The Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie...

Soaring to Great Heights... and Grubbing in the Dirt

By Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA

Revolutionary Worker #1086, January 14, 2001, posted at

In the struggle vs. Soviet revisionism (Khrushchev and Brezhnev and the rest, who actually restored capitalism in the Soviet Union long before Gorbachev), the Chinese comrades, led by Mao Tsetung, cited a statement by Lenin to graphically describe the difference between what revisionism (and the bourgeoisie as a whole) is about and what genuine MLM represents. They quoted Lenin to this effect: "an eagle can fly so low as a chicken, but a chicken never so high as an eagle." Say what? Let's get into this. What does this mean? Chickens are barnyard creatures--they grub in the dirt and the shit and all the rest of it, and if they try to fly they flap their wings and make a lot of noise and commotion, but they cannot even get up much above the level of the fence in the barnyard. An eagle, on the other hand, may swoop down low to do various things, it may even get down on the ground and deal with things, but it can soar to tremendous heights. This is what Lenin meant when he said an eagle can at times fly so low as a chicken, but a chicken never so high as an eagle. And we're talking about the chicken bourgeoisie as compared to the eagle of the proletariat.

But while we keep in mind this fundamental distinction between their class and ours, their system and ours, we also have to have a critical attitude toward the ways in which sometimes our eagle has been a little bit too much like the bourgeois chicken. So let's talk about some errors of the leaders of our class. Here in particular I want to focus on the methodology involved in these errors, because this is where we can learn the most.

One example I want to speak to is the experience with Lysenko, who was a scientist, a botanist and agronomist working in the field of agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s when it was led by Stalin. Now Lysenko came forward with this idea (which actually was not a new idea--it was an old idea, an old debate in biology having to do with evolution), the idea that he could produce certain superior kinds of grain by "external means" and then reproduce it (and I'll explain what I mean by this). You see, they were having problems in agriculture in the Soviet Union--agriculture was lagging seriously behind industry. (I don't have time here to go into all the reasons for this, but Mao made some important critical summations around this, and I have spoken to this in some other talks and writings.)

Lysenko thought he could take a short cut. He thought if he grew wheat in certain very favorable conditions and that wheat grew in certain quantity and had certain superior qualities to it, he could then reproduce that wheat with those superior qualities and it would enable agriculture to make a big leap. In the field of biology and evolutionary science this idea is called "the inheritance of acquired characteristics." And this is something that Darwin and others refuted--you cannot do this--this is not the way things work.

Let me give an example: if you go out and lift weights and pump iron--let's say you're in jail or whatever--and you put on a whole bunch of weight and you get all bulky and buffed and all this kind of stuff (let's say you're skinny but you put on 40 or 50 pounds of muscle by weight-lifting), if you think that you can then reproduce this in your children, you will be disappointed. If you think that, because you bulked up through weight-lifting, your kids are going to be muscular--I don't mean when they're born!... but the idea that they are going to have the characteristics of naturally becoming muscular--that's not going to happen.

At this point, science has developed the capability of actually altering the genetic structure of things--and even potentially of human beings themselves--and there are a lot of serious problems connected with this, especially under this kind of system. But at the time that Lysenko was operating, they didn't have the ability to do this. So, now, you can go in and alter genes and then you can pass on those characteristics that result from that altered genetic material. But you cannot alter the external qualities of something--like putting on bulk by weight-lifting and then think that if you're skinny and the other biological parent of the child is skinny, somehow you can avoid the child being skinny because you went and weight-lifted in prison and put on a bunch of muscular bulk, or whatever.

Or take another example: plastic surgery. There are some of these people who have all this money and don't like the way they look--they have an image that they should look a different way. So let's say they go spend their money and they get a nose job and change their eyes and even change their whole face and whatever else they might want to change. So now they think they've got the perfect look, and they go and have sex with somebody to get pregnant (or, if it's a man, he goes and finds a woman to have "his" child) and they think that they can pass on all these characteristics that they got through plastic surgery--it doesn't work. It's not going to happen--the genetic structure of people is going to determine what these physical characteristics are going to be.

The same thing applies to wheat: you cannot grow wheat in favorable conditions and think you can take that wheat and reproduce it so that it's going to pass along these superior qualities that you achieved by growing it in these highly favorable external conditions. So Lysenko was wrong. And there was a big debate about this in the Soviet Union.

But the problem was that those scientists who knew better and tried to argue against it were, in effect, silenced, intimidated by Stalin. Because Stalin was looking for a short cut. He was looking for a quick and easy answer to developing agricultural production, so he threw his weight behind Lysenko. Now, this is another example of the approach of the character from Greek mythology, Procrustes--an innkeeper who stretched people out, or cut their legs off, to make them fit the bed in his inn--or it is like the Chinese expression: "cutting the toes to fit the shoes." Stalin wanted to believe that Lysenko's methods would actually lead to a leap in agricultural production, so he threw his weight behind it and tried to twist reality around to make it conform to his subjective desire to see agriculture take a short cut and make a leap in this way.

Instrumentalist Thinking vs. Dialectical Materialist Thinking

This is a wrong method, this is a method of the bourgeoisie--it's what's sometimes called in various intellectual circles "instrumentalist" thinking. That is, you make the scientific research you're doing, or the investigation you're doing, an instrument of pre-determined objectives. For example, our Party has been doing a lot of investigation into many different features of society and conditions of different sections of the people, as an important part of the process of developing our new Party Programme. And it turns out that, in reality, there is a very large proletariat in the U.S.--a very large section of proletarians who are poor and exploited, "real proletarians" as we sometimes call them. This has been established through objective research and investigation.

But, if we'd done this research and investigation by saying, "Well, we'd like there to be a large proletariat, so let's `find' lots of proletarians," that would be a real problem--that would be a wrong method. If we started "inventing" proletarians--you know, that doctor works hard, maybe we can call him a proletarian--and if we started juggling statistics around to "make things fit" our wishes, that would be an example of "instrumentalism." And we can't do that, we can't fall into that kind of "instrumentalist" method where, instead of seeking truth from the actual reality out there and then figuring out how to transform reality in accordance with its actual character and its actual motion and development and contradiction, you try to bend and torture reality to make it fit pre-determined objectives--you try to make it an instrument of these pre-determined objectives.

In the example I've cited from the Soviet Union in the 1930s, not only Lysenko but Stalin was falling into a kind of "instrumentalist" thinking and methodology (reducing the struggle in the realm of theory and intellectual wrangling, including scientific research and inquiry--reducing this to a mere "instrument" of a predetermined objective in agriculture). This is closely akin to the pragmatic principle that whatever works--and more specifically whatever serves my immediate objectives--is true, and there is no truth apart from that.

In opposition to that outlook and method, we need a lively and vigorous atmosphere of searching out the truth and seeking out creative ways of expression, in the sciences and the arts. And specifically under the dictatorship of the proletariat, we need to, and we can, lead all this to contribute, in many diverse ways and in an overall sense, to the revolutionary cause of the proletariat, to serve the revolutionary interests of the masses of people world-wide. (Mao referred to this kind of orientation and policy as letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend in the arts and the sciences.)

We need research and scientific investigation that helps serve the needs of the people and the revolution, but we must guard against pre-determining the results of the search for the truth or too narrowly confining the objectives and the processes of intellectual inquiry and wrangling; we must be careful not to simply limit this to serving political objectives and practical aims at any given time but must also promote the wrangling over ideas and the expression of creativity and the critical spirit in the realm of theory and intellectual activity broadly and in a lofty way. In accordance with our revolutionary scientific outlook and method of MLM, we must consistently carry out a critical and fearless search for the truth--wherever that search leads and whether or not the truth makes us uncomfortable, in the short run.

So there is much for us to learn from the Lysenko experience and other negative examples where the leaders of our class have fallen into instrumentalism, into pragmatism and other methods that reflect the influence of the bourgeoisie. But at the same time, let's keep in mind that pragmatism after all is the PROCLAIMED AND WIDELY PRACTICED OUTLOOK of especially the U.S. bourgeois ruling class!. And errors like the "Lysenko experience" are nothing compared to the bourgeoisie's promotion and "legitimation" of the Christian Fascists and their ridiculous "creationist" theories and other attacks on a basic understanding of reality. So, again, we can say, in comparing the experience and the achievements of our class, in opposition to all that is represented by the bourgeoisie and reactionaries in general: An eagle may fly so low as a chicken sometimes, but a chicken can never soar to the heights of an eagle. This is the way to understand the relation between our system and theirs, between what the dictatorship of the proletariat means and accomplishes for the masses of people--even with the mistakes we may make and setbacks we may suffer--and what, on the other hand, their putrid system consists of and means for the masses of people, all over the world.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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