A letter from a reader:

Two Different Approaches, Two Different Epistemologies—Two Different Worlds

July 9, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


"What people think is part of objective reality, but objective reality is not determined by what people think."

BAsics 4:11

Reflecting on this statement and thinking through its implications, I feel there are contrasting approaches to building this movement for revolution—one that is in line with objective reality, others that are not; one that has everything to do with radically changing the world and making revolution, the others leaving the world "as is," fundamentally unchanged.

This is not a full argument—or by any means the last word—but rather a brief provocation that hopefully will spur further reflection and interrogation—and in fact, more words—on the theory and practice of making revolution. (The philosophical aspects of this reasoning are critical and decisive—and if you have trouble with terms and concepts, grab a friend and wrangle and discuss it with them.)

When we go out in the world with communist revolution, we draw forth—and hear—achingly painful stories of life in the hellholes of America, concerns about the state of the planet and humanity. We hear people's various theories on where all this comes from: lack of "personal responsibility," greedy corporations, selfish "human nature," and other supposed causes. And we hear what they think is needed: more god, more democracy. We hear questions and objections (inchoate and openly argued) against leadership, revolution, and communism, most of these objections drawn from conventional wisdom—"what everybody knows" (or thinks they know)—about past attempts at revolution and socialism.

Leaving aside those supposed communists who just give up in the face of this—either because they fundamentally agree with this whole mixed bag of ideas that exist "out there" in society among the masses of people, have no sense that these wrong ideas can be transformed through and in the midst of struggle, or are unable to figure out how or unwilling to take that responsibility to face the daunting challenges to radically change the world—there are some contrasting approaches in confronting this.

First, is raising people's sights to a radically different world. "What people need most of all, the greatest need at this hour, is the real, scientific solution to these horrors, the way out. This is the re-envisioned communism of Bob Avakian, with its vision and viability of a radically different world brought about by getting rid of this system of capitalism-imperialism and bringing about a whole new and far better system and world through communist revolution. Without this framework of BA's new synthesis of communism as a pole that growing numbers are engaging, being won to, and pivoting off of, the horizons of what people see as necessary, desirable, and possible are confined and skewed within this system…." (From "Filling the Greatest Need Facing Humanity: The World Emancipating Urgency of BA Everywhere!")

On this basis, we sort through this mixed bag of ideas in people's thinking, figuring out what's correct and incorrect, in other words what accurately reflects reality. Just as important is sorting out the methods and modes of thinking people have used to come to these conclusions and views of the world. Even the way people's questions are posed—about god, human nature, the need for science, leadership—change when the viability and possibility of a radically different world is put forward, and they begin to really grapple with what it will take to get there. For example, it's worth reflecting how a serious discussion of revolution—and what it will take to get there or what a future socialist society after the revolution will be like—changes the context and discussion on communist leadership, including BA's; or what people's belief in god has to do with the horrible world we live in—and a belief that there is no alternative.

What's needed is going out and struggling to transform people's thinking—and modes of thinking—on all this, increasingly involving them in this movement for revolution even as they are sorting out their thinking on all this. What largely dominates as modes of thinking in society is non-evidence-based thinking and religiosity ("it's all god's will"), not thinking critically of what is constantly trumpeted through media, culture, and education (including, yes, the New York Times or academia's anti-communist disinformation), proceeding from narratives instead of identifying the larger and underlying patterns and dynamics in society, ultimately not looking beyond surface level phenomena to determine objective reality (I will have much more to say on this below), and other modes of thought that are non- and anti-scientific.

For a deeper and extremely essential explication of what science and a scientific method and approach is, see "Theory and Reality... Knowing and Changing the World," in Bob Avakian's interview with A. Brooks, What Humanity Needs: Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism. (I also highly recommend the discussion of science, the scientific method, and approach in The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters by Ardea Skybreak. The science of evolution is important in its own right and as a living illustration of and schooling in the scientific method.)

In contrast to this approach are the mirror opposites of not caring what people think or approaching what people think in the wrong way!

In terms of not caring what people think: No, what people think matters—greatly! Not because it determines objective reality (it does not!), but what—and how—people think IS a part of objective reality: the social reality that we are seeking to transform. The communist project, contrary to what almost everyone thinks, is not an imposition of "our" ideas on social reality but a scientific approach to transforming that reality including what—and how—people think, towards the emancipation of humanity. It involves masses of people increasingly consciously knowing and radically changing the world—a process that involves and necessitates more and more people consciously taking up a thoroughly scientific approach to the world. This requires changing how people think—in relation with bigger events in society, what people do to fight and resist the horrors and outrages of this system, and how all this unsettles, opens up, and reacts back on people's thinking.

Knowing what—and how—people think matters! Only in this way can we figure out, for blocks of people and their thinking, what needs to be united with and what needs to be struggled through and transformed—so it's more in line with reality, not only a scientific understanding of it, but an increasingly scientific approach to it, so they can increasingly contribute to and be part of changing the world. Without this, the world remains as is.

However, what is unfortunately far too prevalent still is caring "too much" what people think—approaching it in the wrong way, proceeding from what people think—rather than from the larger objective reality, and a scientific understanding and approach to it.

Objective reality is not determined by what people think.

  • For thousands of years, in most cultures, people looking at the sun rising in the east and setting in the west—every day—thought that the sun revolves around the earth. One can see why! Objective reality—contrary to "direct experience" and what people thought—is that the earth revolves around the sun, and the daily sunrise/sunset is caused by the earth's rotation. But determining this objective reality took science.
  • Most people think that god created humans—and all life on earth. Objective reality is that god does not exist, and all life on planet earth, extinct and extant, the branching bush of evolution, evolved as a result of "descent with modification from a common ancestor," as Charles Darwin put it. Determining this objective reality that life evolved on earth—and how—took science, the science of evolution established by Darwin (yet again, I recommend for all, The Science of Evolution and The Myth of Creationism, Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters by Ardea Skybreak).
  • Most progressive people think that this democracy as in the U.S. is a check on and the "antidote/solution" to capitalism and its excesses—if only it could be "fairer," with less money from billionaires/special-interests/corporations and the like. Objective reality is: "The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism. What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism." (BAsics 1:3) Rather than an antidote to capitalism, this democracy is consistent with, and serves and enforces this capitalist system—and cannot but be anything else. This takes science—and a scientific approach, a dialectical materialist view of how societies function and change. (For more on dialectical materialism and the science of communism, I recommend "Appendix: Communism as a Science" from the Constitution of the RCP, USA.)
  • Most people think there is an unchanging and unchangeable human nature. Objective reality is that "There is not one human nature. There is not some uniform and unchanging way that everybody is and how everybody sees the world. Human nature has different meanings in different times and for different classes and groups in society." (BAsics 4:13) For example, during slavery, owning another human being was upheld as completely moral among the slave-owning class, consistent with and justified by verses in the Bible that upheld chattel slavery. It's not human nature that shapes people's behavior and thinking but the nature of the system—in pitting people against each other, forcing them to compete, in its dominant ideas propagated through education and culture (think "get rich or die trying"), in its perpetuation of white supremacy and patriarchy and ideas consistent with that about Black people and women. But it takes science—and a scientific approach, a dialectical materialist view of how societies function and change, and where dominant ideas in society come from.
  • Most people think communist revolution will not work because all these "other" people "out there" are not "into it," caught up in the bullshit of this society—whether scrambling on the bottom of society just to survive, or in the middle classes getting caught up in the rat race to get ahead. We hear people are inherently selfish, greedy, whites are just racist, men are just predators—all of this is predetermined by human nature. We hear how it's all part of god's plan, working in mysterious ways. We hear how its individuals' faults, blaming themselves for not taking personal responsibility. We hear that leadership stifles the initiatives of the masses, and repetition of all manner of conventional wisdom—"what everybody knows"—about past attempts at revolution and socialism.

Objective reality is that, yes, people are caught up in bullshit and wrong thinking and this is important to understand. But we must understand it NOT as the guidepost for what is true, but in order to go to work on transforming this by wielding science through and in the midst of struggle. This is the communists' task and responsibility in leading the process of making revolution. In a lot of this, what we see are people grabbing hold of surface level phenomena—part of objective reality—instead of looking at the underlying causes of and contradictions in these phenomena, and how it can be different. This shouldn't surprise us, given where people's thinking comes from—dominant ideas of the system, reinforced and trumpeted every minute by the propaganda of the system—in its media, culture and education—a denial of and real lack of scientific method and approach in society, not to say the overall functioning of society and how people have to live, being forced to compete against each other, finding meaning and solace in a non-existent god or afterlife.

Objective reality is that this system cannot be reformed to get rid of the oppression and horrors it forces on people every single minute—here and around the world. The need and basis and strategy for communist revolution stems from a profoundly scientific, dialectical materialist approach to social reality—much like a doctor diagnosing to get at the underlying cause of the symptoms and what will be needed as the cure. This is the essence of communist leadership—and contrary to what most people think, objective reality is that "where leadership is genuinely revolutionary leadership, the more it plays its leadership role correctly, in accordance with MLM principles, the greater will be the conscious initiative of the masses." (From 1995 Leadership Resolutions on Leaders and Leadership: Part II: Some Points on the Question of Revolutionary Leaders and Individual Leaders.)

Determining objective reality requires science and a scientific approach to reality, not as reality presents itself on the surface but identifying its underlying dynamics and mainsprings, relying on evidence, and subject to being proved wrong. It requires a scientific approach to how societies function and change, and what to learn from past attempts at consciously changing society—which were tremendously liberating, but as in any human endeavor especially of such scale, marked by errors and shortcomings. This is the work BA has done—and he has advanced science in this context. Emphatically yes, a radically different—and far better—world is necessary, desirable and possible because of the work BA has done.

These are not "our" ideas severed from objective reality, but abstractions and concentrations of reality arrived at through the scientific method and approach. Thus, while there is a tremendous battle to be waged in the realm of ideas and people's thinking, in epistemology—theory of knowledge, what is truth and where does it come from, what and how people think, approach and understand the world—it is not merely "our" ideas vs. what people think, but what is true and scientifically correct, reflecting and concentrating objective reality in its underlying mainsprings, dynamics, and pathways for change vs. what is not. Ultimately and immediately, what this is all rooted in and for—for the emancipation of humanity, nothing else and nothing less! For the emancipation of the billions around the planet—from the favelas of Rio to Tahrir Square in Cairo, from those trapped in the textile factories of Bangladesh as they collapse to rubble to those confined in the torture chambers of solitary confinement in the U.S.

With all this in mind, I want to pose two questions for people's reflection and informal collective wrangling:

  • Do we proceed consistently from this objective reality and the most advanced understanding of this reality, especially in the need, basis, strategy and building a movement for communist revolution, applying a consistently scientific approach and method to all that we encounter in social reality, including people's thinking—or do we proceed from what people are already and spontaneously thinking, often letting that set the terms/context for discussion, or even possibly self-censoring if we think people are not "into this," contingent on and subject to the sways of public opinion?
  • Do we go out and struggle for transformation of the thinking of people based on scientific certitude—or do we seek "validation" of "our" ideas in what people are thinking?

Seeking "validation" has an underlying epistemology in which the truth of an idea is seen as contingent on whether others agree with you, or thinking that what people think determines objective reality. It is a populist epistemology—truth determined by what people think, on opinion polls, and public opinion—that does not reflect objective reality in its deeper workings and dynamics and pathways of change, does not challenge, refute, and change people's false ideas and ways of thinking out of sync with objective reality, and leaves the world "as is."

What is needed from us is proceeding with a scientific epistemology and a thoroughly scientific approach to objective reality—including people's thinking. As BA says in his interview with A. Brooks, "If you're being scientific, you don't go by 'what everybody knows.' You proceed by probing, investigating—and, yes, in the process changing—reality, and then systematizing what can be learned: what are the patterns; what is the essence of what you're learning; what ties things together; what differentiates some things from other things...."

So, there it is: either we root ourselves in science and fight to transform people's thinking, or we go out seeking approval and validation in people's thinking and are constantly disoriented and put on the defensive based on the prejudices and misconceptions this system fosters in people; scientific or populist epistemology—one that is about radically changing the world, the other that will leave the world "as is."

Two different approaches, two different epistemologies—two different worlds.

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