Further light is shed on this by the fact that this argument (in favor of the formulation that communism is "scientific ideology") cites Althusser to the effect that ideology is class struggle in the realm of theory. This is another relativist and idealist formulation. Ideology is a worldview and a set of values. There is class struggle in the realm of ideology, as there is in the realm of theory, but ideology itself is not class struggle. This, yet again, is akin to—and in fact a form of advocacy of—"class truth." Once more, the correctness, or incorrectness, of a particular ideology—whether or not it corresponds to reality—is something which can be objectively determined, and that determination is not reducible to—and is not in essence—a matter of class struggle. As emphasized in Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA: "truth is objective, does not vary in accordance with differing class interests, and is not dependent on which class outlook one brings to the pursuit of the truth." (Part IV, "The New Challenges, and the New Synthesis")
This argument (for why communism should be considered not a science but a "scientific ideology") also involves a wrong understanding, as opposed to a correct understanding—or a wrong line, as opposed to the correct line—on the principle that Marxism "embraces but does not replace" all the different spheres of human endeavor and thinking. At one point in the course of this argument it is said that, as such, communism has nothing to say about specific theories in different fields or disciplines of science—physics or biology or whatever. Now, it is true that there is the particularity of contradiction—that each of the phenomena or processes that fall, generally speaking, within these different spheres of biology or chemistry or physics, etc., have their particularities. And you can't resolve them by just imposing, shall we say, communist principles in general. But to wall off the one from the other—a specific sphere, or a particular phenomenon, on the one hand, and the question of outlook and method, on the other hand (or, to put this another way, the "does not replace" aspect, on the one hand, and the "embraces" aspect, on the other hand)—and to argue that communism doesn't methodologically enter into the equation (if you will) of how these problems are approached and understood is, once again, wrong. It in effect negates the "embraces" aspect—the fact that, while not replacing them, communism does embrace all these particular spheres and the particular contradictions and phenomena within these spheres. It amounts to making an absolute separation where there is not, and cannot be, such a separation. Outlook and methodology "penetrates into" and has an influence on how particular phenomena will be studied, investigated, probed, synthesized and understood—or not—correctly. This does not negate the fact—one which we have very rightly insisted on—that people who do not uphold and apply the outlook and method of dialectical materialism can and do arrive at important truths. But it remains true that dialectical materialism provides the most consistent, systematic and comprehensive means for engaging, and learning about—and having the most scientifically founded basis for transforming—objective reality; and, once again, this does have implications for—it does "embrace" and apply to—all spheres of human endeavor.
As can be extrapolated from what I have said so far, this argument (communism is a "scientific ideology") involves a wrong line, as opposed to a correct line, on the very important principle that communism as a world outlook and method is both objective and partisan. This argument basically amounts to saying that communism is partisan, while in essence denying that it is objective, even if that is not explicitly denied.
This goes against very important principles that were being emphasized in the discussion with comrades on epistemology, in the book Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy1: the particular point about how truth does not have a class character but different truths enter into the class struggle, and the whole rich process that's being envisioned and argued for there, in terms of how communism correctly embraces everything and seeks to know everything that's actually true—even when, in the short term sense, particular truths may work against the things that we're fighting for, but then in the larger sense, if correctly handled, they can become part of the process that leads to the objectives we're struggling for. That contradictory motion and struggle—and all the richness involved in that process—is undermined and opposed by this incorrect line on objective and partisan (which is part of the argument for why communism should be considered not a science but a "scientific ideology"). Because communism is objective, it can be partisan on behalf of the proletariat—and, in fact, can be so in a thoroughgoing way—and only to the degree that it is actually objective can it really be partisan in the essentially correct sense—can it, in other words, really serve and further the most fundamental interests of the proletariat.
This leads into the broader question of what is the correct understanding of what science is. I was recently reading the book The Canon (or, more specifically, the first part of that book) by Natalie Angier. She recounts some discussions she had with a number of scientists on this question: what is science, and what is the scientific method? One of the essential things that comes through is that science involves, as a fundamental starting point, accepting and working with the world as it actually is, and not as you would wish it to be. This is, as we know, a fundamental dividing line, epistemologically and methodologically, and it has everything to do with what I have been speaking to here.
Science, we need to emphasize again, is not a mystery. There are specific spheres and disciplines of science which do have their own particularities—and which do, yes, require specialization and hard work to learn about them and make advances in them. This is where the correct application of "embraces but does not replace" comes in for communists. But the basic scientific outlook and scientific method is something that anyone can and everyone should grasp and apply to reality—not that everyone will do this, at least in a systematic way, in this kind of society, but looking to the future and in terms of what we're striving and struggling for, we should have an orientation and an understanding that anyone can and everyone should grasp and apply the scientific outlook and method, and by doing so, and persevering in doing so, ordinary people (that is, non-specialists, and not only specialists in various fields) can learn important things, not only about reality overall but about science itself and about particular spheres of science, even ones that are highly complex and involve a high level of abstraction.
The following, then, are some key principles of science and the scientific method as well as, in particular, the scientific outlook and method of communism, dialectical materialism.
First, as came through in the discussions Natalie Angier had with a number of scientists, there is the fundamental point of orientation of approaching the world as it actually is, and not as we would like it to be.
Along with this is the importance of proceeding according to the understanding that all reality consists of matter in motion, of material reality which is constantly moving and changing and undergoing transformation, through leaps, from one state of matter (and not anything else) to another state (or form) of matter.
There is the process of learning about matter in motion through empirical investigation of actually existing material reality in different particular forms (gathering evidence in this way, so to speak). In this regard, there is Mao's famous statement that to learn about the pear you have to change it by eating it—he didn't just say you have eat it, he said you have to change it by eating it. It is a fact that you do change reality by investigating it, but this understanding can, and should, be incorporated into and utilized as part of the scientific method and approach.
There is the importance, in the whole process, of synthesizing what is learned through this approach (that is, by empirical investigation of the actual existing material reality): making the leap from facts, data, etc., accumulated in this way to rational conclusions about these facts, data, etc.—and in particular by identifying the patterns that emerge through this process. (In this connection, I'll just refer people once again to the article "'A Leap of Faith' and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods"2 and to Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, in particular the section "Reason Has Not 'Failed Us'—Reason Is Absolutely Necessary—Though, In Itself, It Is Not Enough" in Part Four, "God Does Not Exist—We Need Liberation Without Gods.")
In terms of science, the scientific method, and in particular the scientific outlook and method of communism, it is crucial to constantly be striving to maintain a spirit and method of critical thinking and openness to what is new and what challenges accepted or received wisdom. This involves repeatedly re-examining what is believed by oneself and/or the prevailing opinions in society, etc., to be true: repeatedly subjecting this to further testing and interrogation from the challenges of those who oppose this and of reality itself, including the ways that the ongoing development of material reality may bring to light new facts—that is, newly discovered or newly understood aspects of reality which pose challenges to the accepted wisdom. However, it is very important to emphasize, this does not mean falling into agnosticism and relativism, denying objective truth and in particular acting as if everything must be called into question, as if nothing is known or can be counted on as being true, whenever new discoveries, or new theories or hypotheses, call into question certain ideas previously determined or thought to be true. The scientific process and scientific knowledge, and knowledge in general, is not advanced in this way and cannot be advanced in this way—at least not in any kind of sustained sense—but is advanced by proceeding on the basis of what has previously been established to be true, especially where this has been established through mutually reinforcing evidence and rational conclusions drawn from a range of sources; and then to further probe and learn about reality and use the accumulated store of human knowledge, including with regard to methodology, in evaluating new evidence, new theories, new challenges to what has been held to be true, and so on.
This basic point of method is, for very good reason, emphasized a number of times in the book on evolution by Ardea Skybreak, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism—Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters. And it is articulated in the "Defend Science" statement (which is also reproduced as an appendix in that book), particularly in the following, just before the conclusion of the "Defend Science" statement:
"...one thing the overwhelming majority of scientists have in common is their understanding that, when conducting scientific investigation and applying the scientific method, it is essential to use as a starting point previously accumulated scientific knowledge—the storehouse of well-established scientific evidence about reality which has previously been arrived at through concrete and systematic scientific observation and experiment and has been subjected to rigorous scientific review and testing. This is what we scientists stand on as our foundation when we set out to further investigate reality and make new discoveries. This is how science has been done and how it has advanced for hundreds of years now, and this has allowed science to benefit humanity in countless ways." ("An Urgent Call by Scientists to: DEFEND SCIENCE! In the United States Today Science, as Science, Is Under Attack as Never Before," reprinted in Ardea Skybreak, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism—Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters—see pages 322.)
Once again on objective truth, relative truth, and the fundamental opposition between scientific materialism and relativism
What is involved here, among other things, is the fundamental difference and decisive dividing line between the recognition that all human knowledge contains an element of relativeness and, on the other hand, relativism as a basic philosophical outlook and approach. Here, again, is the relation between absolute and relative truth: the fact that the universe infinitely exists and the reality that actually exists embodies absolute truth, but human knowledge at any given time, even about particular things, let alone about reality in general, contains an aspect of relativeness because the world is constantly moving and changing and it is not possible to know everything about reality ever—and even what's known about particular things, since they don't exist in isolation and aren't static and unchanging, will involve a relative element. But as Lenin stressed, there is a fundamental difference between understanding that correctly—and therefore being driven to keep on learning, on the basis of grasping and applying a correct approach to the actual relation between absolute and relative truth, and between theory and practice—and, on the other hand, falling into relativism and agnosticism, especially when some established truth may be upended and overturned in this or that particular sphere, or even in a major way.
It is a basic foundation stone of materialism that practice is the ultimate point of origin and point of verification of theory. This is opposed to notions such as those advocated by Karl Popper, for example, who insists that how well a theory withstands criticism determines whether a theory should be accepted as the most valid at any given time. In Popper's thinking (and he is certainly not alone in this) this goes along with the idea that it is after all not really possible to know what is actually true. To quote Popper directly: "We cannot establish or justify anything as certain, or even as probable, but have to content ourselves with theories which withstand criticism." (The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 2: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath, Princeton University Press, Revised First Edition, 1966 [First Princeton Paperback Printing, 1971], pp. 375, 379, cited in "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity." See "Marxism as a Science—Refuting Karl Popper," in "Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity"—also found in Revolution And Communism: A Foundation And Strategic Orientation, pp. 18-30.)
Here, ironically in the name of opposing relativism, Popper is in fact arguing very clearly for relativism—and is specifically denying and opposing the scientific principle that practice, and not "criticism," is the ultimate point of verification (as well as the ultimate point of origin) of theory.
But it is also important to emphasize that, just as it is a foundation stone of materialism that practice is the ultimate point of origin and point of verification of theory, it is equally true and crucial to grasp that what is involved in this criterion is not practice in a narrow empiricist sense, but in a broad sense, and practice not simply "taken as it is" but practice analyzed and synthesized through the application of the scientific method, and above all the most consistent, systematic and comprehensive expression of this, the scientific communist outlook and method of dialectical materialism.
From all this it can be seen that it is very important that we correctly understand the relation between science and philosophy, and in particular our communist philosophy, which includes morality as well as outlook and method. Communism is a world outlook and method, but once again that world outlook and method is (to put it that way) susceptible to and should be evaluated according to scientific principles. Is idealism (as a philosophical outlook) in accord with reality, or is materialism? Are static and metaphysical notions about reality (for example, the notion that things have been brought into being by some supernatural force and that, once brought into being, they have always been and will always remain the way they are) in accord with reality, or is dialectics—the understanding that all of reality involves, indeed consists of, contradiction, motion, struggle, development, and leaps from one state of matter in motion to a qualitatively different state of matter in motion—in accord with reality?
To come at this another way: Communism, it could be said, is not simply a science, in the sense that it does involve other elements, including morality, which are, strictly speaking, outside of the province of science. But all this cannot be divorced from science; and it all ultimately and fundamentally rests on, as well as needing to be continually regrounded in, what is actually true, as determined by a scientific approach and method, and no other.
So harking back to the discussion I mentioned earlier—the discussion with comrades on epistemology, on knowing and changing the world, in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy—it is very important to continually go back to, dig into and wrestle more deeply with what is said there about the relation between the scientific method and the emergence of new truths that are established through the scientific method, on the one hand, and on the other hand the struggle for communism. It is crucial to grasp what is actually being said there, in all of its richness, concerning this whole process, and why in fact it is true that even truths that make us cringe can and should—and in a real sense must—contribute to the struggle for communism, rather than being treated as something which works against it.
1. Bob Avakian, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, Insight Press, 2005, pp. 43-64. [back]
2. "'A Leap of Faith' and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods," Revolution #10 (July 31, 2005), is available online at revcom.us/a/010/avakian-leap-faith-leap-rational.htm. [back]