Editors' note: The following is an excerpt from the new work by Bob Avakian, The New Communism, which is available as a book from Insight Press. An updated pre-publication PDF of this major work—now including the appendices—is available here.
To get into this, let’s start with some basic and essential questions: 1) Is the world actually a horror for the masses of humanity? 2) Is revolution, and the final goal of a communist world, the necessary means for radically changing all this, to eliminate oppression and exploitation, and the plundering of the environment? 3) Can such a revolution actually succeed, can a radically different and liberating society and world really be brought into being? Those are three big questions. Now, I imagine that we can all recite the “correct answers” to these questions: yes, yes, and yes. And the substance of these answers—the compelling reasons why those are the answers in fact—all this is brought to life in talks and writings of mine and, in an ongoing way, through the website revcom.us and Revolution newspaper. But here we need to focus on this question: How, with what method, do we arrive at these answers—by religiosity and just repeating dogma, or by some other means? And what approach do we take to understanding things in general? This has everything to do with epistemology—with the theory of knowledge, how people acquire knowledge and how they know whether something is true, whether it has to do with reality or not. In other words, questions such as: What is truth? Is there objective reality—believe it or not, that’s a question that is hotly debated in society—is there objective reality and can we come to know it, and how do we go about knowing the truth about reality? We are never going to get where we need to go without a correct, scientific method and approach for knowing the world as it really is, and as it is moving and changing. And we are never going to get where we need to go without challenging not only what people think but, even more fundamentally, how they think—and how they “approach the world.”
The science of communism—communism as a science—this is another thing that’s thrown around a lot. But this question, communism as a science—whether in fact communism is a science, whether it meets and applies the standards and methods of science, and whether it can, and needs to be, applied to society and to transforming society—all this is sharply contended not only in this society, and the world, overall and in general, but also specifically among many who claim to be seeking some kind of “progressive” or radical change, and even among many who proclaim themselves to be “communists,” “Maoists,” and so on. All this is spoken to in very important ways in the Interview with Ardea Skybreak, SCIENCE AND REVOLUTION: On the Importance of Science and the Application of Science to Society, the New Synthesis of Communism and the Leadership of Bob Avakian, as well as in the article, the polemic, in Demarcations #4, “Ajith—A Portrait of the Residue of the Past.”* And those works definitely deserve to be returned to and dug into repeatedly. Now, again, I would expect that, at least at this point, people here would answer “yes” to the question of whether communism is a science that must be applied to changing reality, and in particular the reality of human society—although it does need to be asked, and we should ask ourselves, whether people have actually thought this to be true before now, and have acted consistently in accordance with that. But, rather than directly pursuing that question, right now, let’s instead get into some of the basic elements of communism as a science.
To begin with a basic question: what is science? This, too, is spoken to in a very straightforward, substantial and compelling way in the Interview with Ardea Skybreak, emphasizing that science is an evidence-based process (in that Interview, she says many times: you can’t just tell me this and tell me that, show me the evidence, I want to see the evidence). Science is an evidence-based process which seeks to understand reality—not just the surface phenomena and what is immediately apparent, but the broader patterns and deeper relations of things in the real world of material reality—things as they actually are, and as they are changing.
Rather than going into that further here, because we don’t have infinite time, I will refer people to that part of the Interview with Ardea Skybreak—and to the Interview as a whole—which is, once again, definitely something that should be repeatedly returned to and dug into. But here let’s explore this question: We communists often say that dialectical materialism is a thoroughly scientific method and approach—in fact, the most thoroughly and consistently scientific method and approach—but why is this so?
Materialism vs. Idealism
Here we get to materialism versus idealism. First of all, there is the question: what is materialism? Materialism has everything to do with and flows from the scientific method and approach. Materialism means that you approach, and seek to understand, the world as it, in fact, objectively exists. It means that you understand that there is a material reality and that all of reality, all of existence, is made up of material reality and nothing else. Engels, who along with Marx, was the founder of the communist movement, made the point, a very important point, that there are, in basic terms, two fundamental and two fundamentally opposed schools of philosophy: one is idealism and the other is materialism.
Now, we have to understand these terms not as they’re often used by people in everyday language, but in a scientific way. A lot of times people use idealism in a positive way: so-and-so is very idealistic, they have high ideals, meaning they have a lot of principles and they’re not narrow-minded or selfish or whatever. But in the philosophical sense, idealism, the school of idealism, means that you think that reality is an extension of ideas—that’s why it’s called idealism, you think reality is an extension of ideas—ideas in the mind of individuals. For example: “Maybe this doesn’t exist for you, but it exists for me.” We hear this kind of thing all the time, this relativism: “Well, that may be your truth, but my truth says something different. God may not exist for you, but God definitely exists for me.” No! If god exists at all, then god exists for everybody. See, that’s the thing we have to recognize. Either there’s a god or there’s not. God is not the kind of thing that can just exist in one person’s mind—unless it’s your own personal god that you just made up, and then that’s easy to deal with. But the idealist school of thought in philosophy says that the reality that we perceive is an extension of ideas—either different individuals’ ideas or the ideas of one great mind, which is another way of saying what? God. So, naturally, you can’t test those ideas against reality, because their basis exists within the mind of either some supposed god or of individual human beings. And this is completely out of line with reality—the idea that there are multiple realities depending on each individual’s, or some supposed god’s, thinking or feelings or ideas or whatever—it’s completely out of keeping with the actual reality. (Ooh, there’s that scary concept again, objective reality, actual reality. We’re on the verge of totalitarianism now!)
Engels also made the point that one of the ways we know this, that material reality actually exists, is that we can interact with it—not only learn about it, but change it. And when we change it, it changes the same way for everybody. Different people may respond to how it changes in different ways, or have different feelings or thoughts about it, but it changes objectively. So that’s the philosophical school of materialism, as Engels pointed out. The school of materialism, as opposed to idealism, says that the material world objectively exists independently of any individual, or any supposed god, and their ideas and thinking. And that, in fact, individuals and their thinking is a process of material reality itself—people’s brains, nervous systems, and so on—this is what goes into thought. Now, it’s true, we don’t understand everything about how this works, although more is constantly being learned, and at the same time there is struggle over how to interpret what’s being learned in many cases. But we do know that the human nervous system and brain are actual material reality that undergoes actual material processes, and that’s what thoughts are constituted of. And those thoughts in turn are ultimately, and in a fundamental sense, a reflection of objective reality, a reflection in the minds of the thinking person. These ideas may be a correct or an incorrect, an accurate or an inaccurate, reflection of reality, but that’s what they ultimately are, some reflection of reality. So that’s a fundamental dividing line, between materialism and idealism.
Now it’s true that, for example, in art, in culture, often things will be presented which are different than actual material reality. And that’s a good thing. You wouldn’t want to see art that only, always and simply, reflected reality back to you just exactly the way it is. You want it presented in different ways, including many ways that are not in keeping with how reality actually is, which can inspire and challenge and provoke you to think, including about actual reality. So there is that role in art. But that art, that culture, is still a reflection of material reality in the final analysis. That’s the raw material—the actual reality out there is the raw material out of which art is built, even if it deliberately distorts and skews it in order to present things in a different way. So we’re back again to this fundamental dividing line between a materialist understanding and an idealist mis-understanding of how things actually are.
What we mean by materialism, as one of the two opposing schools in philosophy, is different once again than the way this is often used in everyday life—for example, how preachers sometimes use this term, or how it is often used in popular language— meaning something like consumerism: “That person’s very materialist,” meaning they want to go out and grab a bunch of consumer goods, they’re continually consumed with shopping, buying more video games, or shoes, or whatever. Or, sometimes materialism is used by religious people and others to refer to people who are very narrow and grubby: they’re philistine—they don’t think about big things, they’re very “materialist” in the sense of wanting to just deal with the narrowest scope of things, and don’t have much use for big philosophical questions, or questions of “spirituality,” and so on. But, in the scientific sense, in terms of the two basic schools of philosophy, materialism means that you recognize that material reality objectively exists, that everything that actually exists is made up of material reality, in many different forms, and that this includes the minds of people and their thoughts.
Now, once again, people sometimes say things like: “Well, maybe the world objectively exists, but we can’t actually know it as it objectively exists, we can only know it as we perceive it, or as we construct it in our minds, out of our perceptions.” Engels pointed out the prominent philosopher Immanuel Kant was an example of that. But without going into all that right now, the point is, as Engels made clear, that even people who argue in that way are still in the philosophical camp of idealism, because if you say we can’t really know anything about reality outside of how we perceive it, or how we construct it in our minds, then in effect you’re saying that the only material reality there is, or the only material reality you can be certain of, is the material reality you perceive and how you perceive it, or “construct” it. All that falls into the philosophical school of idealism that says that reality exists in the minds of people, or in the mind of one great god, and then everything else is an extension of that. So, once again, this is a fundamental dividing line in how you approach understanding the world and therefore your ability to change it. It may sound like we’re talking about obscure theoretical abstractions, but everybody here, I’m sure, in talking to people, runs into this kind of thinking—the idealist way of thinking—in all different kinds of forms. You get it in very sophisticated theses sometimes—or sometimes not very sophisticated feces—from some of these academics. And you get it in very down-on-the-ground everyday terms from “regular people.” Again, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Or, “How can we really say what’s true?” Or, “God may not exist for you, but I know God exists for me—without God I couldn’t have done this, I couldn’t have done that, I couldn’t have gotten off drugs, so God exists for me, anyway.” I’ve even had people tell me: “Well, you may not believe in God, but I believe God sent you here to do this.”
We hear this kind of thing in all different kinds of forms all the time. And it’s very important that we approach things correctly in how we deal with this and how we struggle over this with people. I mean, you’re not going to go to the masses of people and say, “Now, listen, you have to understand there are two basic schools of philosophy—Engels pointed out...” “What the fuck are you talking about?!” No, you have to break this down for people—it’s not that you should water it down, but you have to break it down, you have to make this accessible to people. At the same time, you have to remain firmly grounded in the basics here. Otherwise, you’re going to lose your bearings, you’re not going to be able to struggle in a good way with people, because people will set all kinds of terms on which they want to discuss and struggle with you about things, and you have to recast the terms back to what they actually are, or else you get lost and run around in a circle. I think everybody has experienced this at one time or another.
So that’s materialism as opposed to idealism, two basic schools of philosophy: one in accord, in correspondence, with how things actually are, and one completely out of line (upside down, if you will) in terms of how things actually are.
* Ishak Baran and K.J.A., “Ajith—A Portrait of the Residue of the Past” in Demarcations: A Journal of Communist Theory and Polemic, Issue Number 4, Winter 2015. Available at demarcations-journal.org and revcom.us. [back]
Introduction and Orientation
Foolish Victims of Deceit, and Self-Deceit
Part I. Method and Approach, Communism as a Science
Materialism vs. Idealism
Through Which Mode of Production
The Basic Contradictions and Dynamics of Capitalism
The New Synthesis of Communism
The Basis for Revolution
Epistemology and Morality, Objective Truth and Relativist Nonsense
Self and a “Consumerist” Approach to Ideas
What Is Your Life Going to Be About?—Raising People’s Sights
Part II. Socialism and the Advance to Communism:
A Radically Different Way the World Could Be, A Road to Real Emancipation
The “4 Alls”
Beyond the Narrow Horizon of Bourgeois Right
Socialism as an Economic System and a Political System—And a Transition to Communism
Abundance, Revolution, and the Advance to Communism—A Dialectical Materialist Understanding
The Importance of the “Parachute Point”—Even Now, and Even More With An Actual Revolution
The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America—
Solid Core with a Lot of Elasticity on the Basis of the Solid Core
Emancipators of Humanity
Part III. The Strategic Approach to An Actual Revolution
One Overall Strategic Approach
Hastening While Awaiting
Forces For Revolution
Separation of the Communist Movement from the Labor Movement, Driving Forces for Revolution
National Liberation and Proletarian Revolution
The Strategic Importance of the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women
The United Front under the Leadership of the Proletariat
Youth, Students and the Intelligentsia
Struggling Against Petit Bourgeois Modes of Thinking, While Maintaining the Correct Strategic Orientation
The “Two Maximizings”
The “5 Stops”
The Two Mainstays
Returning to "On the Possibility of Revolution"
Internationalism and an International Dimension
Internationalism—Bringing Forward Another Way
Popularizing the Strategy
Part IV. The Leadership We Need
The Decisive Role of Leadership
A Leading Core of Intellectuals—and the Contradictions Bound Up with This
Another Kind of “Pyramid”
The Cultural Revolution Within the RCP
The Need for Communists to Be Communists
A Fundamentally Antagonistic Relation—and the Crucial Implications of That
Strengthening the Party—Qualitatively as well as Quantitatively
Forms of Revolutionary Organization, and the “Ohio”
Statesmen, and Strategic Commanders
Methods of Leadership, the Science and the “Art” of Leadership
Working Back from “On the Possibility”—
Another Application of “Solid Core with a Lot of Elasticity on the Basis of the Solid Core”
The New Synthesis of Communism:
Fundamental Orientation, Method and Approach,
and Core Elements—An Outline
by Bob Avakian
Framework and Guidelines for Study and Discussion
Selected List of Works Cited
About the Author