What is the material basis for this revolution, the communist revolution? To begin, let’s start with a paraphrase of Marx which has been cited many times, and for very good reason. To paraphrase: what is important is not what people are thinking, or even what they’re doing, at any given time, but what they will be compelled to confront by the workings of this system.
Which is an introduction into, and understood correctly leads us into, grappling with the question—grappling with the fact that it is the contradictions of this system and what they give rise to that is the fundamental material basis for this communist revolution. It’s not what the thinking of the people is at a given time, or how many people are “with it” at a given time. You know, you go out there and people say, “I’m not with that.” Or people get excited by it and they go out and they talk to people and come back and say, “Nobody’s with that.” Well, that’s obviously a problem. It’s not like that’s okay, and it’s not like it’s something that we can leave as it is. Obviously, that needs to be changed, it needs to be radically transformed, because this revolution has to be made by millions of people, who will have contradictory understanding, even at the time that they make this revolution. But, nevertheless, there has to be a solid core, and it can’t be just a few people. It has to be a growing solid core of people—and, at the point of a revolution, a solid core of thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are consciously, and scientifically, approaching the challenge of making revolution, leading broader masses who are being influenced and being led on the basis of that scientific approach to making revolution.
So this is a fundamental point. It’s—yes, it’s important where the masses are at, at any given time—but that does not set the terms for what we do, in a fundamental sense; and it is not the fundamental determinant, if you will, it does not tell us whether or not this revolution is possible. The understanding of whether or not this revolution is possible, and that in fact it is possible, resides in a scientific analysis of the contradictions of this system and the dynamics they give rise to continually, and the way in which that’s itself, consciously—I mean, continually—undergoing transformation, and on which we have to be consciously acting at all times, while always being open to new developments, and, you know, surprises or accidents. That’s the point of those six first paragraphs in Part 2 of Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity which I will get into more in another presentation. But for now, let’s go back to this point: What is important is not what people are thinking, or even what they’re doing at any given time, but what they will be compelled to confront by the workings of this system—that it is the contradictions of this system that provide the basis for the revolution that we’re working for, and it’s by working on those contradictions that we work for that revolution.
The Fundamental Contradiction of This System
So let’s dig into this a little more. First of all, there’s the fundamental contradiction of capitalism (that is, the contradiction between socialized production and private/capitalist appropriation of what’s produced) and, as we have identified it, the principal form of motion of that fundamental contradiction, which we characterize as the driving force of anarchy. In other words, we’re dealing with a system here which, overwhelming at this point, is dominant in the world, unfortunately—we don’t like that, we hate it. It’s even more dominant than it was three or four decades ago when there was socialist China—or, going back for a brief period, in the early ‘50s when there was socialist China and the Soviet Union was still socialist, even though riddled with a lot of its own contradictions. Even then the imperialist system was still dominant in the world, but it’s much more—at this point it’s much more dominant. So, you could say, “Oh, well, things are just going back—they’re going away from the revolution we’re working towards, there’s less and less basis for it.” Well, those are two different statements, and we should pull them apart.
One is, things have gone away from the revolution we’re working for over the past several decades—that’s true, the motion in the world has gone away from that, for a number of reasons that have been analyzed elsewhere, and I’m not going to try to dig into all that here, or we’d go all over the place, we wouldn’t be able to focus on the main things we need to focus on. But that’s true, things have gone in a negative direction, and for several decades—material changes, political changes, there are ideological expressions and in terms of how people are seeing the world, and how they’re being motivated, or what their morals are, what they’re being drawn towards, for example religious fundamentalism as opposed to revolutionary communism. You know, all that kind of thing has been negative, but that’s different than saying there’s less and less basis for this revolution.
If you were to conclude from the first of those two things that the second is the case—if you were to conclude that, because things have gone in a negative direction over several decades, there’s less and less basis for revolution—you’d be taking the more surface, not insignificant, but more surface phenomenon. Not—again, not insignificant—these are significant phenomena that we have to deal with, confront scientifically and work to transform. But they’re the expression in the present period of how the contradictions are moving and changing. They are not what is most fundamental and what ultimately sets the terms, namely those contradictions themselves and the motion they give rise to.
So, the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is more and more glaring, more and more acutely posed in the world, not less so. And it takes some rather—perhaps you could say strange, or even you might say perverse, expressions. One of those expressions is the big attraction now of religious fundamentalism—Christian in some places, including places in Africa, not just in the U.S., for example, but also Islamic fundamentalism in many parts of the world, parts of Asia, Africa, and obviously the Middle East, and not just north Africa, other parts of Africa as well. Those are real phenomena. But they, in fact, are an expression of the way the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is actually working itself out at this point—and not in a favorable way, but they are nevertheless a kind of perverse expression of the workings, of the carrying forward, of that fundamental contradiction.
The material conditions that this fundamental contradiction, and, in particular, the driving force of anarchy of capitalism, have brought into being, in dialectical relation, in interaction, with other things happening, which are in the framework of this overall fundamental contradiction—political struggles, cultural developments, ideological phenomena, including religion and the promotion of religion by various forces, including the ruling classes of imperialist states and the U.S. itself—all these things are interacting with the motion of that fundamental contradiction. But it is that fundamental contradiction, and in particular the driving force of anarchy of capitalism, which is continually bringing forth these dynamics, and has brought them to a point where right now they’re very unfavorable actually, but this still provides the basis—all this still provides the basis for this to be radically transformed, not just in any old way; yes, it could be radically transformed in different ways, but there is the basis, and it’s not a sort of secondary, and unsubstantial (or insubstantial) basis, but a very real and very strong basis to actually transform things in the radical direction of communist revolution.
So we have to continually go back to that. Otherwise you are, to use Lenin’s phrase, continually whipped around by the chops—the petty chops and changes of daily life. And this is what we see happening way too often, not only to people among the masses broadly, but also among the communists. People are whipped around by the petty chops and changes of daily life. “Oh, we went out today and people”—it’s like Facebook, they have Facebook ideology, you know, “We went out today and people gave us a thumbs up. Yaaaaay! Maybe we could have a revolution in some millennium in the distant future.” Or, “We went out today and nobody liked what we were doing and a bunch of assholes, nationalists, or opportunist petit bourgeois social democrats, or counter-revolutionary anarchists attacked our literature table, so I guess there’s no basis for revolution.” I mean, I’m being a little bit hyperbolic, but not that much. This is way too common a way of looking at it, rather than looking at the material world—looking at the material world and its actual contradictions. What is the system that is operating in the material world? What is the system, to put it this way, through which humanity is being organized and being driven to interact with the rest of nature? And what are all the different things that’s giving rise to?
What Marx Brought to Light
This goes back to another fundamental point from Marx. I mean, when you say it, it seems so obvious, and yet Marx had to spend years and years digging through all kinds of political economy, and learning from what Darwin was bringing forward in the realm of biology, the theory of evolution—and studying political developments and history and philosophy—to sift through all the outward appearances to get to this inner core of the contradiction, as it’s been identified by him and by Marxism in general, between the forces of production and the relations of production. That this is the fundamental driving contradiction, which in turn gives rise to, and is dialectically interrelated with another contradiction between the mode of production—the economic base—and the superstructure, which arises on the basis of and works to reinforce that economic base.
Now, what do these terms mean? They mean that—if you boil it down to its essence—in order for anything to happen in society, the material requirements of life have to be produced and reproduced, and so do new generations of people. We live in a highly—as I’ve pointed out before, for example in Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, but Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon (and I’ll just say “Birds and Crocodiles” from now on so I don’t have to repeat that title)—but, you know, I have pointed out that in a highly parasitic country like this one, you have such a broad swath of people who are not involved directly in the production and reproduction of the material requirements of life—and, in fact, this parasitism of U.S. imperialism, with this heightened globalization, has been to transfer more and more of actual productivity (as they say, “outsource” it) to other countries, particularly Third World countries, but generally other countries around the world. And the actual people engaged in production of the material requirements of life has been shrinking relative to the total population. So, in a society like this, it’s very easy if you’re not part of that small part of the population—a small segment of the population that’s actually engaged in directly producing the material requirements of life—it’s very easy just to think those things somehow appear, or exist. As it’s been put by a number of others besides myself, if you’re at the end of the food chain, the high end of the food chain, and everybody else is doing all the things that lead up to that, it’s very easy not to see all that. Or I like to use this metaphor: You’re in a building that’s rotting underneath, the foundation is rotting, and as you go down—you’re at the top of the building, and as you go down the floors, it’s more and more rotting away, but you’re at the penthouse at the top, and you actually think this is the way the world is, the way it is in the penthouse. And, all of a sudden (as is sometimes done in those old communist drawings or whatever) there’s an eruption from down below and that’s one of the ways you get reminded, “Oh, there’s something else here besides this penthouse I’m residing in.”
Now, I’m not saying everybody in the U.S. lives in a penthouse—this is a metaphor, you know; and metaphors, like analogies, have their limitations. But when you’re living in a highly parasitic society like this, it’s easy not to see—not to perceive, and certainly not to understand in any kind of a sense, or a scientific way—what is the foundation of this society that’s functioning, that you are pursuing your dreams within, and where does even the wealth come from that’s in circulation that enables different people to pursue different things. All this is hidden from you. It’s all the more hidden when you’re in a highly parasitic society like this. But at the base of all this is the production and reproduction of the material requirements of life and of new generations on that basis, because new generations can’t be reproduced on any other basis either—they can be brought into the world, but if people are too sickly, they can’t even bring children into the world. Or, if they do, the infant mortality rate, as we see in much of the Third World, is very high. But you have to have basic material requirements of life in order even to reproduce new generations.
And this is the point that Marx brought out, he focused on this. Now, think of all the ways in which you run into people every day, and how they think about—to the degree they ever do think about—what it is that makes the world go round, what it is that actually makes society function, and all the completely erroneous ideas that people have about this, or just the lack of any thinking about it even, or some combination of a little bit of thinking and a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about what is it that enables you to get up in the morning and function. Is it your individual determination—or is there something that’s going on that enables that to happen, that’s much bigger than you, and is a whole social phenomenon, involves a whole society and ultimately a whole world of billions—billions and billions of people, right? (We are just getting ready to have the new version of Cosmos, so we have to say billions and billions of people in honor of Carl Sagan and the original Cosmos. But, anyway, billions and billions of people, to get to the point here.) And they are all engaged in these activities which are all being—and here’s Marx’s second point, the point that’s even more crucial, and yet at the same time more hidden: in order for this to happen, people have to enter into certain relations of production, which more or less, without being mechanical about it, correspond to whatever the productive forces are at hand; and, along with this, the fact that the productive forces are continually being developed. People are thinking beings, and in any society they think about new ways to do things, new ways to organize things, and because of the driving force of anarchy—as pointed out in the recent article by Raymond Lotta—capitalism is, in fact, a very dynamic system, which is driven to continually transform the productive forces, and even some of the relations of production within the overall framework of capitalist production relations.
So, these things are not static and unchanging, but continuously changing, and very dynamic, but always at the cost of great suffering for masses of people in the world, for the great mass of humanity, and ultimately to the detriment of humanity as a whole. And we can see this in the environment, we can see this in the conditions of masses of people, we can see it in the condition of women, we can see it in the oppression of whole nations, we can see it in the wars—and on and on, all the things that are all too familiar to anyone who’s paying attention.
Marx and Darwin
This basic understanding—these are the dynamics that Marx brought to light. And I’m always struck—I listen to a lot of these people in different fields, you know, who are basically pursuing the bourgeois outlook, even if they’re from the petite bourgeoisie, and even some of them are progressive. I listen when they have these discussions, or I read articles or books, where they’re grappling with all these questions, including questions about society: What’s wrong with society? Are there ways society could be changed? Does there have to be so much suffering in the world? And so on. Even the people who are trying to take up these questions from a somewhat better position, it’s just really striking how they’re just completely off base. And here Marx brought this to light, and they talk about everything and they engage everything but the basic Marxist understanding.
It’s not just that Marxism is a “better narrative.” It would be like a bunch of biologists got together and tried to debate about what’s happening in the natural world, but they ignored, or dismissed, Darwin. Biology after Darwin is completely, radically different than biology before Darwin, even though people have continued to develop what Darwin brought forward, it’s continually being developed, as is every field of knowledge where people are approaching it scientifically. But, by analogy, the understanding of society—and, yes, of philosophy, and politics, but the understanding of the fundamental question of why society functions the way it does, how it can change, how it does change, how it can undergo radical transformation, what is the fundamental basis for all that—that understanding was synthesized by Marx. And, yes, we’ve gone on, and people—you know, Lenin, Mao, Stalin in some ways, Engels definitely—have contributed to this, and I’ve continued to work on this and bring forward more understanding of it. But Marx made the initial and fundamental breakthrough, and the science of society and the interaction of human beings through society with the rest of nature, and everything that gives rise to, including all the thinking it gives rise to in human beings, that science is as different before Marx as biology before Darwin is compared to after Darwin. And you just listen to people talk, and they talk about everything but. They either ignore or dismiss, or distort and dismiss, this fundamental understanding.
And if you’re going to set out to transform the world in a radical direction, to get humanity to a whole different place where all the things that are the daily horrors, and assumed to be just the natural order of things, in fact are transformed and surpassed, then you’re going to have to base yourself on a scientific approach to this, rooted in an understanding of the actual contradictions and dynamics that are setting the stage continually, and re-setting it, and the changes that are constantly occurring, and what changes this makes possible—not inevitable but possible. And there is the fact that different class forces with more or less conscious understanding are going to be continually operating on that same stage and working on those same contradictions from their own perspective. It’s not something that’s like a laboratory—well, even in laboratories you’re dealing with live animals, for example—there are a lot of other things going on, it’s not like you’re dealing with passive entities, you know, just a bunch of unchanging things, that you move around to make revolution. You’re dealing with dynamics that are constantly changing and on which every other force in society—or at least its conscious representatives—are working to try to change in the direction favorable to how they think the world should be.
Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that it’s all a matter of one narrative versus another narrative, or one interest versus another interest in some sort of non-materialist sense. There is only one resolution of all these contradictions that’s in the fundamental interests of the masses of oppressed humanity and ultimately of humanity as a whole. But that doesn’t mean that other class forces...all the representatives of every class think—this is Marx’s point also in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that all the representatives of every class think that what they’re striving for on behalf of the class they represent is in the general interest of society and humanity. All of them think that. I mean, yes, there are some cynical, narrow opportunists and corrupt officials, and so on. But the more—however you want to put it—the more farseeing or broad-minded representatives of different classes, if you want to use that term—the ones who are more sincerely striving for these interests—actually think that they are in the general interests of society and humanity. They think this is the best way society could possibly be.
But there’s only one actual program and outlook for which that is actually true in this era of human history, and in terms of how the contradictions are posing themselves and where they need to go in order to emancipate the oppressed—the wretched of the earth, the oppressed of the world—and ultimately humanity as a whole, and move beyond the point where the contradictions characteristic of capitalism and how it organizes human beings to interact with the rest of nature, and the dynamics bound up with that, are surpassed, and we move to a whole different era, both in terms of the material relations and in terms of the thinking of the people. This is what Marx and Engels were emphasizing when they said that the communist revolution involves the most radical rupture with traditional property relations, no wonder then that it involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas. This has a material basis. It’s not just that these are better ideas, or a more just way that society could be organized in the abstract, or as a set of ideas. Yes, it is more just. But that has a material foundation.
And if we don’t root ourselves continually—you know, there’s the constant pull of spontaneity to be influenced by the outlook of other classes and their representatives and to start seeing the world through that prism, through those lenses. So it’s a constant struggle to go back to, and to grapple collectively, not just as individuals—yes, as individuals, but above all collectively among the ranks of the party, and what must be the growing ranks of the party, the growing ranks of the movement for revolution, the broader masses of people—to be continually struggling to go back to and deepen our grasp and our living application of the scientific understanding, which, again, was first broken through on and brought forward by Marx in a qualitative way (with Engels also, but Marx more than anyone else).
Again, to use that analogy and drive it home, this makes the understanding of the science of society and its interaction with the rest of nature as fundamentally different from how that was approached before Marx, as things are in the realm of biology—as things are fundamentally different after Darwin than before Darwin, even though people have continued to work on what Darwin brought forward, and there were many things that Darwin did not understand, or partially understood, or even understood incorrectly, while his fundamental understanding was qualitatively correct and a tremendous breakthrough. The same is true in the realm of what we’re doing. There were things that Marx didn’t understand. Engels, Lenin, certainly Stalin, even Mao—I say even Mao because he’s more recent, you know—but there are things that we’ve learned that they didn’t understand, or didn’t understand correctly. That’s the nature of being scientific. And yet there is that initial, fundamental qualitative breakthrough with Marx. And this basic understanding—yes, as it’s being continually grappled with and further developed, and it is all of our responsibility to continue to grapple with it and contribute to developing it—but this understanding in that sense is what we have to continually go back to, be regrounding ourselves in, grounding more deeply, and applying and carrying out the correct dialectical relation between grounding ourselves in it and applying it, learning from the experience of applying it as well as much broader experience in the world, in different realms. Deepening our understanding of it, back again with that deeper understanding, and on and on, in a forward moving dialectic, dealing with all the complexity without losing the core, without losing the fundamentals, without losing our grip on the fundamentals, even as we continue to subject the fundamentals to questioning. Because this is a science. This is a matter of being consistently, systematically, thoroughly and comprehensively scientific.
And that’s actually what Marxism, what communism, is. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t make mistakes—it doesn’t mean people who are trying to do this don’t get influenced by the limitations of their own understanding or the outlook of other classes, or their own prejudices and biases as individuals, or whatever. That’s true in any realm of science. But the scientific method is what enables you to learn from that as well, and to sum that up and to deepen and get your understanding to be more correct, in an ongoing process. So this is very important. We have to be scientific, and we have to specifically apply what is, in fact, the most comprehensive, systematic and consistent scientific method and approach, the approach of dialectical materialism and communism— communism which is grounded in dialectical materialism, just to be clear.
The Fundamental Contradiction and Other Major Contradictions
Now, one of the things I want to just touch on—here again, I’m not trying to go into all these points at great depth, but just to touch on them as food for thought—and to emphasize it: food for thought in the active sense. I learned recently that someone made a very good observation about the point in the speech (now a film) REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS!, where toward the end I read out BAsics 4:10 (which I’ll come back to later) and I said, I’m doing this as food for thought, people should grapple with this. And then someone, commenting on the fact that people really haven’t gone back to and grappled with that, even though they were called upon to do so in that speech, including many of our own people in and around the Party, said, “It was said that this was food for thought, but that didn’t mean it was supposed to stay in the refrigerator for a year.” [laughter] Well, you know, there is a question of food for thought, and that’s what I’m trying to do here, but also that means things have to be actively dug into—as well as being ruminated about in an ongoing way, but actively dug into and grappled with, individually and collectively, in the appropriate forms. In line with that, I think one of the questions that also needs to be pinpointed, and that people need to be grappling with—and this gets raised not always in this direct form, in fact most often not in this direct form, but it gets raised indirectly or in partial ways—is the question: What is the relation between these other contradictions—for example, the oppression of women, or the oppression of nations, or oppressed peoples, or the mental/manual contradiction, or the relation with the environment—what is the relation between those contradictions and the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and its driving force of anarchy?
Now there are two ways you could go wrong on this. One would be to be very mechanical, to be mechanical materialists instead of dialectical materialists. In other words, to see things in flat and linear terms, rather than in terms of contradictions, and the motion of different contradictions and the interaction of different contradictions. So you could be mechanical in that way, not seeing those contradictions in their motion and their interaction, and try to reduce everything, in a vulgar way—like everything is equivalent, in a reductionist sense, to the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. Which will lead you to all kinds of reformism and economism. The oppression of women, that’s just—in a linear sense, in a reductionist sense, that’s just reducible to the exploitation of the proletariat, and the anarchy and the competition anarchy gives rise to between different capitalists—the woman question should be reduced to just how it fits narrowly within that. No. This is a contradiction—the contradiction revolving around the oppression of women, and at the root of the oppression of women, existed before capitalism, existed before there were the great feudal societies of Europe, for example, existed at the beginning of the division of society into masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited. And it has been transformed, has taken different forms and obviously has been influenced by the mode of production as that’s changed throughout history. But it’s also retained certain features, and certain basic elements that are not reducible to any particular mode of production. And this is very important to understand.
And yet, does that mean that this has got nothing to do with the fundamental contradiction? See, that would be the other error, on the other side, to be undialectical. And by that I mean you look at everything as in little containers—boxes or containers—each separated from the other, and you approach each of these contradictions as self-contained things. Not as things which have their own identity, relatively, have relative discreteness and identity, and motion and development, as such, but as things that are completely walled off from other contradictions. Now, let’s take, once again, the oppression of women. The oppression of women, as I just emphasized, pre-dates capitalism. It wasn’t brought into being by the capitalist mode of production. It was in many ways transformed, but certainly not eliminated, by the capitalist mode of production becoming predominant in many societies, and then in the world overall. But is it unrelated to the fundamental contradiction of capitalism? No. Because this contradiction, involving the oppression of women, as I just spoke to, is in fact influenced, changed in some significant ways, by the changes that have been brought about in different modes of production, including capitalism, and the changes that have taken place within capitalist societies, primarily owing to the motion of its fundamental contradiction and the driving force of anarchy. And, along with that, the ways in which this contradiction finds expression now (the contradiction around the oppression of women, all the social relations bound up with that, and all the ideas bound up with that) are now taking place—even while they have their own discreteness, relative identity and dynamics, are contradictions in their own right, even while it involves all that—this is now taking place within a larger framework and context which is being fundamentally determined by the motion of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and its driving force of anarchy.
That’s the way to understand it. These things have particularity, but they also exist within this larger framework. And it’s important to understand both parts of that, and to get the relation between that right. Again, it’s not a static relation—it’s a moving, a changing, relationship—but it’s important to get the relations correctly.
And the same is true of national oppression. The same is true of something like the environment. Capitalism has its own particular ways of dealing with the environment. Everything, all the changes in the environment, are not reducible—in a direct, linear and reductionist sense—to just the dynamics of the capitalist mode of production. But they are, again, within that framework. So, this is the way we have to understand the dynamics. They are significantly influenced—and not only affected in some abstract sense, but transformed in various ways—by those fundamental dynamics of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and its driving force of anarchy.
That’s the way to understand these things and to approach them. And that enables you to see why we have to go to work on particular contradictions, at the same time that we have to understand how they fit into the overall framework of everything that needs to be transformed, and what are the fundamental dynamics that have to be confronted and transformed in order to actually move beyond this whole era, and actually get to where humanity is soaring beyond the whole narrow—yes, what is a very narrow horizon, both in the material world and in people’s thinking about the way the world is and the way it could be.
So that’s, again, food for thought in an active sense, not to be put in a refrigerator and allowed to spoil in there. Like Mao says, in order to change the world you have to actively engage it, in order to taste the pear you have to bite the pear and change it by biting it. So, these are things you have to dig into. And something like BAsics 4:10 is very important—it’s concentrating a lot of things—but, like every element of scientific theory, it also needs to be grappled with, and needs to be applied and, yes, it needs to be enriched. That’s what all this is about, as opposed to any kind of religiosity, any kind of dogmatism, any kind of narrow reformism—any of the underpinnings of all those things, namely the non-materialist and undialectical way of just proceeding from a set of ideas or narratives and looking at things as all static, unchanging and separated by walls, impenetrable walls, from each other.
The Living Process We Need to Radically Change the World
All of this emphasizes what we do need to be basing ourselves on, what the living process of the Party and the people around us should be all about. It should be—look, it should be full of a lot of fun, including the fun of grappling with theory and line and being scientific, by the way, which is a lot of fun. Also very frustrating. Still, a lot of fun, even with all the frustration. But it should have other elements of fun, too, that are not directly political, or directly programmatic, or whatever. But it should be this continual and ongoing process, a living process, both formally and informally, with the right spirit, through the appropriate means. As someone has pointed out, it’s very important—in fact, not only is it very important, but it’s an essential element of this whole thing—for all of us to be critical thinkers, about everything. But there’s a difference between that and just being petty. You know, people who are constantly trying to pick apart everything—which is wrong not just because it’s petty but because it’s unscientific, and I’ll come back to that more.
What does it mean and why is it important to have epistemological discipline? What does that mean and how does that relate to ranging broadly and grappling, actively, with food for thought, and the kind of percolation, in and around the Party, on every level, up and down and all around, that we need to be constantly having? And again I say, if you’re really grounding yourself in the scientific approach to this and that kind of method, and the spirit, if I can use that term, that is the accompaniment of and flows from that kind of scientific method and approach, then it’s a living process, and it’s fun in that sense, even while it’s often frustrating. But, you know, the point ultimately isn’t to have fun—or to be frustrated—it is to change the world. But, on the other hand, the process itself is consistent with where we’re trying to go, and needs to be consistent with it, both in the spirit of it, if you will, and most fundamentally in the method and approach of it. And this is something that really has to be—there is much more transformation that needs to go on. Not by turning inward and just having a lot of internal grappling among the small—way too small at this point—ranks of the revolution and the Party, but by going out to the world and in that context having that kind of living grappling with people broadly in society, but also right within our own ranks in the process of doing that.
The Mainstream of the Mass Movement Is NOT Always Correct—Combatting the Pull of Spontaneity and the Striving to Come Under the Wing of the Bourgeoisie
All of this is posed objectively—not in terms of, once again, one set of ideas versus another, or one narrative versus another, but objectively and in terms of fundamental method and approach and orientation—it’s posed up against, on the one hand, reification and spontaneity, and, on the other hand, determinism. Now, by reification and spontaneity, what I’m getting at goes back to what I started out with. For example, there was a statement that came forward in the Cultural Revolution in China which some of us, when we were coming forward, were influenced by, and it’s wrong. It was a slogan that was popularized for a while in that Cultural Revolution and it was wrong, and it did some harm, and we’ve got to look back on and think about it and sum it up scientifically to the degree we haven’t already. And that was this statement, which was brought forward in the midst of what was a very positive development, the Cultural Revolution in China, involving tens and ultimately hundreds of millions of people grappling with the same kinds of questions we’re grappling with here, as well as how they apply to all different realms of society and policy and program, and so on. But the slogan I’m talking about was: The mainstream of the mass movement is always correct. [Makes the sound of Bronx cheer, laughs] No! You know, at that time the mainstream of that mass movement was correct. But that just happened to be the convergence of some very good leadership with masses who were going in the direction of that leadership, and thrashing through things with that leadership in a good way. But, as a general principle, that’s completely wrong.
Think about its application. There have been many mass movements—fascist mass movements, social democratic, reformist movements that are totally within the confines of capitalism, reactionary nationalist movements, as opposed to more revolutionary nationalism—plenty of movements which are not correct. It’s not necessarily wrong—I’m not saying every struggle for reform is negative—but reform-ism as a world view and an approach, a program, is very negative. You know, when it’s raised to the level of a principle—that working for reforms within this system is all that we can possibly do and should try to do—that’s very negative, when it’s raised to that level of a line or a principle, if you want to put it that way. But there have been all kinds of mass movements—and you still see this, ideas circulating around, having influence among better people today, people who consider themselves progressive or liberal or even some who consider themselves radical or whatever. Like another slogan that came out (mainly I think this slogan was—at least it was certainly taken up, if it wasn’t initiated it was certainly taken up by a lot of revisionist forces): “The people united will never be defeated.” Well, that’s unscientific. First of all, people have been united and defeated many times, especially when they haven’t had correct leadership, but even sometimes when they have, but the balance of forces was against them in the short term. This doesn’t mean that the leadership—that doesn’t mean you’re incorrect—sometimes you can be correct and lose, and sometimes you lose because you’re incorrect. But, first of all, people have been “united,” and defeated many times, sometimes because they’re united around the wrong thing, and sometimes because the other forces they’re up against are more powerful at the given time.
But, second of all, who’s this “people?” You know, among the people there are different classes. Without being reductionist and narrow mechanical—and being therefore actually economist, workerist—there are, in broad terms, different classes among the people, and there are representatives who, however consciously they perceive this, are actually objectively acting as (as Marx put it) the political and literary representatives of different classes. And they’re all contending. Again, going back to what I said earlier, let’s give people the best—the benefit of the doubt, or the best interpretation, that they are all proceeding from how they, through the prism of the class outlook they’ve taken up, perceive what are the general interests of the people, or society, or humanity. But they’re not all being scientific. And they’re not all scientifically approaching what are the actual interests of the masses of people, and what are the contradictions that have to be struggled through to actually realize the interests of the broad masses of people and ultimately humanity.
So the “pee-ple” contains a lot of different contending forces, and, yes, it’s not wrong in many cases for those “pee-ple” to be broadly united around things. Often that’s very correct and very important. But that doesn’t negate the fact that, within that broad unity, there are different contending forces representing different and contending programs, or to put it simply, trying to take people and society to different places within the context of what already exists, or trying to go to something different. But then the question: what something different are they trying to go to, if it’s radically different. And there are political and literary representatives who emerge who—in broad strokes, and without being mechanical about this, and ridiculous—do actually strive for the interests of these different social or class forces in society. The “people” consist of all that.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if there’s one class and one force—again not being narrow and mechanical and economist, but speaking broadly—if there’s one class whose political and literary representatives will fold up their tent and not fight for the interests of that class, broadly speaking, within the current situation, it is the proletariat and its political and literary representatives. Because that’s the one class, and its representatives, that not only doesn’t have spontaneity going for it, but has to go up against a tremendous amount of spontaneity of the existing system and all the relations and the ideas and culture and values and institutions, and on and on, that reflect and reinforce that system. So, it’s a constant struggle of the communists against spontaneity—which means also struggling against tailing the masses. Because, again, if you understand this scientifically and not mechanically, it is not the case that each social group or class spontaneously acts in accordance with its own interests. And, once again, in particular, the one class in this situation, under the rule of capital, that doesn’t most of the time act in its own interests is the proletariat.
The petite bourgeoisie—let me put it another way, the petite bourgeoisie and its various segments and strata (because it’s not one uniform thing, but all these different petit bourgeois strata making up, broadly speaking, the middle class, the petite bourgeoisie, if you will)—they more or less spontaneously do act in their interests. Because they don’t have to make any radical ruptures in their thinking, or with the existing society, in order to act in their interests. I mean, yes, it’s true that the interests of the petite bourgeoisie are constantly being undermined and attacked by the dynamics of capitalism and the ruling class of capitalism and its institutions. But, as such, the interests of the petite bourgeoisie—even while, on the one hand, being propped up to a certain degree but on the other hand being undermined and suppressed by the workings of the system—those interests don’t require any radical rupture and can’t lead to it. If somebody acts in the most conscious way, in terms of representing the interests of the petite bourgeoisie, they cannot lead to any radical rupture. So they can have a lot of spontaneity going for them, the spontaneity of the existing system.
And obviously the bourgeoisie—we don’t have to talk about that. They obviously have the system going for them, even though the system causes them all kinds of problems. Why? Because the system is characterized by this fundamental contradiction and its dynamics, and in particular the driving force of anarchy, and it is riddled by all these other contradictions that either arise from or are encompassed now within the dynamics of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and the driving force of anarchy and all that this gives rise to, to go back to the earlier discussion about understanding the relation between other contradictions and the fundamental contradiction.
But the political and literary representatives of the proletariat have to go up against—overwhelmingly have to go up against the spontaneity of the very class and masses of people, the wretched of the earth, the oppressed of the earth, whose interests they fundamentally represent, because those masses are caught within the web and the dynamics, if you will, the living moving web and the dynamics of the capitalist system and all the influence of those social relations and the superstructure—the culture, the ideology, the political institutions of that system. That’s why Marx brought forward the “4 Alls”—not just as an idea, again, but as a scientific concentration of what you have to get beyond in order to really make those two radical ruptures and get to a whole different world, without exploitation and oppression and antagonistic divisions, and antagonistic relations among people, and all the violent destruction that arises from and is bound up with that. You know, he talked about: you have to get beyond all the economic relations, the production relations, of capitalism; all the social relations that either arise from or are encompassed within those dynamics; the ideas that stem from those social relations; you have to get beyond the class relations that are rooted in those economic relations, as well as the social relations that are bound up with that, and the ideas that go along with and reinforce all that. This is the whole process. And there’s no class in this society, and no section of the people, that’s going to spontaneously come up with that, and consciously go toward, go for, that. In fact, even those people who have the most fundamental interest in this, are going to be constantly pulled by spontaneity—and by that I mean also the workings of the system and how that affects their spontaneous thinking and actions—they are going to be constantly pulled away from this, even though it’s in their own interests, and even though they will also gravitate toward it spontaneously. That’s the contradictory nature of it.
So this is why any kind of reification, any kind of idea that the mainstream of the mass movement is always correct—Oh, you know, somebody’s from an oppressed group, they must know what’s right, at least about their own oppression, or the oppression of their group—No, I’m sorry, this is a matter of science. And it’s a matter of what Lenin identified: The constant striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie. Why? Why is there this constant striving? I’ve pointed this out before, and it’s worth stopping on it for a second, going into it again for a little while, even if briefly. Why did he—let’s note Lenin’s wording. He doesn’t just say the constant pull to go under the wing of the bourgeoisie. What word does he use? The constant striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie. And you see it over and over again.
You know, Mandela—what is Mandela? Let’s give him his due. Very courageous. Willing to sacrifice tremendously. In his own mind, having the interests of the rest of the South Africans more broadly in mind. But, comes under the wing of the bourgeoisie. And not out of cowardice. But, according to his own—what I’ve heard was his own accounting of this, is that he and others whom he was aligned with made calculations that, if they didn’t go for this arrangement that the imperialists had cooked up and were presenting to them, then there would be this tremendous rupture in society, and this massive amount of violence and people would suffer.
Well, constantly you come up against that kind of thing, whether you’re a conscious representative of some force or other— ultimately representing some social grouping or class or other—or whether you’re just one of the masses of people going along within this movement. You constantly come up against the price you pay, if you don’t come under the wing of the bourgeoisie—as well as the fact that, as Marx and Engels pointed out, the ruling ideas of every age, or every society, are ever the ideas of the ruling class. So you’re constantly influenced by those ideas, that way of thinking, and the implications politically, the programmatic implications that flow from that. And over and over and over again, both out of opportunist but even, yes, out of sincere motivation, we see people exerting influence and gaining influence, and then using that to compromise with the existing system—sometimes out of just the narrowest, most corrupt and venal ambitions of their own, but sometimes, even more painfully, out of a genuine motivation to try to change the world in a way that they think will lessen the suffering of people. But not recognizing—because they’re not being thoroughly scientific, and their orientation isn’t to do that, to approach everything with a scientific method, they don’t really get to the fundamental truth that unless you radically rupture with, overthrow and radically transform—overthrow the existing system and radically transform the society and ultimately the world in a certain way, toward the elimination of those “4 Alls” that Marx identified—production relations, class relations, social relations and ideas, radically transforming those—unless you do that, you’re not going to make the conditions of the masses of humanity better, and in fact they’re going to get worse, even as capitalism will keep on perpetuating itself according to its own dynamics and its dominant position in the world.
So, we see this: history is full of examples of people who led massive struggles—involving heroic self-sacrifice, not only on the part of the rank and file, if you will, but the leaders, too—and yet, not always out of cowardice, not always out of narrow venal corruption, but out of a misplaced motivation, flowing from a wrong understanding based in an unscientific approach, they actually do what in fact amounts to coming back under the wing of the bourgeoisie, moving things back within the existing system. And look at what the condition of the masses of people in South Africa is today, the masses of African people. Yes, apartheid is gone—and it was good, it was just and righteous, to struggle to get rid of apartheid. But if that is made the end point of the struggle, then you see what happens. The masses of people are suffering horribly. And what’s even worse, they are demoralized because they were suffering horribly under apartheid but there was a feeling that they needed to rise—a sense, a sentiment that they needed to rise up against it, and they did rise up against it, and they sacrificed to get rid of it. But now there’s demoralization and confusion because they’ve gotten rid of it, but they’re still suffering terribly under the domination of imperialism and exploiting classes within their own country ultimately subordinate to imperialism.
And you can go through history. This is why at the end of the Cultural Revolution in China they had the campaign around the classical Chinese novel, the Water Margin. Very few people understood what the hell that was about, but it was actually extremely important. Unfortunately, not very many people were paying enough attention or understood it. You know, it was launched with Mao making these comments about how (I think his name was Sung Chiang, but anyway, the hero of the Water Margin was someone who led all these massive peasant uprisings, and then at a certain point was offered inducements and emul... and emoluments, (or however you pronounce that word, how do you pronounce that word, emoluments?) anyway, offered inducements, OK, [laughs] from the existing system—from the emperor—and probably including a package of reforms. And he accepted it and went back in the ranks of the existing system, served the emperor. And the slogan that came forward was: People like this are against corrupt officials only, but not against the emperor. And that was a metaphorical way of saying there are lots of people who strive and lead people and sacrifice, put themselves on the line—Mandela goes to jail for decades—but ultimately they’re just against particularly egregious oppression of the system (particular outrages, or particular ways in which the system makes people suffer) but they don’t ultimately go for abolishing the system as a whole. And so the horror goes on. That was the point of that Water Margin thing—that it was wrong to be against corrupt officials only and not the emperor (it didn’t mean literally the emperor, it meant the whole system, that was the metaphor).
You know, you see this all the time—”Occupy,” whatever: “There’s too much corporate influence.” Well, of course there is, because the corporations are a concentration of capital, and it’s a capitalist system. Of course there’s going to be—but that’s not the essence of the problem. The problem is the very nature of the system in its underlying economic dynamics and in its superstructure to enforce all that, including the state with all of its repressive military, police, courts, prisons, bureaucracies, administrative power, and so on. That’s what has to be confronted. And if you don’t sweep all that aside and replace it with a system that’s operating according to different dynamics—and, yes, is characterized by different contradictions, because there’s no system without contradictions, including communism, but it’s a whole qualitatively different set of contradictions economically, politically, socially, culturally, ideologically—if you don’t get to that, then you’re just going to have, in somewhat transformed form perhaps (I mean often in transformed form) the same horrendous oppression and suffering of the masses of humanity, and maybe even the extinction of humanity through the way, the destructive way, it’s interacting with the environment, and/or wars.
So this is a very fundamental lesson. And you will never get the right thing if you are going by reification and tailing spontaneity. If you think just “the masses in the street” tells you what’s right and wrong—I mean, how many times have we seen this? People don’t make any scientific—don’t make an attempt to make a scientific analysis of what the content is of what’s going on. Whether it’s Ukraine now, or Venezuela. You know, Jared Leto gets up at the Academy Awards and praises the people in the streets. I’m sorry, Jared, but you don’t know fuck-all about what’s going on there, obviously. I believe your heart’s good, you know, but that’s not enough. It’s—let me put it this way—it’s necessary to care. If you don’t care, if you have no passion about the condition of humanity and the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way, get out of here, because you’re never going to do anything good. Or, more to the point, develop that passion by understanding what really is going on in the world and paying attention and caring. But that’s not going to take you where you need to go. It’s a foundation—it’s part of the foundation you need, it’s essential—but it’s not enough. You have to go on and be scientific.
When people are in the street, woo-hoo, what are they doing? Under what banner are they being mobilized? What is the objective content and objective effect of what they’re doing, and what is the subjective consciousness with which they’re doing it? And what is the correct understanding of the synthesis of those things? Sometimes with people, what they’re doing objectively can be very good, and their subjective consciousness is not so good, and you have to determine what’s principal in that contradiction. That’s a contradiction, so what’s principal? What is mainly defining what’s out in the street. The LA rebellion in ‘92—could you find lots of wrong, subjective thinking? Yes. But objectively, was it mainly and overwhelmingly positive? Yes. There are times when the reverse is true. People are out with good intentions, but what they’re objectively doing is bad, leading in a wrong direction, harmful. You have to be a living scientist. And if you’re talking about leading a revolution, forget it if you’re not being consistently—I’m not saying you don’t make mistakes or that you don’t have limitations. We all have limitations. That’s the nature of being human beings, interacting with the rest of the world. I’m not—this is not some humanist thing about, we’re all just flawed human beings. I’m saying human beings have limitations in what they can understand and how they can act at a given time, even when they’re really trying to be scientific. But we’ve got to consistently put ourselves—individually, but above all collectively—to grappling with how to be scientific, what it means in general, and also in its particular application to many contradictions at any given time, and increasingly deepening our grounding in that and in our ability to get better and better at doing it, even while we’re going to always have shortcomings.
So if you’re going by reification and spontaneity, it’s no good. If you’re thinking about—here’s the point where it comes together—if you’re really thinking about the masses of people and you’re being scientific, I don’t give a flying fuck what some fucking opportunist jumps up and says. I mean, I care if it has an effect. But I’m not going to let that influence how I’m going to approach that. This is not some individual proclamation on my part. I’m saying, as a point of orientation: we shouldn’t give a flying fuck in terms of allowing ourselves to be intimidated or influenced by what a bunch of opportunists—I don’t care in what garb they come, and I don’t care how many “credentials” they try to drape themselves in. You have to ask yourself, what these people—in what they’re putting forward, does this better represent the interests of where humanity needs to go than what we’re doing? If so, then let’s take it up, and learn from it. If not, then we’re not going to tail after it and we are not going to be intimidated by it, and we are going to struggle with it. And we’re going to put ourselves on the line to struggle with it. Because it matters, because you have to keep in mind the fundamental questions of two things: for whom and for what (that’s one thing, or two things, but anyway, for whom and for what?) and being scientific about determining what is actually in the interest of whom.
And if we don’t put it that way, we’re just going to be whipped around by all kinds of opportunists and by, again, the chops, the petty chops and changes of daily life, or even big changes in society. Like Lenin pointed out in “The Collapse of the Second International”: Every major turn in the world, like an eruption of a world war in that case, tempers and strengthens some people and breaks others. So you have to be prepared—you can’t be whipped around by the petty chops and changes of daily life. You can’t also be thrown off your bearings by BIG monumental changes that happen, perhaps without much warning, or at least in ways that you didn’t anticipate. And the only way to do that is to continually be grounded in this scientific method and approach, and the most consistent, systematic and comprehensive and thorough scientific approach, communism, based in dialectical materialism.
This also, on the one hand, not only leads you to be able to understand the need and the basis for combatting spontaneity and for not falling into reifying different sections of the people, or different people who come forward sincerely or otherwise as representatives of the different sections of the people. It enables you to actually analyze what these people or movements or trends represent, and what they have to do, positively or negatively, with where things need to go in terms of a radical transformation of the whole world through revolution with the final goal of communism; but it also enables you, on the other side of it, if you will, to not fall into determinism. Because being scientific enables you to understand that the whole world is made up of contradiction, and that society, human society in its interaction with the rest of nature, is characterized by certain fundamental and decisive contradictions, namely that between the forces and relations of production and between the relations of production (or the economic base, or the mode of production) on the one hand, and the superstructure of politics, ideology and culture, on the other hand. And that takes different forms in different systems. Capitalism, again, has its own particular ways in which those basic contradictions are expressed, in the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and its driving force of anarchy, and in all the other contradictions that arise out of that or are encompassed within it, such as (an example of the latter—of being encompassed within it) the oppression of women as one very important example.
So if you’re actually proceeding on that basis, then you’re not just looking at what you’re confronted with. You’re not just looking at necessity, whether you identify it as necessity or not. You’re not just looking at difficulty. You’re not just looking at backwardness among the masses. You’re not just looking at the power that the ruling class and its system still does have, yes. But you’re looking more deeply and in a more living way at all of the dynamics within that, all the contradictory dynamics within that, going right down to the fundamental contradiction and everything, again, that arises from or is encompassed within that, and the pathways that can be hacked out, if you will, can be forged through struggle on the basis of those contradictions. Not ones that are handed to you, but the pathways that are potentially there that you have to then struggle to break open and to lead people on, and then to keep leading people on. Because, again, the spontaneous pull, the spontaneous striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie—if you’re not aware of that as you’re going forward, then you forge out a path, and you’re marching ahead, and you look around and everybody’s gone, [laughs] and you’re standing there by yourself, because you haven’t paid attention to the fact that the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie and their political and literary representatives are also working on these contradictions and working on the forces that you’re trying to lead on the basis of these contradictions and that you need to lead on the basis of these contradictions.
Not Bowing Down...Recognizing Necessity as Contradiction
So, there’s necessity, but necessity is contradiction. Necessity is not just, “oh shit!” Necessity is not just problems. It’s not just difficulty. It’s not just obstacles. Necessity is contradiction. And if you understand it that way, then you don’t fall into determinism; and if you have the right synthesis, then you can see how, on the one hand, reification, spontaneity, tailing the masses—just looking at the motion without the content of it, when people are moving—actually is mutually reinforced with determinism. Those form a kind of perverse synthesis themselves. If communists or others who can change the world don’t have a scientific approach, they will find themselves both falling into tailing spontaneity, and reification, and bowing down to necessity in a determinist way. And it’s the orientation of for whom and for what—see, here’s what I say to these fucking opportunists of various kinds, and to the representatives of the bourgeoisie: I’m sorry, but there’s just one problem. If I bow down to you, the masses of people are going to be fucked again, and fucked on and on and on. And that’s why I cannot bow down to you. Not because I’m badder than you are. Not because I’m smarter than you are. Not because, in some essence of mine, I’m a better person than you are, or whatever. But because of that very fact, which science tells me and keeps deepening my understanding of, that if I bow down to this, then the masses of people are going to remain chained within these horrific conditions and enslaved and oppressed and exploited in horrific ways. Maybe some new ways, but horrific ways always. And that’s why we cannot do it. And that’s why we have to fight against all that for something radically different. And that’s why we have to be scientific in order to actually fight in the way that we need to fight for that.
So that’s the first overarching point I want to speak to within this general subject, if you will, of the material basis and the method for making revolution. To put it another way, all of that is sort of to the point of what’s the material basis for revolution. And I’ve started to talk about method, and I want to turn more directly to the question of a scientific method and approach.
A Scientific Method and Approach—Materialism and Dialectics
So let’s go on then and talk more directly about a scientific method and approach. I’ve touched on some of this already, but I want to go through some of it and at least identify some of the key questions that are involved. I’ve said that communism is the most consistent, systematic, thorough, comprehensive scientific method and approach. Why is that? Is it just—is that just a claim we make? You know, everybody else is bourgeois or petit bourgeois, so they’re not scientific. No. It has to do with the basic grounding and the basic method of materialism and dialectics, and the synthesis of the two. Communism, Marxism as it’s continually being developed as an actual science, is most consistently materialist, in the sense that it has the most consistent understanding of the fact that all of reality is material reality, that material reality is objective, not determined by the ideas of individuals. Or it may be affected by the interaction of people on the broader material reality, but that broader material reality does not—its existence does not depend upon people, their ideas or their interaction with it; it exists in that sense independently of people and their ideas and their interaction with it. And this is what all of reality consists of—of matter—things that actually do move and change, that interact with other forms of matter and that can be, yes, influenced by conscious beings—in the most concentrated and highest way (at least that we know of) by human beings. (At least this is the case on this planet, and leaving aside that minor caveat for our purposes—not getting into the question of possible life on other planets—matter can be influenced in the most concentrated and highest way by human beings).
But, at the same time, in order to really be consistently materialist, you also have to be dialectical: You have to understand that material reality doesn’t just exist, but it exists in terms of contradiction—that contradiction is the mode of existence of material things and of material reality overall, that matter exists and moves in and through contradiction. Contradiction within each thing, contradiction within everything, contradictions between different particular and relatively discrete—relatively discrete particular forms of matter in motion.
So, it is only if you have a synthesis of those two things—an understanding of both aspects, the materialism and the dialectics (dialectics referring to the understanding that everything exists in and proceeds through contradiction)—only if you have both of those aspects, and the correct synthesis of them, can you in fact be thoroughly scientific. Not just in what you subjectively try to do, but in fact be the most consistently, systematically, and comprehensively scientific—which doesn’t mean, by the way, that you’re always entirely consistent, systematic and comprehensive in terms of being scientific. That goes back to the point earlier about human beings and their limitations. But that’s the way in which human beings can be the most consistently, systematically, and comprehensively scientific, including in learning from their mistakes.
So that’s why we say this. This isn’t just a slogan. It isn’t a “nah-nah, nah boo-boo”—”nah-nah, nah boo-boo, we’re more scientific than you are.” It is grounded in material reality and the correct understanding of material reality and its motion and development, and the motive forces, if you will, of that motion and development, and the intertwining of the two aspects of all existence being matter and all matter existing as contradiction, moving on the basis of contradiction, and interacting with other matter which is made up of contradiction. That’s the way matter is. It’s not that we say so, or that God created it that way. That’s the way matter is, that’s the understanding we’ve achieved. And Marxism has achieved it on a higher and more synthesized level.
The New Synthesis
Now, on that foundation I want to talk a little bit about how the new synthesis applies to this. I’m not going to try to go into the whole thing of what is the new synthesis—that’s a topic for a different discussion. But the new synthesis does represent a deeper grounding, a fuller synthesis—a deeper grounding in and a fuller synthesis of the scientific method of dialectical materialism, and therefore, or as an expression of that, a more thoroughly scientific method and approach. It represents recognizing and rupturing with certain aspects of a mechanical materialism, and of reification, and even of metaphysics that have had a secondary but not insignificant influence within the communist movement over its history—approaching things, for example, with the notion of “class truth,” the idea that there is a truth of the oppressed class or classes, and that’s what we base ourselves on, as opposed to the understanding that there is material reality and a scientific approach to that material reality, and we learn from every source we can learn from, while at the same time we synthesize what we’re learning with the consistent application of dialectical materialism—to society, to nature, and to the interrelation, the interaction, between nature and society and among the human beings who make up society.
In other words, I have put a lot of emphasis so far, and very necessarily so, on the radical rupture that is represented by communism. There is the analogy to Darwin: that the understanding of society and the human beings who make up society, and their social relations, and all their relations—economic, social, political, cultural, and so on—and the interaction of all that with nature, is as radically different after Marx as biology is after Darwin. That’s very true and very important, and fundamental for us to ground ourselves in. At the same time, this should not be taken to mean that there is nothing to learn from people who existed in previous eras and who express a viewpoint of different classes ultimately than the proletariat, or that there’s nothing to learn from people in the world today who do so. That’s not the same thing. To say that biology is radically different after Darwin doesn’t mean you couldn’t learn something even from somebody who opposed Darwin. But it means that you’re in a whole different framework, and you have a whole different—to put it somewhat crudely, a different toolset—you have a different method and approach, or a more developed, qualitatively more developed method and approach to go about learning from everything, including the ideas of people who are wrong in the main.
So, if you have this correct understanding (and this is something emphasized by the new synthesis of communism that I’ve brought forward, more than previously—it’s not that this was non-existent, it was there in Mao, it was there in Lenin, it was there in Marx) you can learn from people who oppose you and people who are essentially wrong in general, or wrong in their principal aspect. This is something the new synthesis has given more emphasis to: the correct synthesis of, if you will, the recognition of the radical rupture represented by communism and, at the same time, the method and approach, based on that radical rupture, to actually proceed to learn from everything. Not to tail and adapt (I mean adopt) the ideas, the wrong ideas, of other people, but to have an approach of learning from reality in a scientific way.
What Is Science, What Is the Scientific Method?
What does that mean? What is science? Science means, first of all, basing yourself on reality, on material reality—on an understanding that reality consists of matter, in motion. But it also means interacting with that larger material reality, accumulating evidence on the basis of that interaction—not in a random way, but with certain hypotheses in mind, which you understand are tentative, they’re hypotheses, they’re not fully developed theories, they’re hypotheses, but interacting with the rest of material reality to accumulate evidence in relation to something that you’re investigating. And then, drawing from many different sources, synthesizing and identifying the patterns within that part of reality that you are investigating and exploring, and accumulating evidence in relation to that—synthesizing it to a higher level and then drawing the appropriate conclusions. And then going back to reality to test that, to see if what you have synthesized actually correctly corresponds to reality, if it correctly predicts what will and will not happen in reality—not in a narrow sense, but in the essential sense, and overall sense, correctly predicts what will and will not, what can and cannot happen in reality. And then that’s an ongoing process. It’s not one time, it’s not—to use the parlance of the times, it’s not a “one-off.” (I hate that kind of talk, but I couldn’t resist, I’m sorry.) But anyway, it’s not a one time thing, it’s an ongoing process—which, however, does go through qualitative stages. To synthesize is a qualitative leap. To take it back to reality and test it against reality and to draw the conclusions from that is another qualitative leap. This is essentially what Mao was describing in “On Practice”: the leap from perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge, synthesized knowledge, and then back to practice and more accumulation, and on and on.
So this is what it means to be scientific in any field, any particular human endeavor or sphere of activity and knowledge, and it’s what it means overall to be scientific. And this is what we have to be doing—this is something that the new synthesis is giving synthesized and concentrated expression to, the importance of this. That this is what we base ourselves on. Not fads. Not spontaneous trends. Not what capital people can amass to say that they represent the truth. But the scientific approach.
The point has been made—and I think it’s a very important point—that if you don’t have a scientific method and approach, you are vulnerable to being misled, tricked and whipped around by any kind of phenomenon, and any kind of force, any kind of trend, any kind of opportunist, any kind of charlatan. Because you have no basis to test out whether what people are saying is true or not. You’re just going by whatever seems to have currency—I’ll use that term—or whatever most people think or believe at a given time, or how much authority someone has, or can seem to have, behind a particular set of ideas. You have no way to sort out what’s true and not true, and you’ll just be whipped around and led around by the nose continually, and obviously to bad places. Or even if the people are well intentioned who are influencing you, but they’re not being scientific, they’re not going to take you where you need to go, in terms of what humanity needs and what is possible for humanity at this point in historical development—not some metaphysical god-ordained or universe-directed process of history, but where history actually has come to through the interplay between necessity and accident, and underlying forces and dynamics and the conscious action of people on those things—this is where we’ve arrived at, and this is where it’s possible to go. And you’re not going to go there if you’re not being scientific, and if you’re being led and influenced by people who are not being scientific.
Or if you’re allowing people who are not being scientific to lead and influence people, and you’re not—in a good way, not in a dogmatic or shrill way, but in a very substantive, principled but sharp way, when necessary, and it often is necessary—contesting and actually defeating over time these unscientific approaches. Defeating them in the sense of exposing what’s wrong with them and winning people away from them—not because it’s a contest of egos or different people with different narratives, or different social groupings divorced from the masses of people, but because of what science tells us about what the interests and needs of the broad masses of people in the world, and ultimately humanity, actually are and what is possible at this point.
Consistently Going for the Truth and Carrying Forward the Communist Revolution
So I just want to touch on a few other things that have to do with the new synthesis, and move on to a couple of more particular points. One of the key things about the new synthesis is, on the one hand, the importance and the insistence upon consistently going for the truth—in other words, another way to say that is consistently being scientific. Not going by narratives, not going on the basis of “class truth”—or different truths or narratives of different identity groups—but being scientific in order to understand material reality in the way that I’ve been speaking about that. But it’s not just that. When Mike Ely did his “Nine Letters,” he said (and I’m paraphrasing): Well, if we walked into a university setting and we said, hey, we have a radical new idea, we’re going for the truth, would anybody think that’s impressive? And we had to say, first of all, yes—since it is radically different than what’s operative and what’s holding sway on campus, including among the so-called progressive people. You know, it’s all this relativism and post-modernist nonsense that denies objective reality and objective truth, and identifies truth as just a matter of power relations or narratives or paradigms, or what have you. So, yes, first of all.
But more fundamentally, what’s involved in the new synthesis is, yes, very importantly, going for the truth consistently—in other words, being consistently scientific—but also the synthesis of that, or the application of that, if you will, to actually carrying forward the revolutionary struggle toward the final goal of communism. Yes, we have to be scientific, but what is involved is the application of that to achieve the goal of communism. But also, here’s something very important that I think is not well understood, and that’s an understatement: what’s being pointed to by the new synthesis, and this is an advance beyond the previous understanding in communism (and when you say it’s an advance, it doesn’t mean there was never anything of it, never any elements of it, you mean it’s a further synthesis) and what it is, is an understanding of the actual relationship, the dialectical relationship—which means it’s a contradictory relationship, but also the synthesis that can be forged—between going for the truth and carrying forward the struggle for communism.
It’s why, as I said in the discussion with comrades on epistemology, we have to, in a certain sense, if you will, embrace truths that make us cringe. Because, if we don’t, it means we are not going to be consistently scientific, and we’re not going to be getting deeply enough to reality in order to be able to transform it toward the goal of communism. It’s not that we like truths that make us cringe. It’s that, if they’re there and if they’re true, if they are a correct reflection of reality, we have to “embrace” them, if you will. We have to confront them and make the understanding of them part of the scientific method and approach, and the accumulated body of scientifically arrived at understanding, that enables us to carry forward the struggle to transform the world toward the goal of communism.
So this is a very important point of epistemology. It’s not just, hey, we’re going for the truth. It’s yes, we must be going consistently for the truth—in other words, we must be consistently scientific—but also understanding that only by doing so and getting the deepest and, if you will, richest understanding of reality, in all of its fundamental nature, but also in all of its contradictoriness and motion and development and change and transformation, can we actually get to communism, and lead masses of people in this, and struggle with masses of people to get and stay on the road of going to communism, and not to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and not to accept the emoluments (or whatever they’re called) and inducements and come back into the camp of the emperor, to use that metaphor.
Solid Core and Elasticity
Also, another very important point, that’s a key element of the new synthesis epistemologically, is solid core and elasticity as applied to epistemology, as applied to method and approach, as applied to being scientific. This is a point I made in the talk Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism, that solid core and elasticity applies to method and approach. Just briefly, how so? In other words, I said earlier, in discussing the scientific method: when you go out to investigate the world, to accumulate evidence, experience and evidence, about the world and then to synthesize that, you have to be proceeding according to something. You can’t proceed according to no understanding at all. You have to be proceeding according to certain hypotheses. Now those hypotheses, in turn, have to be not just narratives that you’ve cooked up, or bright ideas. They have to themselves be drawn from, drawn out of, this whole ongoing scientific process, and the best understanding that scientific method and approach has brought in whatever field, or overall, to the accumulation of human knowledge. So that’s your solid core— you’re proceeding on the basis of what’s been scientifically determined up to that point.
But then, at the same time, you recognize, when you go out to do that, that life is—the point Lenin made, that theory is gray, but green is the tree of life. He didn’t mean theory was unimportant. What he meant was theory is always the best—if it’s correct theory, it’s the best approximation you could make of reality—and, as Lenin said, without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. So Lenin was not saying, oh, theory schmeory, it’s gray, we will be needing some greenness of life. He was saying that it’s very important but life is always richer, and life is always changing, life is full of what? Contradiction. Material reality exists, and exists as contradiction—moving, changing, interacting contradiction. So that it’s always—there’s always more to learn. But you don’t learn by saying nothing is true, or we can’t know anything. Because that is untrue, that is not scientific. We can and we do accumulate correct understanding. Which doesn’t mean absolutely correct, absolute knowledge, but essentially correct—correct in its principal aspect—essentially correct knowledge about material reality. And we apply that and proceed on that basis to learn more, and in the course of it we may come to challenge part of that basis from which we’re proceeding.
This is what it means to go out into the big ocean, and not stay within a little eddy, a little stagnant pool. You have to be willing to go out into the big world and both understand the dialectical relation between solid core and elasticity as it applies to knowing and changing the world—as it applies to epistemology, and applying that epistemology to changing the world, and as it applies to the relationship between what you understand correctly, in its main aspects at least, to be true about reality and what you learn even about that as you go out to further apply that and change reality more. So this is also very important.
It’s easy to lose your bearings when you discover that something that you thought was true is at least partially not true. It’s easy then to fall into relativism or agnosticism—how can we know?—but that’s unscientific. Science tells us—the method and approach of science, and of dialectical materialism most of all, in the most concentrated way, tells us—we will learn things about what we think to be true that will call some of that into question, maybe all or a particular part of it into question. That’s part of the scientific process, it should not be disorienting. It should not be demoralizing. It’s part of the scientific process through which we learn more deeply in order to transform more fundamentally toward the goal of communism.
Solid Core and Elasticity—Epistemological Discipline and Critical Thinking
And here I want to turn to a more particular aspect of this, a more particular application of this. What about the application of epistemological solid core and elasticity within the Party itself and in the carrying forward of its theory-practice-theory dynamic or dialectic? I referred to the talk, from now I guess almost ten years ago or so, Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism. There I point out that in all of life, and in everything you do, there is always solid core and elasticity. For example, when you’re having a meeting—this was an example that was cited in that talk, Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism—when you’re having a meeting, you have to have a certain solid core to the meeting. To put it another way, you have to have an agenda. You have to have some structure and approach, which is based on not just—it should not be based on some arbitrary determination, but it’s based on what? Examining material reality and its contradictions, and identifying which ones are most important to focus on in this particular meeting at this particular time, in the context of everything that needs to be done, if you’re talking about the Party and those it’s leading, in the context of the overall building of the movement for revolution and the Party as its leading core. So there are people responsible for determining an agenda, that’s part of the solid core. And the agenda’s part of the solid core.
Now, as was also gone into in that talk, if there’s no agenda or there’s no structure to the meeting, and everybody’s talking about everything, then two things happen. You don’t accomplish what you need to accomplish. You don’t get a rich understanding of reality in order to be able to act to transform it, and lead people to transform it, in the direction in which that needs to happen in order to emancipate the oppressed and ultimately all of humanity. And the other thing is, somebody ends up prevailing with their ideas anyway. All the anarchy of no solid core, no centrality, if you will, no centralism, no leadership—well, somebody ends up leading anyway, and it’s almost always the wrong one. In fact, that kind of method will sooner or later guarantee that you’ll get the wrong results.
So you have a leading core, and you have an agenda and a structure. In order to lead well you have to—say somebody starts talking about something off the subject, you have to say: “Wait a minute, we’re not talking about that, we’re talking about this and for a good reason; that’s an important question, or maybe it’s not, but if it is, we’ll take it up at another time, either later in this meeting or in another meeting or in another form, but we’ve got things to accomplish here.” The goal is, after all, to understand the world in order to do what? In order to transform it in a revolutionary way toward the goal of communism. That’s what we’re doing, everything we’re doing is about that. I mean everything when we’re acting as a Party or in leading a movement—I don’t mean every time you eat a meal it has to be directly related to building the movement for revolution, and what you eat, whether you eat a carrot or an apple or a steak, or something else, has to be determined in a one-to-one reductionist sense by whether or how it contributes to building the movement for revolution and the Party as its leading core [laughs]. But, I mean in an overall sense what we’re doing is that. And the things that go directly into that, like meetings or other activities—including demonstrations and ideological struggles and programs that are put on—all those kinds of things are contributing to that, or should be contributing to that. All of them need the solid core.
And then it needs elasticity, where within the given subject at hand, let’s say in a meeting, you have to allow people to range broadly. If it’s too constricted, then you won’t get the kind of process—the rich process, if you will—that you need to actually get more deeply to the truth. And, as in all material reality, the boundaries are relative. So somebody can be mainly talking about the subject, but they may go over the boundary into talking a little bit about something else. If you’re leading them, if you’re leading this process, you have to know how to handle those contradictions, and people who are not leading should also do their best to correctly relate to those contradictions. So that you mainly are contributing to the point at hand, and mainly not taking it and veering it off into something else; but, on the other hand, not so narrowly constricting it that you don’t even recognize that, because the boundaries in nature and society, and in all human activity, are relative and conditional and not absolute, it is impossible to talk strictly about something without also, in certain secondary aspects, talking about other things. And you also have to be flexible. You come into a meeting with an agenda, but something comes up that’s not on the agenda—you have to decide as the leadership, and collectively the group has to decide, well, is this thing that’s emerged more important than what was on the agenda or not?
So there’s a need for epistemological discipline. Why? Is this just an organizational question, discipline? No. It’s also an epistemological question. Solid core and elasticity is above all an epistemological question. It goes back to what I was saying about science. You don’t proceed on the basis of no solid core. You don’t proceed on the basis of no understanding. You proceed on the basis of a certain solid core, a certain understanding, and then you go out into the green tree of life, the richness of life, the contradictoriness and motion of life. And that’s true in anything you do, including in a meeting. But if everybody just talks about whatever they want to talk about in a meeting and doesn’t stay to the point, doesn’t try to be disciplined and focused, you will not learn anything good, and in fact you will interfere with the collective process of people learning. And if a party is made up of people who all follow their own ideas, rather than what the party has summed up as its best accumulated scientifically grounded understanding, then your knowledge of things will decrease, not increase. The process of learning and doing to transform the world, and learning more to do better to transform the world, will be undermined. That’s the solid core part.
Now, what about the elasticity part? Does that mean that—for example, a phenomenon comes up, something appears in our Party’s newspaper, what you’re supposed to do is figure out, “Well, I personally don’t really think that’s correct, but I’ll be disciplined, so I’m just gonna find a way to convince myself that it’s correct, because it’s supposed to be.” No. That’s unscientific. Now there are structures, there are channels, there are procedures if you don’t think something’s correct. You don’t go off individualistically, and just say, “Well I don’t like that, so I’m gonna start telling everybody I talk to that it’s wrong.” But you’re supposed to be thinking critically. That’s a crucial part of science. Yes, there was a slogan that was raised at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in our Party: Have the humility to allow yourself to be led—which is a problem of people not doing that. But what was adjoined with that? Without a hint of slavishness. Have the humility to allow yourself to be led, without a hint of slavishness. Both parts. That relates to solid core and elasticity too. It’s another expression of the same general phenomenon, the same basic phenomenon, that we need people to be thinking creatively. We need percolation. We need people to be thinking critically, even about what the Party says is true at a given time—but in the right way, with the right spirit, with the right epistemology, with a scientific approach, and through the right channels and procedures. And we need people to take initiative to think about and explore and come up with thinking about things the Party has not delved into scientifically, and to make that part—to feed that, in the appropriate way, into the collective process of the Party knowing and understanding reality, knowing reality and transforming reality in a revolutionary direction in an ongoing process.
So you need the solid core, you need that epistemological discipline. If you don’t have that, you will learn less not more, and you will be undermining your ability to know and transform the world, to lead masses of people, growing numbers of people, to become part of the revolutionary movement of understanding and transforming the world in a revolutionary direction through an ongoing process. On the other hand, if you’re slavish, if you take no initiative—if you don’t recognize that the solid core that is concentrated in the line of the Party at a given time is a solid core, but it is not all of what the process of knowing and changing the world involves, and if you don’t take initiative to think about, to investigate, to explore, and, yes, to question in the right way, both things the Party has said and things that it has not even looked into—then also the process is going to be undermined and short-circuited, and our ability to know and transform the world in line with the objective of emancipating the oppressed of the world and ultimately all of humanity is going to be set back and held back. So you need both aspects. This is something we should grapple with.
Against “Populist Epistemology”
Now, a very important point that’s been brought out, both in terms of how it applies within the Party, but also much more broadly, is a lot of struggle that has been waged ideologically, and in polemics that have been written as a concentrated form of struggle, against what’s been identified as “populist epistemology.” This is the idea that what is true—it’s almost like the cynical bourgeois polling stuff. You know, if you want to determine what you should do, you take a poll. It’s not really what the bourgeoisie does. George Bush made that clear during the build-up for the Iraq War: I don’t go by focus groups, I don’t go by polls, I don’t care if a majority of the people oppose what I’m doing, I’m acting in the interests of the imperialist syst...I mean, I’m acting in the interests, the national interests of the United States of America and its great democracy.
So that’s not actually how the bourgeoisie proceeds. But they do take polls, somewhat to tell them a little bit about what people are thinking, because they do have to figure out how to get people in line, and manipulate them, and maneuver them to get in line with or to passively accept what they’re doing. But also to influence how people think—which is one of the main purposes of polls, if not the main purpose. But nobody actually proceeds by polls. But, once again, if anybody falls into that, it will be the communists. For all the reasons that I’ve discussed, it’s not just that this is a bad idea in the abstract—we’re supposed to be a vanguard, not tailing—but for all the reasons I’ve discussed up to this point, in terms of epistemology and the scientific method, and what’s the objective, what’s the fundamental objective, and what’s going to lead to the masses of people actually—the masses of people....Look, I don’t care about your fucking little clique, okay, and whether or not your little clique gets a few more positions and carves out a little part of the neighborhood, as your little capital. I don’t give a fuck about that, because the masses of people, even the ones in that neighborhood, let alone in the world as a whole, are going to get fucked if that’s the way the terms of things get set....I mean I do care, I’ll get to that—but the terms cannot be set, and we cannot base ourselves on what has sway among masses of people, or what might have sway, or who might influence people in a given direction at a given time. We have to base ourselves on what we can scientifically determine is fundamentally necessary and in the fundamental interests of the masses of humanity and ultimately humanity as a whole to have, to carry forward a revolution throughout the world and achieve communism; and without that, humanity will suffer terribly in its great masses, and may even go out of existence. That’s scientifically determined, and we should keep going back to that scientific determination and the method and approach that leads to it. And then we scientifically proceed to analyze and evaluate everything on the basis of whether it contributes to or works against that. Not who holds sway, whose ideas are popular, what most people think, what most people are into, what most people think is hip, what most people think is going to be in their individual interests, blah, blah, blah. We don’t proceed on that.
Again, it goes back to BAsics 4:11. What does it say there? “What people think is part of objective reality, but objective reality is not determined by what people think.” This is extremely important. It’s dealing with the contradictory nature of this, once again. Can we ignore, is it unimportant, what people are thinking at any given time? Obviously not. But overwhelmingly, we have to understand that because it has to be transformed, for all the reasons I’ve talked about, and because of what this spontaneity is going to lead people to think and where it’s going to lead them to go if they’re left without the leadership that a scientifically grounded communist force can only—can only be provided by that scientifically grounded communist force. No one else can do it. It’s not to say no one else can do anything positive, no one else contributes anything to this process, or that we can’t learn anything from other people who don’t have that outlook and approach and method. All that’s wrong. We have to learn from them, they can—other people can contribute positive things, sometimes they can even do things better than we’re doing them at a given time. But that doesn’t mean they can take people and the struggle where it needs to go.
So what people think, including how they’re being influenced—how opportunists are manipulating them at a given time—we have to understand that, but overwhelmingly because we know that we’re going to have to transform it. Because if people’s thinking were already in line with the need for communist revolution, and therefore they really had that deeply understood and they were ready to sacrifice for it, then we’d be in a different place. But it’s also impossible for that to happen spontaneously, for all the reasons of material reality, including very essentially the society that we live within still, that people are enchained and constrained within, and the thinking that dominates in that society, as well as the effects of the fundamental relations of that society and all the social relations and culture and political institutions and structures.
So what most people think—you know, the mainstream of the mass movement is not always correct, the people united can be defeated, and what most people think is not the truth. Now some people say, “Well, it may not be the truth, but it’s the functional equivalent of the truth”—even if they don’t use that formulation, that’s essentially what they’re getting at. In other words, “Okay, objectively most people may think there’s a god, and we know there’s not, but you can’t go tell people that, because if you try to tell them that, they’re just gonna turn against you.” Now, we have to know how to correctly apply unity-struggle-unity. We have to know how to correctly unite with people where we can unite with them in a way that does contribute to the overall movement for revolution, and does involve people standing up against injustice, from many different perspectives, with many different understandings. So that’s very important. But that doesn’t mean that we tail their ideas, or accommodate ourselves to their ideas just because more people agree with them about these various things—including religion, for example—than agree with us at this time. At the time—you want to know something, at the time we make revolution more people, including probably more people in the active ranks of the revolution, will disagree with us about religion than will agree with us. That’s the contradictory nature of what we’re doing. But that doesn’t mean we accommodate to that in the sense of either agreeing with it, obviously, or even just not struggling against it. You need a solid core of people that’s ruptured with that and has actually taken up a liberating understanding of being scientific in approaching all of this.
So we don’t ignore what people think. What people think is part of the objective reality that we need to be working on and transforming. That’s the first part of what’s said in Basics 4:11. But objective reality is not determined by what people think. Including people’s interests at any given time, or overall—that’s not determined by what people think. So this is very important. This Basics 4:11 is something we should be continually going back to, grappling with, both in terms of understanding it—the contradiction that’s being wrestled with there and synthesized there—and in terms of its application to many different things.
The “Mass Line”
In this context I want to just take up a few more points. In this talk I have sort of made a point of criticizing certain formulations of Mao’s [laughs]. Now, let me be very clear, for all kinds of reasons. There’s been this whole attack that the new synthesis is a discarding of all previous communist thought, that it’s a replacement of that, saying that it’s superseded all of it and all of that is no longer relevant or applicable. That’s completely wrong. That’d be like saying that people who have gone into genetics in the field of biology, and applied it to evolution, are saying that Darwin’s no longer applicable. Darwin knew nothing about genetics, there was no field of genetics when Darwin was working and living. But the people in genetics say, this is a further development beyond what Darwin understood, and maybe some particular ideas of Darwin’s are not quite correct in the light of genetics and other things we’ve learned—but the core of what Darwin brought forward is what we’re basing ourselves on, because it is scientifically founded and correct in its core and its essence. The same is true of all of communism up to this time, prior to the new synthesis. It has the same relationship there. But as further synthesis—a new synthesis means a further synthesis, mainly a continuation, but also some ruptures, some significant ruptures.
Now, one of the things that has to do with, is this whole question of populist epistemology—and how Mao characterized the “mass line.” He characterized it different ways, but the core or essential way in which he characterized and analyzed it was that: you take the ideas of the masses, which are scattered and unsystematic, and you concentrate and synthesize them and develop line and policy based on that, and then you return that to the masses in the form of line and policy and then lead the masses to carry it out. Well, is that a fundamentally correct epistemology and a fundamentally correct approach based on that epistemology? No. And in fact, it’s not even what Mao did, at some major turning points in the Chinese revolution.
For example, Mao did not determine that they needed to go to the countryside and launch a people’s war in the countryside, rather than trying to build up the movement in the cities and then launch urban insurrections—he did not determine that primarily, or essentially, by systematizing the scattered ideas of the masses. He did it by making a scientific assessment of the contradictions in society, and the relative strength of various forces, and where the strength of various forces was concentrated—and that’s the way he developed that whole strategic approach of surrounding the cities from the countryside and carrying out a new democratic revolution through protracted people’s war in those circumstances.
Similarly, Mao did not develop the policy of a united front against Japan by this process that I characterized—and I believe correctly—of the mass line. Yes, there were sentiments of the masses that they should fight against Japan, because Japan had invaded and was occupying the country and carrying out brutal, horrendous oppression on the basis of that occupation. So there were sentiments there, but Mao fundamentally and essentially determined this policy shift, which was a major one, by analyzing the contradictions again, in China and in the world, and then proceeding on that basis.
Mao did not develop the policy that led to the Cultural Revolution in China on the basis of this application of the “mass line.” Yes, the sentiments of the masses were part of what he drew from, just as the ideas of people are part of objective reality. But he analyzed the contradictions within socialist society in China and more broadly, how they were taking shape in China at that time, and on that basis developed the understanding—grasped the necessity for a different form of struggle against capitalist restoration than they had previously carried out, and found the form, as he put it, in the Cultural Revolution. Partly by drawing from what the masses were doing, but much more essentially and fundamentally by scientifically analyzing the contradictions.
I raise this because this “mass line” concept is something that we’ve all been influenced by—all of us who are veterans who came forward during that time were all significantly influenced by this “mass line.” And part of what led to questioning this is that we found ourselves, when we tried to incorporate this “mass line” into our party documents—the Party Constitution, or other things—we found we had to strain it, we had to stretch it and twist it so much that it no longer was really the “mass line” that Mao had put forward. We would talk about, “We have to apply the science of communism to the ideas of the masses...”—but you still couldn’t really make it work, because it really isn’t how you determine essential questions of line and policy. It’s part of what you take into account, but it’s not the essential approach and method through which you do that.
The Poisonous Influence of Relativism, and the Epistemology We Need
Now, coming to a conclusion, for this particular presentation, I want to return again to the question of relativism. You know, with this post-modernism on campus, and the whole influence of relativism, this has had a really poisoning effect for several generations now, on particularly the intelligentsia, and within academia, in this country but also more broadly. I mean, a lot of this relativism didn’t come just from in the U.S.—a lot of it came from other places like France, and other places where people were formulating this. But it’s been adopted very broadly within—and has held significant sway and great influence within—academia, particularly among what are supposed to be the more progressive people and forces in, and sections of, the intelligentsia and academia.
In my opinion—and this is something to be further explored— this has a certain resonance, or it has a certain parallel, if you will, but also a certain influence coming from the field of physics. I spoke to this a little bit in the “‘Crises in Physics,’ Crisis in Philosophy and Politics” article that’s in the first issue of Demarcations. But it seems to me—and again this is something we should explore more fully, but I’ll put it out at least tentatively—that what’s gone on in the realm of physics, with the attempts to reconcile what’s revealed by quantum mechanics in terms of really micro reality, very small elements and particles of reality, on the one hand, and then the larger trends that Einstein spoke to in terms of relativity, and so on—to try to reconcile or synthesize those things has been very difficult and, in my opinion, it’s led to where a lot of physics has lapsed over into metaphysics. Where people have essentially fallen into saying—some of the probability points in physics about how the observer enters into the picture, and where a particle is, is partly dependent on the observer—this has led to, or it’s strengthened, the philosophical tendency to say that nothing really exists independently of the observer, or that you can’t really have any knowledge that isn’t observer dependent; in other words, that there isn’t reality that you can come to know that’s independent of the observer. And this starts spilling over, I think, into the philosophical realm, and actually has given rise to, or reinforced, a certain relativism.
And then—without getting too far afield—there’s this whole thing of different universes, which has become almost science fiction, in some ways. I mean, I am not an expert on physics, and so I’m not trying to “pass judgment,” or make uninformed judgments about what to me are still obscure realms of physics, and are things that require a very high level of abstraction in order to be scientific. So, I’m not trying to pass judgment on that. But, some of the ways in which I’ve seen this spoken about in more popular terms gets into being almost like science fiction—all these different universes—and it does reinforce, again, the idea that material reality is not objective, but is observer dependent.
I don’t think this is the main source or cause of the rampant relativism among the intellectuals and in academia and its influence among people who are college educated, especially in the liberal arts, and so on. But I do think it’s contributed to it. And we could examine more deeply, another time, the various sources that I think have been greater—more significant in terms of their influencing and reinforcing relativism, including the political defeats, the reversal of many of the things that were brought forward through the ‘60s, and the fact that, most of all, the movement of the ‘60s in the U.S. didn’t lead to an actual revolution, but also the greater reversals, in terms of socialism being reversed and capitalism restored in China. I think all that has reinforced a lot of agnosticism and relativism, and given a lot more grist to the mill of people promoting relativism and agnosticism, and so on, among the intelligentsia.
And there are real material reasons why people in the middle strata, including the intelligentsia in particular, find a comfortable home in relativism. It is that thicket, the thicket of complexity—yes, life is complex, but I observed at one point that “Life is gray, not black or white” is one of the favorite expressions of the petit bourgeois intelligentsia. And, developing the point, this grayness is the catnip that these petit bourgeois intellectuals love to roll around in. You know, their conception of grayness—of course, there are areas of gray. Lenin said theory is gray, green is the tree of life—and he meant what he did mean and didn’t mean what he didn’t mean, and I spoke to that earlier. But, yes, there’s complexity, and I’ve made this point many times, and it is a very important point: We do need to engage and struggle through, if you will, the complexity of things in order to reach the richest and deepest and most scientifically correct synthesis. But that’s different than wanting to just go hide—as it’s been said by another leading comrade, hide in the thicket of complexity as a way of languishing and of lavishing in paralysis.
So there’s a reason why the petit bourgeois intellectual is very strongly inclined toward and has a certain love for relativism. Because if you can’t really determine what’s true, then you don’t really have to do anything, or you can’t really act with any certainty because you can’t really know. So therefore, lo and behold, as this orientation has been characterized, once again, by another leading comrade: “The very best thing to do, as it turns out—and I’m so glad it turns out—the very best thing to do about changing the world is to do nothing at all.” So there are reasons, material reasons which we can scientifically understand, why this has a pull among the petite bourgeoisie, and particularly the more democratic intellectual as opposed to the shopkeeper variation of the petite bourgeoisie.
But this only poses all the more the importance of struggling against—polemicizing against and struggling relentlessly against— this kind of relativism, because it is poisonous and it does lead to paralysis, and it does lead the people to be accepting all kinds of horrors in the world. And its attendant, identity politics, does the same. “Well, yes, I think the thing with Trayvon Martin is terrible, but that’s something for Black people to be concerned about, and I’m not Black, so there’s nothing for me to do about it.” All that kind of thing is another way of promoting paralysis— as well as promoting commodity relations, and “owning” oppression—the notion that oppression should be “owned” by the different identity groups that are the direct targets or victims of the particular form of oppression. All that leads to what? To the world staying as it is, as we said in the polemic against Alain Badiou: the world stays as it is, with the machinery of imperialism humming in the background, crushing lives and destroying spirits, to paraphrase.
So to end on the point of relativism, and to round out this, this particular presentation, I wanted to go back to this quote, Basics 4:10, that was cited toward the end of REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! and say that we should be taking it out of the refrigerator, and really biting into it. As Mao said, you bite into the pear, you change the pear in order to learn about it. And this is a very concentrated statement that, once again, I’m going to pose mainly here and in general as food for thought—but in an active sense, take it out of the refrigerator and bite into it: “For humanity to advance beyond a state in which `might makes right’—and where things ultimately come down to raw power relations—will require, as a fundamental element in this advance, an approach to understanding things (an epistemology) which recognizes that reality and truth are objective and do not vary in accordance with, nor depend on, different `narratives’ and how much `authority’ an idea (or `narrative’) may have behind it, or how much power and force can be wielded on behalf of any particular idea or `narrative,’ at any given point.”
Now there’s a lot that’s really concentrated in that, and that needs to be dug into and taken apart in its different elements, and then synthesized—that’s the process that needs to go on with it. And, just briefly, to sort of further stimulate the thinking and then to end. Why does it say—I mean, first of all, does it say that all you need to get to communism, and get beyond all this, is this epistemology? No. This epistemology has to be applied. You actually have to apply it to change the material world. You have to achieve the “4 Alls” and you have to defeat and dismantle all the state power and everything else that lies in the way of that and that reinforces the current horrific conditions that are embodied in the current system, the dominant system of oppression and exploitation and plunder that exists in the world now. But you’re not going to do that if you don’t proceed from an epistemology which is a materialist epistemology, and recognizes that material reality and truth about material reality are objective, and do not vary or depend in accordance with the ideas of individuals or groups or their narratives, or whatever. So that’s the first point that really needs to be dug into. Is that true, and why is that true? Is it true that you can’t get beyond all this if you don’t have that kind of materialist epistemology—if you’re not applying dialectical materialism in a consistently scientific way to understanding and changing the world, you can’t get beyond all this, which is embodied in and suggested by might makes right, and everything that this might enforces? If so, why is that true? If it’s not true, why not?
And then the second part of it. If you do have to have that kind of epistemology, a scientific dialectical materialist epistemology, in order to lead the struggle to advance beyond all this and defeat all the forces and obstacles that lie in the way of doing that along the way, then why is it true that an epistemology which is based on relativism—identity politics, truth that’s dependent upon the observer, and so on—why will that ultimately, and sometimes not so ultimately, lead to raw power relations and contention and contestation in which force will be the ultimate arbiter and might will make right?
So I’m going to end with that as a way of, once again, posing—and emphasizing the active posing and the need to actively take up what’s posed as—food for thought.