Revolution #130, May 25, 2008
Re-envisioning Revolution and Communism:
WHAT IS BOB AVAKIAN’S NEW SYNTHESIS?
Part II: A Philosophy to Understand—and Change—The World
The following is Part II of the text of a speech given in various locations around the country this spring. The text has been slightly edited for publication. Revolution is publishing this speech in five installments. The complete speech is available online at revcom.us.
Now by philosophy I mean a more-or-less worked-out way of understanding the world that guides, or influences, how people see their place in it and what they think can be or should be done about it. If you think that people are “hard-wired to be selfish because of their genetic inheritance”—that’s a philosophy. It’s a way of understanding all of nature and society, and it’s going to guide what you think can and should be done.
If you say that you don’t have a philosophy, you just go with what works—sorry, that’s a philosophy too, the made-in-USA philosophy of pragmatism. If you take up that philosophy, you don’t think too much about the underlying causes of things, the larger dynamics that shape the world—you just accept the world as it is and limit yourself to tinkering around the edges.
And if you say that all philosophies are just “social constructs” which are all equally valid—or invalid—for getting at the truth; and if you even question the existence of such a thing as truth; well, that too is a philosophy—relativism—a very current one. Unfortunately, if predictably, it’s gone along with a lack of conviction in firmly enough opposing and actually fighting the all too real crimes of the powers-that-be.
Philosophy matters, in other words, to what you DO.
Well, communism also encompasses a philosophy. And at the very heart of the new synthesis has been Bob Avakian’s work to critically interrogate, or analyze, the philosophical foundations of communism—and to put those foundations on a more fully scientific basis.
To understand how this is so, we’re going to have to touch on a few very complex concepts. Some of these concepts at the beginning are going to be complicated and perhaps unfamiliar—but stay with me—all this has extremely important implications for the “real world”—and I hope things become clear.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had been students of the dialectical method developed by the German philosopher Hegel. Hegel had grasped that everything in the world constantly changes and develops. This development is driven forward by the conflicting forces that both coexist and struggle within every phenomenon and process. Even when something appears to be relatively stable...struggle, change and development are not only going on within it, but giving it its very character. And Hegel put forward that through this struggle of opposites, one aspect eventually becomes dominant, resulting in a leap to something fundamentally new.
To take one example—which Hegel by the way could not have known—the sun looks like a solid red-hot ball; in reality, it is a mass of continuous thermonuclear explosions which transform the hydrogen at the sun’s core into helium, which radiates heat and light. And our sun will go through stages of development, changing its composition and its size and the amount of heat and light that it gives out, until eventually it dies—and becomes the food for new stars. It is a case of the unity, struggle and mutual transformation of opposites—giving rise to something new.
But Hegel located the source of all this development in a pre-existing realm of ideas, which then played out in the material world. In this sense, Hegel was philosophically idealist. Now, idealism in the realm of philosophy has a different meaning than it does in everyday life. In everyday life, idealism usually means that someone cares about more than just themselves. But in philosophy, idealism refers to the notion that ideas came before the material world, or exist in a higher realm independent of that world.
Take religion. “In the beginning was the word”; or “everything is controlled and created by a god who exists in a different, non-material realm”; or “all my suffering is really just part of God’s purpose for me”—these are all just forms of philosophical idealism. Or take that book The Secret, which says that you create your world by the thoughts you think. Again, idealism—because in reality, your thinking develops in relation to and in the context of the particular society you were born into and your place in that society, and the “choices” it presents you with.
Opposed to idealism is materialism. And again, the everyday and philosophical uses of that word differ. Today when most people speak of materialism they mean something like consumerism...love of bling. But in the realm of philosophy, materialism stands for the outlook that seeks the causes of phenomena, including our thoughts, in the actual dynamics of the material world. Consciousness is the property of a particular form of matter that thinks—that is, humans.
During the time of Marx, materialism was predominantly mechanical—that means that the materialists of the day grasped that the laws of the physical world could be known, but tended to see these laws as somewhat static and machine-like, a kind of clockwork universe. They had been able to see how the earth revolved around the sun, and the gravitational laws that accounted for that, and the ways in which it could keep going; but they didn’t know about the way that the sun itself had arisen, gone through development, and would die out—so their views were constricted, and their philosophy reflected that. They could not quite account for how qualitative change—the coming into being of totally new things, or “leaps”—could arise from material causes.
Marx, and Engels, took Hegel’s great insight of dialectics—that everything changes on account of the struggle of opposed forces—and they stripped it of its idealism; and they took the materialist understanding that reality exists independently of and prior to all thought and stripped that of its mechanical character. The synthesis was dialectical materialism: the understanding that everything in the world goes through constant change and development through the contradictory forces within it, and that human thought itself arises from and reflects this process—and reacts back on it.
Putting the Study of Society on a Scientific Foundation
They applied that to putting the study of human society on a scientific foundation, and they developed historical materialism. They analyzed that, first of all, people must produce the necessities of life, and that they must enter into relations with each other to carry out that production—that is, production relations.
These production relations in turn roughly correspond to a certain level of development of the productive forces—that is, the technology, resources, and knowledge of the people in any given society at any given time. In slavery, the production is carried out through relations between people in which one class literally owns another. These production relations of the slave system generally correspond to large-scale agriculture in which the tools are very primitive.
In capitalism, production is carried out through relations between people where one class—the capitalists—owns the factories, warehouses, and so on and where the other principal class—the workers, or proletarians—owns nothing but their ability to work, and must sell that ability in order to survive. The capitalists don’t own the workers outright, but instead pay them wages when they can profit off them and fire them when they can’t—as we can see around us right now, by the way. And these production relations correspond to the existence of large-scale means of production requiring a collectivity of people to work them; when people go into a factory to make steel or tractors, they have to work together to do that.
Both capitalism and slavery are exploitative, but the relations of production are different. So different types of societies have different production relations. Further, different kinds of production relations gave rise to different kinds of governments, different conceptions of human nature, different forms of the family, different kinds of art, different understandings of rights and duties, and different moralities.
For example, the Bible—including the New Testament—was written during an era when an important part of production was carried out through slave relations. That’s why there is no sense anywhere in the Bible that slavery is a horrible crime against humanity—unless it happens to be done to the Israelites in the Old Testament by non-Jewish people. And the Bible was thus easily used by the slave masters of the Old South to justify slavery.
Today, when slavery no longer corresponds to the interests of the dominant class, the political and cultural consensus finds it to be horrible. But the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists, and the casting off of these workers when they can no longer be profitably exploited, is just seen as “the way things are, and human nature”—just like slavery used to be. Like the abolitionists before the U.S. Civil War, but on a much more scientific basis, we need to bring forward that this is NOT human nature any more than slavery was, but is just the result of capitalist relations—and we need to bring forward our different and opposed morality, based on a whole different set of production and social relations.
Let’s take a scientific, historical materialist approach to the case with which I began this talk. What led to Biko Edwards and all the other students getting brutalized? Was it “unruly behavior” for no good reason? Well, you have to look at the whole social context and the whole larger history of what led to that incident. You have to ask: how do the underlying production relations of society—and the differing ways that Black people have been forced to find their relation to that, over history—shed light on this? You have to scientifically analyze what has driven the transformation of African-Americans first from slaves, kidnaped and ripped from their homes and brought here in chains to build up the great wealth of this country; and then to sharecroppers confined on plantations after the Civil War; and then driven and drawn to the cities as mainly industrial workers in the most exploited and oppressive jobs...and now to a situation where the majority of African-Americans are either wage-slaves or treated as surplus people—and in the case of Black youth like Biko Edwards, treated as criminals. (And to again quote the New York Times, one of nine young Black men are in prison—the highest incarceration rate in the world.1)
You have to analyze the institutions and ideas that arose and were established and promoted in each of these periods. You have to analyze how white supremacy went through changes, but still remained very powerful in all the institutions in society. You have to look at all this in relation to every other significant phenomenon in society. And then on the basis of all that you can begin to scientifically analyze where all this oppression came from and comes from—and what has to be done to get rid of it. So that’s an example of a historical materialist approach.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this discovery and of Marx’s contributions generally to human thought—and human emancipation. He, along with Engels, set the theoretical foundation—they lit the way.
But there were, not surprisingly, limitations in the way that Marx and Engels went at this, and these problems got compounded by serious methodological shortcomings on the part of Stalin, who led the Soviet Union and the international communist movement for nearly 30 years following Lenin’s death. What’s worse, these errors came at the very time an advance in understanding was urgently called for. Mao—the leader of the Chinese Revolution—fought against some of these problems, but Mao himself was straining against an inherited framework and was not free from its influences. And these shortcomings had consequences.
Now, Bob Avakian has identified and deeply criticized weaknesses along four different dimensions of communist philosophy. These concern: one, a fuller break with idealist, even quasi-religious, forms of thought that had found their way into the foundation of Marxism and had not been ruptured with; two, a further and qualitatively deeper grasp of the ways in which matter and consciousness mutually interpenetrate with and transform each other; three, a critique of a host of problems associated with pragmatism and related philosophical tendencies; and four, a radically different epistemology, or way of getting at the truth. In doing all this, he has put Marxism on a more fully scientific basis.
To begin with, Avakian has excavated, criticized, and broken with certain secondary but still significant religious-type tendencies that have previously existed within the communist movement and communist theory—tendencies to see the achievement of communism as an "historical inevitability" and the related view of communism as almost like a heaven, some kind of "kingdom of great harmony," without contradictions and struggles among people.
But communism is not inevitable. There is no "god-like" History with a “Capital H” pushing things to communism. And while communism will bring about an end to antagonistic and violent conflicts among human beings, it will still be marked by contradictions, debates, and struggles—which will be carried out without violent conflict, and which will in fact be a very good thing, since this will continually contribute to the achievement of further understanding and further advances in transforming reality in accordance with the overall interests of humanity.
The view that the triumph of communism is "inevitable" and driven forward by History (with a "Capital H") and the tendency to see communism as some kind of utopia, without contradiction and struggle, was rather pronounced in Stalin, but has existed in Marxism to some degree more generally. In some significant aspects and to a significant degree, Mao broke with these kinds of views and methods; but the point is that there was still, even in Mao, an aspect of "inevitablism" and related tendencies, and Avakian has carried further the rupture with these ways of thinking, which are suggestive of an element of religiosity within Marxism, even while that element has never been principal or defining in terms of Marxist theory itself. In this regard (as well as in an overall sense) Avakian has not only upheld Mao and synthesized Mao's contributions to revolution and communist theory, but he has carried forward the rupture that Mao represented from Stalin, and on that basis Avakian has now made some ruptures with some of Mao's understanding too.
To say that communism is not inevitable is NOT to say that history is just a jumble. Indeed, there IS a coherence to history, as Marx put it, based on the fact that the productive forces (again, the land, technology, resources and people with their knowledge) are handed down from one generation to another and are constantly developing; and that when the relations that people enter into to carry out production become a fetter on the further development of those forces, big change ensues. Southern slave relations, which for decades coexisted with and fed northern capitalism, eventually became a fetter on the expansion of northern capitalism—and you got a civil war.
Like I said—big change.
Today, the fundamental contradiction of this society is between socialized production (the fact that people have to work collectively to produce things these days) and the fact that the means to produce that wealth and the product of those means is still owned, controlled and appropriated by individuals. This contradiction finds expression in all the different forms of the class struggle, on the one hand, and in the fact that development can only proceed through the headlong, expand-or-die clash of different blocs of capital on the other. This contradiction will continually pose and re-pose itself for resolution, in different ways.
Now whether that gets resolved favorably—whether we advance to the communist way of life that is now possible—this is not “guaranteed.” It depends upon us and whether we carry out the hard work to develop both our scientific understanding of society and nature, and our ability to wrench freedom out of the challenges we face.
Like religious belief, the “inevitability guarantee” may console or sustain you, but it is not true and it cuts against facing reality as it is. It actually fetters your thinking in regard to the different possible pathways of human development—pathways which are subject to very real constraints and are “determined” in that sense, but which do not run in a predetermined direction.
And communism will not be a heaven, or kingdom of great harmony; as I said, like everything else, it will change and develop through the working out of contradictions by struggle—with the (rather huge) difference being that this struggle will no longer take place violently, through antagonistic social groups, and people themselves will have transcended the narrow and often vicious thinking conditioned by capitalism, as well as patriarchy and national oppression, that we now see as human nature.
The Role, and Potential Power, of Consciousness
Second, and related to this, Avakian has developed a far deeper understanding of the potential role and power of consciousness. Put it this way: to the extent that you do scientifically and deeply grasp the complex and multi-level contradictory character of society, with all its different constraints and its many possible pathways...to that extent, your freedom to act on and to affect that situation is immeasurably magnified.
Previously, the importance of the economic base (that is, the production relations) was not just recognized—but over-emphasized. This was a tendency toward reductionism—that is, reducing complex phenomena to a single over-riding cause, flattening out processes that have different levels to them in a way that doesn’t correspond to and actually distorts reality. Yes, the political institutions, the ideas, the morality of society—in other words, the superstructure of society—all ultimately grow out of its economic relations; this is a foundational insight of Marx.
But these institutions and ideas of the superstructure have a relative life of their own; plus they operate, and affect each other, on a lot of different and interpenetrating levels. They can’t just be flatly reduced to linear outgrowths of the production relations or class relations. Let’s take an example. White racism—the notion that there are different “races” of people, and that Black people are an inferior race—is a pseudo-scientific canard, or empty lie, that arose in the early 19th century. It grew out of and was reinforced by slave relations and in particular the slave-holding class. But its influence stretched far beyond that, becoming bred into the bone of the very notion of what it means to be an American and what democracy is all about—a point gone into in great depth in Avakian’s talk on Jeffersonian Democracy.2 And that idea has taken on a life of its own, affecting the thinking of everybody, and will have to be struggled against in its own right in socialist society, even as its material roots are being dug up.
While both Lenin and especially Mao made very important contributions toward a more correct and dialectical understanding of how this relation between the base and superstructure “works,” neither quite grasped the scope and fluidity of this relative independence deeply enough, or in a layered enough way.
Rupturing with Pragmatic Tendencies
Third, there have been other negative philosophical tendencies and problems in method, many of which relate to pragmatism—a philosophy, as I said earlier, that opposes the investigation of the deeper underlying reality in the name of “what works” and which also will maintain that ideas are true insofar as they are useful. This latter point begs the question of “useful for what?” and, more important, actually denies the real criterion of truth—whether an idea corresponds to reality. The idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was useful to Bush—but that didn’t make it true.
These erroneous philosophical tendencies, particularly with Stalin, infected and even permeated the communist movement. Here I will ask you to bear with me as I try to explain—because remember, these had serious consequences. They included instrumentalism, which refers to the use of theory more as an instrument to justify some short-term goal than as a means to dig for the truth; empiricism, in which the evaluation of truth is based on direct and immediately observable experience, in a narrow framework; apriorism, which means imposing categories on the world, rather than drawing these concepts from the world itself, in a complex interplay between practice and theory; and positivism, a method which tends to limit and confine science to the description and codifying of observations, focusing on criteria of quantitative measurement and prediction.
To focus on positivism for a minute, this view denies or deems meaningless the analysis of deeper levels of dynamics and direction. Because of that, it tends to wall off phenomena from larger contexts and different levels and also attempts to reduce things and processes to a single, simple cause. And it consequently tends to negate, or deny, the ways in which theory can and must “run ahead” of practice—the ways, that is, in which deep analysis of experience (broadly conceived) can provide deeper insights into the underlying dynamics and tendencies inherent (or potential) within reality and open up new pathways to the transformation of that reality. Without theory “running ahead,” people would be unable to conceive of anything qualitatively different than what is already known; without theory running ahead, how could Marx and Engels have written the Communist Manifesto?
Let me give a somewhat notorious example to give a sense of the consequences of these wrong methodological approaches. This concerns a geneticist named Trofim Lysenko in the Soviet Union during the early ’30s. Lysenko insisted that acquired characteristics could be inherited: in other words, if you were real skinny but you bulked up through lifting weights and steroids, your kids would inherit that kind of physique. Well, that view actually is wrong. But because Lysenko had a whole program on how to grow a lot of wheat very quickly in a country that was subject to famine, and because he achieved some short-term success in this by doing some plant grafts, this was declared to be true.
Let’s take this apart. There’s pragmatism—judging the truth of an idea based on “if it works” for one or another short-term goal. And there’s empiricism—judging truth solely by a narrow set of empirical experiences. Instead, you have to put what you are doing and what you are learning in the context of what we know at any given point to be true—our fullest and most accurate possible picture, or model, of objective reality. Then you have to also relate it to the available relevant evidence from other sources. How did Lysenko’s theory relate to what we knew to be true, including Darwin’s theory, and some of the different work done to prove it? If there were contradictions between Lysenko’s results and what might be predicted by Darwin’s theory, how should we understand those contradictions?
But that was not how they proceeded. And the results were disastrous—not only for those geneticists who were denied the right to work and repressed even more harshly in some cases because they disagreed, and not only for the Soviet sciences more generally—but for the ways in which it taught people to approach and evaluate ideas in every sphere.
Or let’s take an example of apriorism, as well as positivism. Stalin had an a priori assumption that once agriculture had been mechanized and once production, in the main, had been put under socialized ownership in the ’30s, there would then no longer be antagonistic classes in Soviet society. But struggle nonetheless continued. Since Stalin’s a priori “model” of a socialist society without class antagonisms couldn’t account for this, he was led to conclude that all opposition must be the work of agents for imperialism. The results were grievous, from numerous angles.
Now this was, importantly, later criticized and opposed by Mao, one of whose great contributions concerned the continuation of class struggle under socialism—and who, as part of that, also did quite a bit of criticism of Stalin’s philosophical tendencies to downplay and not recognize contradiction. But these tendencies of positivism, instrumentalism, and so on did great damage, and they had not been fully identified as such and systematically ruptured with prior to Avakian.
Avakian’s Radical Advance in Epistemology
Finally, and extremely important, Bob Avakian has criticized and ruptured with long-standing epistemological views in the communist movement. Epistemology refers to the theory of knowledge—how we come to understand the truth. These wrong epistemological views include the idea that “truth has a class character.” Actually, truth is just truth and bullshit is just bullshit—regardless of who says it. Now materialism and dialectics as an overall method should enable you to better get at the truth, if you are thoroughgoing in their application to reality—but whatever idea you come up with has to be judged true or not based on whether it fundamentally corresponds to reality, not how you went about getting it.
In fact, people who do not use that method—indeed, people who detest that method—can, as it turns out, discover important truths. There are NOT separate realities for different classes and there are not separate “truths” for different classes—it’s not, “it’s a proletarian thang...you wouldn’t understand.” There is one reality. Because the proletariat as a class has no need to cover up the fundamental character of human society, dialectical and historical materialism corresponds to its fundamental interests; but to reduce this rather sweeping point to “truth has a class character” can lead to refusing to learn anything from bourgeois thinkers, or even thinkers who are neither bourgeois nor in the Marxist framework. It can even lead to thinking that just because someone is from the proletariat they have some sort of special purchase on the truth.
Here too we have to learn from the negative experience of Lysenko. The view took hold that because Lysenko hailed from the working masses and because he supported Soviet power...and because those who opposed him in large measure came from what had been privileged classes in the old society and did not support Soviet power...well, this was just further proof of the rightness of Lysenko’s theories. But class origin has nothing to do with—or should have nothing to do with—evaluating whether your ideas are right or wrong.
Nor is it the case that the truthfulness of ideas is determined by whether they are “useful” in some immediate sense. This pragmatist approach has led to, to be blunt, “spinning” or even twisting reality—in the case of Lysenko, again, his theory was deemed true because it seemed immediately useful.
Now, it’s not a question of "going for the truth" divorced from the struggle to change the world. And it’s not that the “truth will set you free.” It won’t, without struggle. But if you don’t more or less correctly understand the world—if you don’t know what’s true—you won’t get free either. You’ll do things that don’t correspond to the actual dynamics and contradictions of reality and you won’t be able to transform that reality—at least not in a direction that’s going to get you closer to revolution and communism.
There’s a tremendous richness involved in this process. The insights of non-Marxists or even anti-communists can neither be dismissed nor just adopted whole; they have to be critically sifted and synthesized and often recast. But if you cut yourself off from this—which became the “tradition” in the communist movement—how can you hope to have a sense of this world we live in, which is constantly changing and generating new and unprecedented things? You actually need the clash of ideas, you need debate and contention and ferment and people pursuing paths that may not apparently “contribute to things” and which may turn out to be dead ends...but which may, on the other hand, yield new insights into reality. The view that “truth has a class character” short-circuits and distorts this vitally necessary process.
And let’s be honest here. There are truths that, in a short-term and more linear sense, run counter to the struggle for communism but which, when taken up in a larger context, and with the method and approach that Avakian is bringing forward, actually contribute to that struggle. This includes the “truths that make us cringe”—truths about the negative aspects of the experience of the international communist movement, and of socialist societies led by communists—but also, more generally, truths that are discovered that reveal reality to be, in certain aspects, different than previously understood by communists, or people more generally.
In relation to the importance of “truths that make us cringe,” it’s worth returning to Lysenko one last time. Anti-communists traditionally point to the Lysenko saga as proof that communism is bound to distort the truth...and to suppress intellectuals. Some communists dissociate themselves from the Lysenko incident in a facile way, and some just ignore it, but in the main they really don’t want to “go there”—from the standpoint of how communists do correctly apply Marxism to lead every sphere of a new society. Avakian, to the contrary, insists on fully confronting this experience, having returned to it in several different works, and drawing the deeper lessons—what were the misconceptions in method and outlook that led to this...what was the setting that generated pulls to do this...and what do communists have to do to rupture with this sort of outlook and, on a deep level, this sort of practice, so that they really can take the world to a better place.
Because, again, the question here is not only “going for the truth,” but doing so on the basis of a thoroughly scientific, dialectical materialist, outlook and method, and correctly grasping the link between this and the struggle for revolution and ultimately communism—and getting the full richness of what is involved in this. Recognizing the importance of and insisting on pursuing truth in this way—unfettered by narrow, pragmatic, and instrumentalist considerations of what seems most convenient at the time or what appears to be more in line with particular and immediate objectives of communists...pursuing the truth by applying the scientific outlook and method of dialectical materialism in the most sweeping, comprehensive, and consistent way in order to confront reality as it actually is and, on that basis, transform it in a revolutionary way toward the goal of communism: this is radically new and represents a key part of the richness of the new synthesis being brought forward by Bob Avakian. This is the full meaning of what is concentrated in his statement that: “Everything that is actually true is good for the proletariat, all truths can help us get to communism.”
You can contrast this statement with “Everything that is in the interests of the proletariat and will help us get to communism is true.” This latter viewpoint—with its pragmatic and instrumentalist content and approach—has, to far too great a degree, held sway in the history of the international communist movement—and, in fact, it is the opposite of what is concentrated in the above statement by Avakian. And this is a key part of the radical rupture that his method and approach embodies and of the richness of the epistemology he has been bringing forward and fighting for communists to take up.
Again, in the last half hour I have been able to only barely touch on this critical philosophical and methodological foundation of the new synthesis. To get more deeply into this, I would refer you to the books Observations and Marxism and the Call of the Future.3 But now I want to move on to the political implications of all this.
Next: “Part III: The New Synthesis: Political Implications—The International Dimension
1. “U.S. Imprisons One in 100 Adults Report Finds,” Adam Liptak, New York Times, 2/29/2008 [back]
3. Bob Avakian, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy (Chicago: Insight Press, 2005) and Bob Avakian and Bill Martin, Marxism and the Call of the Future: Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics (Chicago: Open Court Publishing/Carus Publishing, 2005) [back]
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.