Theory and Reality... Knowing and Changing the World

From What Humanity Needs: Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism, An Interview with Bob Avakian

Editors’ Note: At the beginning of 2012, an in-depth interview with Bob Avakian (BA) was conducted over a period of several days by A. Brooks.  (This interview, with the title What Humanity Needs: Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism, is available at revcom.us,)

Brooks—a younger-generation revolutionary who has been inspired by the leadership and body of work of Bob Avakian and the new synthesis of communism this has brought forward—is the author of “God the Original Fascist,” a series of articles which appeared in Revolution in 2005, and is available at revcom.us (excerpts from these articles are quoted by Bob Avakian at the beginning of his book Away With All Gods!—Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, Insight Press, 2008). We are republishing here sections of this interview which are highly relevant to the current situation—particularly as a critique of the all-too-common practice of lies, slander and unprincipled rumormongering that are part of the popular culture these days, including among people calling themselves “anarchist”... “left”... “progressive”... “woke.”

In this interview, 10 years ago, BA called out this highly destructive way of avoiding principled struggle over differences—and, in opposition to this, emphasized the kinds of standards and methods that need to be applied in order to have principled and meaningful struggle over differences and arrive at a scientific understanding of what different ideologies and programs actually represent, and where they will actually lead.  We want to call attention especially to the section of this interview “The Culture, the Principles, the Standards We Need,” because of its particular and very direct relevance to what is happening today.

What Humanity Needs - Cover

 

What Humanity Needs, by Bob Avakian   

Brooks: Well, carrying forward with some of what you were just talking about, I wanted to get a little bit more into this point about the importance of theory and line, including because I think this is sometimes something that the younger generation doesn't give enough weight to. I mean, obviously, it's not just the younger generation. But, when I was re-reading your memoir,2 one thing that came through is that in the height of the '60s there were all kinds of different lines and programs out there, all different kinds of understandings that were being put forward about the problem and the solution. I know that you speak a lot in that memoir to the importance of theory and line, in terms of navigating through all that, and it is clear that there was importance to polemics, in taking on incorrect lines. It seems like that becomes all the more important when things are sharpening up and a lot of people are becoming politically awake and trying to figure out what the problem and solution is.

So, I wondered if, in relation to these times right now, when there is all this stuff going on in the world and people are kind of raising their heads—and, as the RCP's statement "On the Strategy for Revolution" puts it, questioning and resisting what they usually accept—how you see the importance of line and theory, and polemics, in that context.

BA: Well, theory is important in an overall, overarching sense, and is important in an ongoing way. Theory is what leads to an understanding, in one way or another, of reality, or parts of reality. And the question always is: Is the theory, in the broadest sense, and in the deepest sense, a correct reflection of reality, or is it not? You know, everybody has theories. Even the "man and woman in the street" have theories about all kinds of things. And then other people who are intellectuals, more full-time, you might say—people who work with ideas in a more continual way—have more developed theories about a lot of different things, theories as applied to particular things or as applied to the world, nature, existence in general. So, the question is not: is there gonna be theory or no theory? The question is: what kind of theory, and does the theory, in its main lines—not in every detail, but in its main lines, and in essential ways—really correspond to reality? Another way to say this: is it scientific?

Let's not mystify science. Science means that you probe and investigate reality, by carrying out experiments, by accumulating data, and so on; and then, proceeding from that reality and applying the methods and logic of rational thought, you struggle to identify the patterns in the data, etc., you've gathered about reality. If you're approaching it correctly, you are striving to arrive at a correct synthesis of the reality that you've investigated. And then you measure your conclusions against objective reality to determine if they are in correspondence with it, if what they sum up and predict about reality is confirmed in reality. That's the way breakthroughs in science have been made—whether it's in the realm of biology, like the understanding of evolution, or whether it's things about the origins of the universe (or the known universe), like the Big Bang theory, or whatever. That's the process that goes on, and the question is: is it scientific? That is, does it, in its main and essential lines, correspond to reality?

And, particularly for people who are seeking to change the world—which, in fact, all scientists are in one way or another, but especially when you're seeking to change things in the political realm, when you're seeking to change society in a major way—then the question is not just does it correspond to reality, although that's fundamental, but can it actually lead to changing the world, and is it actually applied to changing the world? And then, in the process of that, is there more raw material gathered, so to speak, from which to learn more and to develop further your scientific understanding, about particular things and overall?

So that's on the role of theory and line in general. The question, once again, is: Is it scientific—in the way that I just was discussing that, and not with some mystical notion about science, as something which only a small weird group of people called "scientists" could possibly understand. Now, just as an aside, not all scientists are weird, by any means. Some of them are weird, but a lot of them are weird in good ways, creative ways. But they're just human beings grappling with different aspects of reality. Now, in a sense, there is a "rarified quality" to any particular sphere, or any particular area, of science. It is necessary to immerse yourself in those spheres in order to actually learn about them. But they're not mysterious, they're not magical, they're not things people can't learn. Some people, for a combination of reasons, may have more aptitude for, or may more readily be able to deal with,  different dimensions of reality and understand that part of reality in a scientific way better than others. But there's nothing mystical or magical about this.

Theory is an attempt to explain reality, and once again the question is: Is it scientific—does it correctly, in its main lines and in essential ways, reflect reality? Now, theory cannot be unchanging, because reality is constantly changing. That's one of the main features of reality. So theory has to continually develop, even when it's fundamentally correct. For example, despite what all these religious fundamentalists try to say by way of denial, the theory of evolution is not only well established, it's one of the most firmly and fundamentally established understandings of reality in all of science. Darwin made the initial breakthrough in synthesizing the theory of evolution—other people were coming to understand some aspects of evolution, but Darwin is the one who systematized and made a leap forward in terms of human beings' understanding of what evolution is all about, the evolution of life, including the evolution of human beings. Yet there are many things that Darwin did not understand. Now the religious fundamentalists always leap on that to say: "See, they're saying Darwin was wrong." No. This is the way any science develops. What Darwin discovered, or systematized, remains fundamentally true. But there are always new developments—for example, the field of genetics, and other things that didn't exist at the time that Darwin lived and systematized, synthesized the theory of evolution.3

But that's what theory is—it's an attempt to explain reality. The question, and in an important sense the basic dividing line, is: does it correctly explain reality in its main features and along essential lines, or does it not? And then, how can it be applied to transform reality, and what is learned in the ongoing process of theory to practice and back to theory? Not just in a narrow sphere, in the sense of merely what can be learned from any particular activity, but in the broad sense, learning from all different fields of human activity. So, that's one thing on theory.

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2. Bob Avakian, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist: A Memoir by Bob Avakian (Insight Press, Chicago, 2005) [back]

3. Endnote by BA: For a thorough, lively and accessible exposition of the theory of evolution, exposure and refutation of "creationist" attacks on the theory and scientifically-established fact of evolution, discussion of decisive questions of outlook and method, and how all this relates to the struggle for the emancipation of the oppressed, and ultimately humanity as a whole, see Ardea Skybreak, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism—Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters (Insight Press, Chicago, 2006). [back]