Revolution #108, November 11, 2007


The Rupture with Outmoded Thinking and Beliefs

Editors’ Note: The following is the fourth in a series of excerpts from a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA earlier this year (2007). This has been edited for publication and footnotes have been added (among other things, in preparing this for publication, the author has considerably expanded the section on Karl Popper). These excerpts are being published in two parts. Part 1 is available in its entirety, as one document, online at Part 2 will also be available in the near future, as one document, at; the excerpts comprising Part 2 will also be published as a series in Revolution after the conclusion of the present series of excerpts.

The Rupture with Outmoded Thinking and Beliefs

Bound up with all this are important questions of epistemology (theory of knowledge). There is the urgent need for people to take up a thoroughly scientific, materialist and dialectical outlook and method. There’s a need, even on the part of communists—and obviously more broadly in society—for further ruptures with, and for winning people away from, idealism and metaphysics, which gets expressed in innumerable and seemingly very creative, and actually sometimes very creative, ways and variations. People are constantly regenerating various forms of philosophical idealism and metaphysics, which posit the existence of—and give a pivotal place and determining role to—beings, or “forces” and “causes,” that are said to be beyond the realm of the material universe—things which, in reality, do not exist.

Obviously, there is religion. We run into this all the time: You’ll be having a discussion with somebody and they’ll be agreeing with you about many things that are terribly wrong in the world, and then at a certain point they will say: “But, you know, it’s all in God’s hands”; or, “God’s gonna take care of things and deal with those people, pretty soon now.” Yeah, God’s been doing a great job with that so far! Still, this is constantly regenerated. These religious notions don’t appear out of, or arise out of, the mist or out of nowhere, but of course have their roots, historically, in the ignorance, the lack of knowledge, of human beings in early society; but they have been carried forward, codified and institutionalized by ruling classes throughout the ages as part of enforcing their rule. Clearly, this is something that the ruling classes throughout history, and down to today, have recognized as important for the maintenance of their rule (whether or not individual members of those ruling classes actually believed in the religions they promoted among the masses).

In a general sense, this kind of thinking is very widespread among people, in a number of different forms. Some people will say, “I agree with you, this is bad, that is bad, the way people are treated is terrible…but I’m a Buddhist—you know, karma, all that.” And among many such people, there is a real ignorance of what the doctrine of karma really means—what its most profound effect has been—conveying to masses of people that they are in the position they’re in because of karma, and there really isn’t anything they can do about it other than to go along and be a good person, within the established order, and maybe in the next life they will have a better fate. This is what it really means for people—the notions of Buddhism or Hinduism. I mean, for God’s sake, if you’ll pardon the expression, look at the world. You watch scenes from India and you say, “for Christ sake”—well, you can’t really say for Christ’s sake [laughter], but in any case, you want to scream: “Get out of that Ganges and get rid of those religious ceremonies that are polluting that river and getting you into that polluted river and spreading disease all over the place.” Or the Islamic religious authorities, in parts of Africa and elsewhere, who tell people not to get treatment for AIDS and other diseases because the treatment is a plot and it’s against the will of Allah. This does concrete harm, great harm, to masses of people throughout the world, billions of people. Now, again, fundamentally it is the production and social relations and the rule of the exploiting classes—and above all, on a world scale, it is the domination by imperialism—that is responsible, but they couldn’t rule without these ideologies, and in particular these religions and religious traditions, and the ignorance and superstition they embody and reinforce.

Changes in Society, Changes in “Human Nature”

And then you have other theories that are not necessarily dressed in religious garb but still have the same effect and represent the same fundamental outlook—notions of “human nature,” for example: “You can’t really change human nature; that’s just the way people are; everybody wants to get more for themselves, and to hell with everybody else.” Well, that “human nature” corresponds to what? To a certain economic structure and culture conditioned thereby. It is not innate in human beings, it is not “in their genes,” people are not “hard wired” for this. Once more, another profound point made by Marx, which is so little known about and even less understood, is that “All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.” (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy) Yes, in broad terms, there are certain characteristics of human beings that distinguish them from even other mammals, let alone other forms of life. Human beings are different than a chipmunk, or a tree, that’s true—they do have a certain “nature” in that sense. But one of the defining characteristics of the “nature” of human beings is precisely the great “plasticity” that they have—the ability to respond in a variety of ways to things, and the ability to change how they see and respond to things when they change their conditions and change themselves in dialectical relation with that.

In short, “human nature,” to the degree that we can speak of such a thing, is very flexible and changes with changes in human society. But how many people understand anything approximating that? And how much harm is done by people not understanding that? How much suffering is intensified and prolonged as a result of people having a fundamental misunderstanding of this and a belief in notions that amount to idealism and metaphysics?

We need to be much more consciously and, yes, resolutely—but in a good and living way, not in a dogmatic way—struggling with people over these things. And there are plenty of good ways to do it, once you really have an understanding of how important this is. I’m sure that the more deeply we grasp this, the more we can come up with very creative ways to struggle around this in a good and living way—and, as is appropriate in most cases, a comradely and friendly way, even while struggling sharply. But it takes a grasp of the essential materialism and dialectics to do this, and do it well. You can’t do it with religion—or the “communist equivalent” of religious dogma. And you can’t do it with utopian and idealist notions of how you’d like the world to be. We have to, ourselves, leap and rupture—and bring forward more and more people to leap and rupture—beyond that.

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