The following is an excerpt from the work by Bob Avakian, The New Communism. In addition to this and other excerpts posted on revcom.us, we will be running further excerpts from time to time on revcom.us. These excerpts should serve as encouragement and inspiration for people to get into the work as a whole, which is available as a book from Insight Press and as a PDF online at revcom.us.
This excerpt comes from the section titled "I. Method and Approach, Communism as a Science."
Here we get to materialism versus idealism. First of all, there is the question: what is materialism? Materialism has everything to do with and flows from the scientific method and approach. Materialism means that you approach, and seek to understand, the world as it, in fact, objectively exists. It means that you understand that there is a material reality and that all of reality, all of existence, is made up of material reality and nothing else. Engels, who along with Marx, was the founder of the communist movement, made the point, a very important point, that there are, in basic terms, two fundamental and two fundamentally opposed schools of philosophy: one is idealism and the other is materialism.
Now, we have to understand these terms not as they’re often used by people in everyday language, but in a scientific way. A lot of times people use idealism in a positive way: so-and-so is very idealistic, they have high ideals, meaning they have a lot of principles and they’re not narrow-minded or selfish or whatever. But in the philosophical sense, idealism, the school of idealism, means that you think that reality is an extension of ideas—that’s why it’s called idealism, you think reality is an extension of ideas—ideas in the mind of individuals. For example: “Maybe this doesn’t exist for you, but it exists for me.” We hear this kind of thing all the time, this relativism: “Well, that may be your truth, but my truth says something different. God may not exist for you, but God definitely exists for me.” No! If god exists at all, then god exists for everybody. See, that’s the thing we have to recognize. Either there’s a god or there’s not. God is not the kind of thing that can just exist in one person’s mind—unless it’s your own personal god that you just made up, and then that’s easy to deal with. But the idealist school of thought in philosophy says that the reality that we perceive is an extension of ideas—either different individuals’ ideas or the ideas of one great mind, which is another way of saying what? God. So, naturally, you can’t test those ideas against reality, because their basis exists within the mind of either some supposed god or of individual human beings. And this is completely out of line with reality—the idea that there are multiple realities depending on each individual’s, or some supposed god’s, thinking or feelings or ideas or whatever—it’s completely out of keeping with the actual reality. (Ooh, there’s that scary concept again, objective reality, actual reality. We’re on the verge of totalitarianism now!)
Engels also made the point that one of the ways we know this, that material reality actually exists, is that we can interact with it—not only learn about it, but change it. And when we change it, it changes the same way for everybody. Different people may respond to how it changes in different ways, or have different feelings or thoughts about it, but it changes objectively. So that’s the philosophical school of materialism, as Engels pointed out. The school of materialism, as opposed to idealism, says that the material world objectively exists independently of any individual, or any supposed god, and their ideas and thinking. And that, in fact, individuals and their thinking is a process of material reality itself—people’s brains, nervous systems, and so on—this is what goes into thought. Now, it’s true, we don’t understand everything about how this works, although more is constantly being learned, and at the same time there is struggle over how to interpret what’s being learned in many cases. But we do know that the human nervous system and brain are actual material reality that undergoes actual material processes, and that’s what thoughts are constituted of. And those thoughts in turn are ultimately, and in a fundamental sense, a reflection of objective reality, a reflection in the minds of the thinking person. These ideas may be a correct or an incorrect, an accurate or an inaccurate, reflection of reality, but that’s what they ultimately are, some reflection of reality. So that’s a fundamental dividing line, between materialism and idealism.
Now it’s true that, for example, in art, in culture, often things will be presented which are different than actual material reality. And that’s a good thing. You wouldn’t want to see art that only, always and simply, reflected reality back to you just exactly the way it is. You want it presented in different ways, including many ways that are not in keeping with how reality actually is, which can inspire and challenge and provoke you to think, including about actual reality. So there is that role in art. But that art, that culture, is still a reflection of material reality in the final analysis. That’s the raw material—the actual reality out there is the raw material out of which art is built, even if it deliberately distorts and skews it in order to present things in a different way. So we’re back again to this fundamental dividing line between a materialist understanding and an idealist mis-understanding of how things actually are.
What we mean by materialism, as one of the two opposing schools in philosophy, is different once again than the way this is often used in everyday life—for example, how preachers sometimes use this term, or how it is often used in popular language— meaning something like consumerism: “That person’s very materialist,” meaning they want to go out and grab a bunch of consumer goods, they’re continually consumed with shopping, buying more video games, or shoes, or whatever. Or, sometimes materialism is used by religious people and others to refer to people who are very narrow and grubby: they’re philistine—they don’t think about big things, they’re very “materialist” in the sense of wanting to just deal with the narrowest scope of things, and don’t have much use for big philosophical questions, or questions of “spirituality,” and so on. But, in the scientific sense, in terms of the two basic schools of philosophy, materialism means that you recognize that material reality objectively exists, that everything that actually exists is made up of material reality, in many different forms, and that this includes the minds of people and their thoughts.
Now, once again, people sometimes say things like: “Well, maybe the world objectively exists, but we can’t actually know it as it objectively exists, we can only know it as we perceive it, or as we construct it in our minds, out of our perceptions.” Engels pointed out the prominent philosopher Immanuel Kant was an example of that. But without going into all that right now, the point is, as Engels made clear, that even people who argue in that way are still in the philosophical camp of idealism, because if you say we can’t really know anything about reality outside of how we perceive it, or how we construct it in our minds, then in effect you’re saying that the only material reality there is, or the only material reality you can be certain of, is the material reality you perceive and how you perceive it, or “construct” it. All that falls into the philosophical school of idealism that says that reality exists in the minds of people, or in the mind of one great god, and then everything else is an extension of that. So, once again, this is a fundamental dividing line in how you approach understanding the world and therefore your ability to change it. It may sound like we’re talking about obscure theoretical abstractions, but everybody here, I’m sure, in talking to people, runs into this kind of thinking—the idealist way of thinking—in all different kinds of forms. You get it in very sophisticated theses sometimes—or sometimes not very sophisticated feces—from some of these academics. And you get it in very down-on-the-ground everyday terms from “regular people.” Again, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Or, “How can we really say what’s true?” Or, “God may not exist for you, but I know God exists for me—without God I couldn’t have done this, I couldn’t have done that, I couldn’t have gotten off drugs, so God exists for me, anyway.” I’ve even had people tell me: “Well, you may not believe in God, but I believe God sent you here to do this.”
We hear this kind of thing in all different kinds of forms all the time. And it’s very important that we approach things correctly in how we deal with this and how we struggle over this with people. I mean, you’re not going to go to the masses of people and say, “Now, listen, you have to understand there are two basic schools of philosophy—Engels pointed out...” “What the fuck are you talking about?!” No, you have to break this down for people—it’s not that you should water it down, but you have to break it down, you have to make this accessible to people. At the same time, you have to remain firmly grounded in the basics here. Otherwise, you’re going to lose your bearings, you’re not going to be able to struggle in a good way with people, because people will set all kinds of terms on which they want to discuss and struggle with you about things, and you have to recast the terms back to what they actually are, or else you get lost and run around in a circle. I think everybody has experienced this at one time or another.
So that’s materialism as opposed to idealism, two basic schools of philosophy: one in accord, in correspondence, with how things actually are, and one completely out of line (upside down, if you will) in terms of how things actually are.
We don’t just talk about materialism, however, and this is an important point. The science, the scientific method and approach, is dialectical materialism. Why? Because reality is not static. As we’ve seen, and as I’ve been referring to, reality is constantly in the process of change. Reality is made up of contradiction—and we’ll get into that. Dialectics is a word of Greek origin that means dealing with conflict, or opposing things, or contradiction. It means recognizing and dealing with contradiction and the struggle between things in contradiction. Reality is made up of things that, as an expression of contradiction, are constantly moving and changing in one form or another: sometimes it’s a relatively minor change, and then sometimes there’s a big leap in how things change from one thing to another. There are all kinds of simple as well as more complex ways in which this happens. An example of a simple way is that you boil water and it heats up and eventually becomes steam. But (this is an important point too): it’s not just water, water, water—and then, whoomp, all of a sudden, it’s steam. It’s undergoing relatively minor changes and then it makes a leap to become something else. This goes on in all kinds of ways in reality. So, if you just have a materialist approach, you’re going to end up being very determinist, that is, you’re going to bow down to material reality as it is and not see the possibility for change, or at least not major change, because you’ve only done half the work, so to speak. You’ve seen and recognized that the actual material reality out there is what exists, and all that exists is material reality, and what is true is what corresponds to that material reality. But you haven’t recognized the contradiction, the motion and the change, so all you can see at any given time is what is—you see the possibilities of what can be as determined and confined by what already is—and then you’re a slave to that, you bow down to that, you limit yourself to that, because you don’t see the contradictions, not only those contradictions which are more apparent but the deeper contradictions that are really driving things and driving changes, and that hold the potential for change, even as they also pose obstacles to that. That’s the struggle we have to wage—to grasp the basis for change, and to bring about change on the basis of the contradictions within material reality, and in particular the deeper, fundamental and driving contradictions.
So we have to be dialectical materialists. We have to look for, and work to understand, things as they actually are, and as they are moving and changing. And it takes work. I’m going to give some examples of that as we go along. It takes work. You have to work. If you want to make a revolution, you have to work, OK? If it were easy, if we could just fall into it, then that would have happened a long time ago, because there are plenty of horrors in the world, there is plenty of reason for people to want a different world. But there are also all kinds of things pulling on them in other ways, all kinds of contradictions that they’re caught up in. So you have to work, you have to dig for the deeper contradictions. Yes, you should recognize the ones that are right on the surface, but you have to dig for the deeper ones, the underlying ones, the driving ones. And this is in accord with reality. It’s not that it’s better not to be determinist—“Let’s be dialectical because that way we won’t be slavish to objective conditions, it’s much better that way and we’ll feel better.” No. This is the way reality actually is. It actually objectively exists, and truth does, in fact, mean that your ideas, if they are true, are in correspondence with objective reality, as it is, but also as it’s full of contradiction and is moving and changing. And only if you get these two elements and you correctly synthesize them, and you’re actually understanding particular aspects of reality but also understanding this in its relation to the larger context—only if you do that can you have a consistently and thoroughly correct approach to reality. Of course, that doesn’t mean you understand everything at any given time, or that you understand what you do understand perfectly, necessarily. But this is the only method and approach for actually getting at reality as it actually is—and as, in fact, it is moving and changing.
Introduction and Orientation
Foolish Victims of Deceit, and Self-Deceit
Part I. Method and Approach, Communism as a Science
Materialism vs. Idealism
Through Which Mode of Production
The Basic Contradictions and Dynamics of Capitalism
The New Synthesis of Communism
The Basis for Revolution
Epistemology and Morality, Objective Truth and Relativist Nonsense
Self and a “Consumerist” Approach to Ideas
What Is Your Life Going to Be About?—Raising People’s Sights
Part II. Socialism and the Advance to Communism:
A Radically Different Way the World Could Be, A Road to Real Emancipation
The “4 Alls”
Beyond the Narrow Horizon of Bourgeois Right
Socialism as an Economic System and a Political System—And a Transition to Communism
Abundance, Revolution, and the Advance to Communism—A Dialectical Materialist Understanding
The Importance of the “Parachute Point”—Even Now, and Even More With An Actual Revolution
The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America—
Solid Core with a Lot of Elasticity on the Basis of the Solid Core
Emancipators of Humanity
Part III. The Strategic Approach to An Actual Revolution
One Overall Strategic Approach
Hastening While Awaiting
Forces For Revolution
Separation of the Communist Movement from the Labor Movement, Driving Forces for Revolution
National Liberation and Proletarian Revolution
The Strategic Importance of the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women
The United Front under the Leadership of the Proletariat
Youth, Students and the Intelligentsia
Struggling Against Petit Bourgeois Modes of Thinking, While Maintaining the Correct Strategic Orientation
The “Two Maximizings”
The “5 Stops”
The Two Mainstays
Returning to "On the Possibility of Revolution"
Internationalism and an International Dimension
Internationalism—Bringing Forward Another Way
Popularizing the Strategy
Part IV. The Leadership We Need
The Decisive Role of Leadership
A Leading Core of Intellectuals—and the Contradictions Bound Up with This
Another Kind of “Pyramid”
The Cultural Revolution Within the RCP
The Need for Communists to Be Communists
A Fundamentally Antagonistic Relation—and the Crucial Implications of That
Strengthening the Party—Qualitatively as well as Quantitatively
Forms of Revolutionary Organization, and the “Ohio”
Statesmen, and Strategic Commanders
Methods of Leadership, the Science and the “Art” of Leadership
Working Back from “On the Possibility”—
Another Application of “Solid Core with a Lot of Elasticity on the Basis of the Solid Core”
The New Synthesis of Communism:
Fundamental Orientation, Method and Approach,
and Core Elements—An Outline
by Bob Avakian
Framework and Guidelines for Study and Discussion
Selected List of Works Cited
About the Author