Revolution #150, December 14, 2008

Communism as a Science: A Syllabus for Study

The following syllabus is a work in progress. We are making this available now so people can begin using it. Over the next few months, we will be publishing syllabi on the topics of: imperialism; the state; the dictatorship of the proletariat; and the party.


“To understand the world, and to change it in the interests of humanity, people need scientific theory...”—Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, “Appendix: Communism as a Science."

Many new people have come forward, interested in revolution and wanting to fight, and willing and often eager to go out and promote revolution to others. But people often raise that they want to know more—and such a question is a good thing! An urgent desire to “know more”—to understand reality ever more deeply, even as people begin to go out and consciously transform it through revolutionary practice—is something that everyone in the revolutionary movement, from the oldest veteran to the person who just began checking into things yesterday, should share.

Bob Avakian’s speech Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About gives a very sweeping exposition of those questions, and this should be a constant resource to revolutionaries new and old. At the same time, there is a need to further develop our understanding in both depth and breadth. That is the purpose of this syllabus.

“Communism must be understood as a living and continually developing science. Marx laid its essential foundations. And communist theory has continued to develop from Marx’s time—to further comprehend changing reality, to learn critically from the historical experience of the communist revolutionary movement, and to learn from broader spheres of human thought and experience—all to confront and meet the great needs of making revolution in a changing world. Communist theory—at least real communist theory—is not a static, closed system of thought. In sum, communism is a comprehensive outlook and scientific method that can and must be applied to all spheres of life and reality and in the process further developed.” (Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, “Appendix: Communism as a Science”)

Communist theory was first developed by Karl Marx, along with his close collaborator Frederick Engels, a little over 150 years ago. They forged the fundamental method and framework of this science, and many of its basic principles. V.I. Lenin further developed this theory, applying these principles to a changing reality and in certain respects discarding ideas that had been disproven or found to be limited; he developed and went beyond Marx’s initial breakthroughs in many spheres. Lenin led the first communist revolution of significant duration in 1917, in what had been the Russian empire and became—after a grueling civil war—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Inspired by this revolution to take up Marxism, Mao Tsetung led the next major breakthroughs in both theory and in revolutionary practice—leading first, the Chinese Revolution and then, of monumental importance, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The latter was a revolutionary struggle—the first ever—in conditions of socialism that aimed to prevent the restoration of capitalism and advance further along the socialist road, toward communism.

But, as our Party’s recently issued Manifesto states, “shortly after the death of Mao in 1976 [the very forces he was battling against carried out a military coup], wielding the army and other state organs to suppress revolutionaries—killing many, many thousands and imprisoning many more—and proceeded to restore capitalism in China...

“With the revisionist coup and the restoration of capitalism in China, following after the [betrayal of socialism in the USSR] 20 years earlier, the first wave of communist revolution came to an end.” (COMMUNISM: THE BEGINNING OF A NEW STAGE, A Manifesto from The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA)

The task of summing up the whole first wave of revolution—its incredible and inspiring achievements, as well as its very real, even if overall secondary errors and shortcomings—has been led by Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the RCP, USA. Avakian’s body of work, and his method and approach, constitute a new synthesis of communist theory. To again cite the Manifesto, this is NOT a case of “‘back to the drawing board,’ as if what is called for is throwing out both the historical experience of the communist movement and the socialist societies it brought into being and ‘the rich body of revolutionary scientific theory’ that developed through this first wave. That would represent an unscientific, and in fact a reactionary, approach. Rather, what is required—and what Avakian has undertaken—is building on all that has gone before, theoretically and practically, drawing the positive and the negative lessons from this, and raising this to a new, higher level of synthesis.”

For that reason, much of what we have brought together here is by Bob Avakian. At the same time, we have drawn on the foundational contributions of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Mao as well. First, their insights are illuminating and it is well worth it to “work through” this material, repeatedly wrangling with it and learning from their method and approach to problems. Second, there is a history of development here—a way to understand how theory arose and developed in relation to the necessity faced by revolutionary communists in different eras, how there was both building on and going beyond (and in some cases rupturing with incorrect elements in) what earlier thinkers had accomplished.

This syllabus divides up various fields of communist theory, as a “way in” to the science. However, as you get into this, you will see that things are more interconnected in reality and this is reflected in the actual works. For example, the excerpts cited from Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, or Avakian’s For a Harvest of Dragons, are divided up and put in different sections of the syllabus below. But, as you will see, it is not really possible to discuss historical materialism without at least touching on some fundamental points of political economy; nor can one fully discuss materialism without to a certain extent getting into dialectics. Nevertheless, there is still a point, at first, to reading things in this way—to get an initial understanding for a particular concept, and also get familiar with the approach and language and frame of reference of the earlier authors; at the same time, these initial excerpts can also serve as a springboard into reading the whole chapter or whole work itself, as a whole, to get a sense of how the different ideas interrelate with one another, and to grasp the method as a whole.

I. Philosophy

Communism is at its foundation an outlook and method that enables us to scientifically understand the world, and to change it on that basis. This outlook and method is so foundational to everything else in communist theory. Further, everyone functions—whether they are conscious of it or not, and whether it is fully worked out or not—with one or another method and outlook, or philosophy. Because of this, we are recommending reading a number of different works in this sphere.

A. Materialism

The materialist outlook is essential to communism. Everyday usage usually defines “materialism” as something akin to “consumerism” (an obsession with getting as many material goods or money as you can). But “materialism” has a very different meaning in the realm of philosophy. As a philosophical outlook, materialism reflects the fact that all reality consists of matter in motion—nothing else. It holds that the material world precedes and is the source of all human consciousness and ideas. It further holds that in seeking to understand all phenomena we should investigate and analyze this material world, digging into its dynamics, and testing our conscious ideas against what we learn through human practice in that material world. In other words, the materialist outlook holds that the material world exists independently of and prior to people; that we are part of that material world and our very consciousness is a product of the development of that world; and that our ideas more or less accurately reflect that world. To put it even more plainly, there is a real world out there, we came out of that world and live in it, and we can know it.

Especially as it has been further developed through the contributions of communists, materialism has shown the pivotal relationship of practice to knowledge (or theory). On this basis, communist materialism illuminates where our understanding comes from, and how we can deepen and strengthen our understanding, getting closer to the truth, through “getting right” the relation between theory and practice. This is essential; we cannot change the world in a direction of human emancipation unless we accurately know and understand that world. Humanity needs an outlook and method for doing that.

Basic readings:

The following works give a very concise and clear explanation of the communist outlook on knowing and changing the world. The fourth piece, an excerpt from For a Harvest of Dragons gives a clear exposition on the struggle between materialism and its principal opponent, the school of philosophical idealism, in many different forms that idealism has taken.

  1. “Dialectical Materialism, Historical Materialism,” from Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About, a speech by Bob Avakian, chapter 10, disc 3 of DVD. (Three Q Productions, Chicago, 2004)
  2. " 'A Leap of Faith' and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods," Bob Avakian, in Revolution #10, July 31, 2005
  3. “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?”, Mao Tsetung, pp. 502-504, Selected Readings From the Works of Mao Tsetung (Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1971)
  4. “Historical materialism as the extension of dialectical materialism to society and history,” Bob Avakian, from For a Harvest of Dragons, pp. 17-21, down to the paragraph beginning “Earlier, Engels’ distinction...” (For a Harvest of Dragons: On the “Crisis of Marxism” and the Power of Marxism—Now More than Ever: An Essay Marking the 100th Anniversary of Marx's Death, RCP Publications, Chicago, 1983)

Further readings:

  1. “On Practice,” Mao Tsetung
    This short article further outlines the ways in which theory is developed out of practice. It was extremely influential in breaking with dogmatism that had grown to infect the communist movement, and remains a seminal work of communist theory. (pp. 295-309, Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1965)
  2. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Frederick Engels, Part II (pp. 63-73, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1975)
    This work gives a sense of the philosophical ground out of which communism grew. Engels shows the way in which developments in science and philosophy interpenetrated with each other, and how Marx synthesized what had gone before. He also introduces the materialist conception of history, or historical materialism, which is addressed later in the syllabus. This is part of a larger (though still fairly concise) work which shows how communism is different from utopian socialism, which works out its ideas of a “model society” and attempts to “impose” them on the world.
  3. “The Criterion of Practice In The Theory of Knowledge,” from Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, V.I. Lenin, (pp. 155-162, Foreign Languages Press Peking, 1972)
    This work is an extremely important contribution to communist philosophy, and this section can serve as a good introduction to get into it. Lenin wrote at a time when advances in science, and setbacks in the revolutionary struggle, had shaken many former Marxists in their convictions, and a wave of agnosticism—of questioning whether one could actually know the world or not, or even if such a thing as “the objective world” existed—gained a great deal of influence.
  4. “Who Can Understand Oppression?”, from Bob Avakian Speaks Out: On War And Revolution, On Being A Revolutionary and Changing the World (RCP Publications, Chicago, 2003)
    This is an interview of Bob Avakian by Carl Dix, and is available in both audio and print form. This particular excerpt addresses the philosophical differences between communism and identity politics. It is important and valuable in giving a sense of how differences in philosophical outlook find expression in some of the often-unquestioned assumptions in the revolutionary movement.
  5. “Philosophy and method,” and “Science and scientific truths,” from “Making Revolution And Emancipating Humanity, Part I,” part of the larger pamphlet Revolution and Communism: A Foundation and Strategic Orientation. (pp. 26-30, RCP Publications, Chicago, 2008)
    This is part of a section of this talk that takes on and refutes Karl Popper, who is perhaps the most influential modern anti-communist. This excerpt is on an advanced level, but it is very worth tackling.

B. Dialectics

The dialectical method reflects the fact nothing in the world is static and unchanging, nor is anything totally isolated from everything else. Dialectics enables us to understand things in their changingness and to grasp the possible directions of development; it lets us see the ways in which the “contradictions,” or clashes of opposites, within a thing or process, often beneath the surface, drive forward its development; it shows how things develop in relation to each other and in a larger overall context. Dialectics enables us to get to the “essence of the matter”—even as that essence is itself in motion and development. By applying this method, people can better grasp reality in its motion and development and, thereby, more deeply transform it in the direction of human emancipation.

Basic readings:

  1. Selection from Communists Are Rebels, Bob Avakian, section beginning “Who said that order is the order of things?” and ending “And then, in turn, these ideas, institutions, etc. will grow old and be superseded by new, arising ones—until they, in their turn, grow old and are superseded... and on and on.” This work gives a very strong sense of and “feel for” the dialectical view of the world, and the dialectical method in comprehending it. (RCP Publications, Chicago, April 1980, reprinted from Revolutionary Communist Youth and Revolutionary Worker)
  2. The Two World Outlooks,” from “On Contradiction,” Mao Tsetung (pp. 86-90, Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung, 1971 and pp. 311-315, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, 1965; Foreign Languages Press, Peking)
    This excerpt from one of the key works in communist science lays out the difference between materialist dialectics and various metaphysical methods of comprehending the world.
  3. “Historical materialism as the extension of dialectical materialism to society and history,” Bob Avakian, from For a Harvest of Dragons, pp. 21-25
    Again, this is a very clear and concise exposition of the basic points.

Further Readings:

  1. On Contradiction,” by Mao Tsetung, should be read in full by everyone at some point. This provides an exposition of many of the basic analytical “tools” of dialectics. At its time, a tremendously path-breaking systematization of dialectics.
  2. “Marxism ‘Embraces But Does Not Replace’,” from Observations On Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, Bob Avakian, pp. 112-130. (Insight Press, Chicago, 2006) This both explains and applies the dialectical method in a living way; there is much to learn from this, in many dimensions, and it repays repeated study.

C. Historical materialism

Historical materialism is an application of materialist dialectics to human history. It is the pivotal point of communist theory. The two following excerpts both lay out the scientific principles of historical materialism and apply them to the actual development of society. Each excerpt of necessity touches on questions of political economy—since scientific analysis reveals that humanity’s activity in production, and the (differing) production relations in which that activity occurs, forms the base of society itself.

Basic readings:

  1. Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage: A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, (Revolution, September 2008) “I. The Long Darkness—and the Historic Breakthrough,” especially the section beginning “The most fundamental discovery that Marx made was that the character of human society...” through to the end of the section.
  2. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, by Engels, Part III, up to paragraph beginning “It is this counterpressure of the productive forces...”

Further readings:

  1. The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1965), especially Parts I and II, pp. 30-59.

This is the founding document of communism. 160 years after its writing, it remains prophetic: announcing the beginning of a movement that would shape the future, and condemning in powerfully unsparing and indeed poetic terms the current society. The language will be unfamiliar and may be difficult at first; but it is THE seminal work of communism, and important (and ultimately rewarding) to work through.

D. The struggle over communist philosophy; more on communism as a science, vs. other worldviews and approaches

As noted in referring above to the excerpt from “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity” concerning Karl Popper (see above), among the most controversial points of communism is its assertion that it is scientific. This is a point worth pursuing in its own right.

Basic reading:

  1. The Appendix to The Constitution of the RCP, USA, “Communism as a Science” gives a very sweeping view of the scientific foundation of communism and the way in which it has, as a science, developed over the past 160 years.

Further readings:

  1. “Marxism as science and in contrast to previous and opposing worldviews,” For a Harvest of Dragons, Avakian, pp. 41-57; this excerpt gives a very good grounding in the ways in which communist materialism is opposed to various forms of idealism.
  2. Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, Bob Avakian, pp. 194-199 (Insight Press, Chicago, 2008) takes on the accusation that communism, as a science, has a mechanical and lifeless view of the universe and humanity.
  3. “The Struggle in the Realm of Ideas,” Observations On Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, Bob Avakian, pp. 1-11. This piece develops further the Marxist view of science, and of the multiple channels to learning about the world. (This entire book contains many essential and important essays and talks that, among other things, give a very full and rounded-out—a truly dialectical—understanding of communism as a science.)

II. Political Economy

  1. “What Is Capitalism?”, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About, a speech by Bob Avakian, Chapter 1, Disc 2 of DVD. This is an essential and very clear introduction to this subject.
  2. The Dirty Little Secret of Capitalist Exploitation,” Bob Avakian, Phony Communism Is Dead... Long Live Real Communism!, pp. 18-23 (RCP Publications, Chicago, 2nd edition 2005)
    This is a very tight and clear explanation of the basic economic relation of capitalism.
  3. Wage Labor and Capital, Karl Marx—originally written very shortly after The Communist Manifesto, and later updated by Engels, this piece gives you the basic foundation of Marx’s breakthrough in analyzing the economic relations of capitalism. (Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1978)

Further readings:

  1. “The basic contradiction of capitalism and its motion toward the final elimination of capitalism and class society generally,” Bob Avakian, For a Harvest of Dragons, pp. 30-41. This unfolds further from the basic relations of capitalism to outline its underlying dynamics and overall motion of development.
  2. “Karl Marx, The Critique of Political Economy” by Frederick Engels, section beginning “Even according to the method acquired, the citique of economics...” to the end. (pp. 55-59, from Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976)
    This brief selection from Engels gives a basic sense of Marx’s method in approaching political economy and discusses the centrality of the commodity.


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