Revolution #93, June 24, 2007
Editors' Note: The following are excerpts from an edited version of a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, to a group of Party supporters, in the fall of last year (2006). This is the tenth in a series of excerpts we will be running in Revolution. Subheads and footnotes have been added for publication here. The entire talk is available online at revcom.us/avakian/anotherway.
Understanding the World In Order to Change It
All this stresses the profound importance of communism as a scientific worldview and approach to reality, of materialism and dialectics. It stresses the importance of theory and methodology. We're not going to get where we need to go—and certainly the complexity of what we're up against now should drive this lesson home to us—if we don't grapple in the realm of theory and methodology and then apply that to changing the world. Marx was right, profoundly so, when he said in the "Theses on Feuerbach" that the philosophers have only tried to understand the world, the point however is to change it. But we should not and must not do a "two into one" on that—wrongly combining, conflating, and "mashing together" theory and practice. That, frankly, is what has characterized a lot of movements, including revolutionary and communist movements. There has been a lot of positivism. A lot of thinking that theory comes immediately out of (or is essentially reducible to) immediate practical experience. This goes along with the tendency to negate the need for a leap from practice to a higher, more abstract, conceptual level of knowledge, and with the notion that theory is related one to one with a particular kind of practice and that theory can only advance in more or less direct relation to such practice, negating the fact that, while in the final analysis all theory has its origin and point of verification in practical experience, this must be seen in broad and not narrow terms and theory can, in important aspects, run ahead of and anticipate practice.
Theory and (political and ideological) line are abstractions from reality which, the more correct they are, the more they can guide us in changing the world in accordance with its actual nature and its actual motion. If you are going to wield theory and line as an instrument to change the world, you have to take it up and wrangle with it in its own right—abstracted from the reality out of which it comes, of which it is a concentration—and to which, yes, as Marx emphasized and we must emphasize, it must be returned in order to change the world. But if you leave out the step of grappling, on the level of abstraction, with theory, you are bound to go astray and land in a pit.
And everybody can deal in abstractions, by the way. It's not only a handful of people who can do this. Revolutionary theory, communist theory, has to be made accessible to masses of people, but they actually engage in abstraction all the time, with different world outlooks. I've never met any basic person, or any person from any stratum, who doesn't have all kinds of theories about all kinds of things—most of them drawn from the bourgeoisie and ultimately reflecting its outlook—although some of them do this only indirectly and appear to be, and to some degree are, ideas and theories that people have "cooked up" on their own, more or less unconsciously reflecting the dominant bourgeois outlook in society. Of course, to make theoretical abstractions that most correctly, deeply and fully reflect reality, in its motion and development, requires taking up the communist world outlook and methodology and increasingly learning to apply this consistently and systematically. And, as Lenin emphasized (in What Is To Be Done? and elsewhere), this communist outlook and methodology will not just "come to" the masses of people on their own and spontaneously, but must be brought to them from outside the realm of their direct and immediate experience. But the fact remains that everyone engages in theoretical abstraction of one kind or another—everybody is capable of this—and, fundamentally, it is a question of how are you doing this, with what world outlook and methodology?
This is an analogy that I have found helpful: Reality is like a fire, like a burning object, and if you want to pick up that burning object and move it, you have to have an instrument with which to do it. If you try to do it bare-handed, the result is not going to be good. That's another way of getting at the role of theory in relation to the larger world that needs to be transformed, in relation to practice, and in particular revolutionary practice, to change the world.
The point is not to remain at the level of abstraction. There are two leaps that must be made. One is to the level of abstraction. The other is back to practice to change the world—in a broad sense, and not a narrow, positivist, pragmatist way, which can only serve reformism and perhaps "revengism" but not radical and revolutionary objectives, not the transformation of the world to bring about the emancipation of all humanity.
This is why I have stressed the point that theory is the dynamic factor in terms of ideology—it's a dynamic factor in changing people's world outlook. It is not that we don't need to struggle with people over things like morality and people's moral responsibilities. In this talk, and in general in my talks and writings, I have emphasized the need to do precisely that because, in fact, this is extremely important. But people's morality, their sense of right and wrong, flows from their understanding of the world. How do you know what is "right" and "wrong"? That flows from a certain understanding of the world—one way or another.
So we need both those leaps. We need to engage on the level of abstraction from reality, concentration of reality, which is what theory and line are. We need to wrangle over things continuously on that level—we need to repeatedly wrangle with what is actually a correct understanding of reality, because reality is not only complex in a general sense but it is constantly moving and changing, and we are always racing to catch up with it. Even though at times you are able to anticipate things—and in that sense be, in your conception of things, "ahead of" the development of reality—most of the time, or in an overall sense, you are racing to catch up with reality. And that's the way it's going to be. If we don't engage in the realm of abstraction, of theory, we're dead. Simple as that. But if we leave it there, and don't return it back to practice, to change reality—not just in a narrow sense but in the broadest, world-historical sense—then what is the point? In either sense—if we fail to make either leap (from reality to theoretical abstraction and conception, and from that back to practice, to change reality)—then what are we doing?