Revolution#109, November 18, 2007


Marxism as a Science— In Opposition to Mechanical Materialism, Idealism and Religiosity

Editors’ Note: The following is the fifth 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.

Marxism as a Science—In Opposition to Mechanical Materialism, Idealism and Religiosity
Along with breaking with all expressions of religious tendencies, within the communist movement itself as well as more generally, there is a need to leap beyond and rupture with a definite legacy of the communist movement in terms of tendencies (which still exist and exert a significant influence) toward pragmatism and empiricism, reification of the proletariat, and reification of socialism (or the process of the socialist transformation of society and the advance to communism), as though this is some sort of religious-tending process, some teleological process that’s all working out toward some predetermined end (what Bill Martin refers to as “inevitable-ism”1). These kinds of viewpoints and approaches, along with reductionism and positivism—and the tendency to mechanical materialism and determinism in general—lead to reducing everything to the more immediate and narrow dimensions and to acting as if things that happened were bound to happen, and/or were determined by a linear progression of causes (or seeming causes), without leaps and qualitative changes from one state of matter to another, and without the interaction of different levels of matter in motion.

A while ago there was a program on TV—it didn’t last very long, only a few episodes, but I don’t think it was because of its bad philosophy and bad science—this was a program where Stanley Tucci played a neurosurgeon/brain surgeon and at one point (in one of the few episodes that made it on TV before the show was canceled) he said to another doctor: “The brain is just a box with wires.” Well, this is an example of what I mean by reductionism and positivism. The brain is a great deal more than that, and human thinking involves a great deal more than a box with wires. It involves a great deal more than what goes on with a computer, for example—a much more complex process is involved, within the brain itself, and in the interactions between the brain and the rest of the body, and between the body (or, better said, the person) as a whole and the “outside world.” All that is involved in the functioning of the human brain and in human thought.

These kinds of tendencies toward positivism and reductionism are, of course, in evidence not just in bad TV programs, or even just in some approaches to medical science. You see this all the time in the outlook and method of people—including communists—reducing things to the most narrow terms, looking for the causes of things just in the most immediate thing that suggests itself, not looking to the deeper dynamics and the larger picture—along with a lot of apriorism and instrumentalism (trying to make reality fit preconceived notions and predetermined aims).

Well, there are, among communists, those tendencies, which go along with religiosity—and this has no place in what we’re doing. Ours is not, and must not be, a religious, but rather a scientific, approach to things, to everything. We are not out to do something because we cooked up a nice vision, to us, of an “ideal world” and now—as the “anti-totalitarians” are always claiming—we’re setting out to impose with as much force as proves necessary, this utopian ideal vision on everyone. This is one of the classical charges against communists in the “anti-totalitarian” arsenal—that we have these utopian dreams and schemes that may sound good but have no grounding or basis in reality, so we’re forced to increasingly use coercion against the very people in whose name we proclaim such a utopia, and we end up utilizing the most horrific means to try to impose this utopian ideal. That is not what this is about.

What we are setting out to do, and the principles and methods involved in this, are not a matter of apriorism and instrumentalism—we know the answers to everything going in, and it’s simply a matter of reconfiguring things so that everybody we’re working with gives us the right answers when we pose the right questions. To the degree that there are tendencies in this direction, it is something we have to thoroughly rupture with and root out. We must be engaging reality, on as scientific a basis as we possibly can, at any given time. And, in this process, we are interacting with other people who are applying different outlooks and different approaches with different objectives. Their thinking, their objectives, their inclinations and their ideas—some of which may actually better reflect reality than our understanding at times and with regard to certain phenomena, lest we forget—this is also part of the larger objective reality that we need to engage. It is necessary to have a scientific approach to that as well. We need to have a systematically, consistently, and comprehensively scientific approach, to everything—and the communist outlook and method provides the means to do that, if we actually take up and apply it, and don’t corrupt it with religious or other philosophically idealist and metaphysical notions and approaches.

This is why I like the image, or metaphor, of our being a team of scientists—scientists setting out to transform the world in the most profound way. What we’re about is not anything different than that. So we have to be consistently and thoroughly scientific ourselves, even when we’re interacting with many people who are anything but that—or are that at certain times and to a certain degree, but then again are not scientific in the most consistent, systematic, and comprehensive sense.

Running through everything I have been speaking to so far is the whole emphasis on the fact that Marxism/communism is a science, a scientific outlook and method for understanding and, yes, for changing the world. It’s a science as opposed to dogma and religiosity—including dogma and religiosity in the guise of science. As I have pointed out before, we are not dealing with nature and history in capital letters—Nature and History endowed with will and purpose—and all this is not some grand process of the working out of Nature and History toward the inevitable goal of communism. We’re dealing with material reality in its various forms, including human social relations. There is no will operating through this, other than human beings with their “wills” and their understanding. There is no teleology unfolding, there is no predetermined end toward which everything is bound to proceed. And the fact is that, besides everything else that is wrong with this, it is also true that replacing science and the continual struggle to more and more consistently and systematically grasp and apply a scientific method and approach—replacing that with what amounts to religiosity will sooner or later, and often sooner, lead to “losing your faith”—the “god that failed” phenomenon that we have seen before. Religious viewpoints, in whatever guise and whatever form, are not going to stand up to the real world and to all the many, truly daunting challenges and profound contradictions that have to be struggled with and transformed. Religiosity, especially when you are setting out to radically change the world and are up against all the difficult challenges posed in this process, will lead to disorientation and to clinging (at least for a time) to a set of beliefs that is very brittle—and to being lifeless and uninspiring, for yourself or anyone else.

So we communists really need to rupture thoroughly with dogma and religiosity, and be consistently and systematically scientific. Let me keep emphasizing that fundamental point. And let me also emphasize that what we need, and must base ourselves on, is the scientific outlook and method of communism that is also opposed to what I call revisionist “determinist realism.” Lenin made that very insightful observation (or captured something very insightfully in the formulation) that one of the main expressions of revisionism is this: what is desirable is what’s possible, and what’s possible is what is already being done. Now, that is one of the main expressions of “determinist realism.” But this “determinist realism” also expresses itself in the form of not seeing the possibility of sudden, dramatic change and radical ruptures—only dealing with the surface appearance of things, not penetrating to the underlying contradictions and the dynamics that are bound up with those contradictions; not casting your gaze broadly enough at what’s going on in the world that might impinge upon and interpenetrate with things happening in one part of the world; not looking with a fresh and creative enough approach to reality, seeing only the existing patterns of things, but not the possibility of something emerging, yes, out of the existing contradictions—not out of nowhere—but perhaps in unexpected and unanticipated ways, being unprepared in your orientation for that.

The failure to do all that leads to this “determinist realism.” You look at the world as it is, you see what appears on the surface to be possible in the world the way it is, and you assume it will indefinitely continue the way it is—and therefore your options become more and more narrowed, your vision more and more constricted. Now it’s not that we can be voluntarist and think we can do whatever we want, regardless of material reality. But this is where dialectics comes in, together with materialism—this is why materialism, in the fullest and most consistent sense, dialectical materialism, does not lead to “determinist realism.” It involves an engagement with material reality, and key concentrations of material reality at any given time, in their contradictoriness—in their living, moving and changing character, and in their interconnection with other aspects of matter in motion—and not approaching things statically and as if things will continue on indefinitely the way they are. It looks beneath the surface to see the more profound undergirdings and dynamics that are driving things, and grapples with the ways in which this may bring forward radical ruptures and leaps, while also being oriented to expect the unexpected—to be alert and tense to the possibility of unanticipated events arising, or erupting, out of the motion and development of things that are already apparent, in interconnection with things that may not yet be apparent.  

This series will continue in the next issue of Revolution.

1. Bill Martin, a radical professor of philosophy and maverick social theorist, is the author of a number of works, including, with Bob Avakian, the book Marxism and the Call of the Future, Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics (Chicago: Open Court Publishing/Carus Publishing, 2005).[back]

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