On the relation between revolutionary theory and practice, and the necessity of revolutionary science

“Theory is the experience of the working-class movement in all countries taken in its general aspect. Of course, theory becomes purposeless if it is not connected with revolutionary practice, just as practice gropes in the dark if its path is not illuminated by revolutionary theory.”

— J. Stalin, “The Foundations of Leninism”, Chapter 3 – Theory

This quote by Stalin encapsulates an extremely profound truth already developed by Lenin and other revolutionary communists: that revolutionary practice cannot be a blind rummaging around in the dark, but must be guided by a theoretical underpinning that is itself grounded in practice. While communists cannot anticipate every event given the extreme complexity of society, they can at least avoid ignominious defeats for the working class by steering clear of blind alleys and dead ends. Revolution is not an adventure or a game; it is a deadly serious application of politics, and class politics at that (which is itself the most serious politics).

Some leftists, such as Noam Chomsky and other radical left-liberal reformers, don’t (and can’t, given their reformism) quite grasp this. While recognizing the need for proper tactics in struggle, they are extremely soggy on the issue of the relation between tactics and strategy (roughly, they have no strategy), are weirdly enamored of “non-violent struggle” and “leaderless struggles” (Chris Hedges quipped that the “genius” of movements like Occupy Wall Street “lies in its lack of leadership”), and are given to the mantra of “working within the system to see what it can deliver” (one might have hoped that by now, after many decades of being personally involved in popular struggles and critiquing US imperialism, Chomsky would have gotten the message that the capitalist-imperialist system has run up against its limits in terms of what it can deliver to the working class, and that this system is a danger to all life on this planet and must be thoroughly destroyed, not debated away. If people like Chomsky want to continue fumbling around with perpetually “seeing what the system can deliver”, that is their business, but serious revolutionaries should not take their line as anything other than the semi-pacifist petty-bourgeois deviation that it is).

Revolutionary theory provides us with certain generally applicable lessons based on the bitter and hard-won experience of centuries of class struggle. Of course, these lessons must be tailored to the particular concrete conditions that prevail in any one country in a particular historic epoch, and no revolutionary movement can be exactly the same as any other. Each country has its own particular configurations of class power, levels of class consciousness among its oppressed and exploited classes, and different contradictions among the exploiting classes. In formulating proper tactics and strategy as they relate to a particular country, one must have a good (that is, realistic) idea of these conditions and how they in turn relate to the world situation, the avenues available to the revolutionary classes, how these classes can take advantage of contradictions among the exploiters, etc. If we take revolution seriously, we must be serious about developing it as a science – a science put into the hands of the masses for the purpose of making revolution – and to view society as the proper laboratory in which it is tested and refined. Revolutionary science, the evolving, integrated whole of practice and theory, aims to link the universal to the particular, and through social struggle, the building and organization of the organs of struggle, and the development of correct political line, to further develop itself so that it may contribute to and link up with the concrete struggles of the masses elsewhere (who will in their turn, in the particular conditions facing them, distill that which is useful, discard that which is not useful, and arrive at a new revolutionary summation).

Those who ignore these truths do as at the peril of the proletariat and peasantry in its historic mission to overthrow class exploitation; at the peril of overthrowing and smashing the capitalist-imperialist system that dominates humanity.

Petty-bourgeois, pacifist, liberal and revisionist lines will only succeed in making the masses perpetually chase their own tails, leading them straight back into the jaws of the enemy. This is because they lack a clear understanding of the need for strategy, of the need for science, of the need for deadly serious class politics with a clear, uncompromising end goal. Faced with this task, they often retreat back into the camp of the enemy, imagining that capitalism can be reformed out of existence, that the task ahead can be done using Twitter and co-ops, that an accommodation can be reached with imperialism, that Leninism is itself a deviation while their own petty-bourgeois impetuosity on the one hand, and opportunism and vacillation on the other, will hold the key. They will, in other words, continue to mislead the masses into doing the equivalent of throwing water balloons at the brick wall of the dictatorship of capital. Revolutionary science, on the other hand, equips the masses to build a giant hammer to smash through the wall , to suffer no more excuses.

Let’s build and wield the hammer; let’s stop throwing water balloons.

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Where do correct ideas come from?

by Mao Zedong, 1963.

Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking. Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world. In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures. Countless phenomena of the objective external world are reflected in a man’s brain through his five sense organs  —  the organs of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. At first, knowledge is perceptual. The leap to conceptual knowledge, i.e., to ideas, occurs when sufficient perceptual knowledge is accumulated. This is one process in cognition. It is the first stage in the whole process of cognition, the stage leading from objective matter to subjective consciousness from existence to ideas. Whether or not one’s consciousness or ideas (including theories, policies, plans or measures) do correctly reflect the laws of the objective external world is not yet proved at this stage, in which it is not yet possible to ascertain whether they are correct or not. Then comes the second stage in the process of cognition, the stage leading from consciousness back to matter, from ideas back to existence, in which the knowledge gained in the first stage is applied in social practice to ascertain whether the theories, policies, plans or measures meet with the anticipated success. Generally speaking, those that succeed are correct and those that fail are incorrect, and this is especially true of man’s struggle with nature. In social struggle, the forces representing the advanced class sometimes suffer defeat not because their ideas are incorrect ! but because, in the balance of forces engaged in struggle, they are not as powerful for the time being as the forces of reaction; they are therefore temporarily defeated, but they are bound to triumph sooner or later. Man’s knowledge makes another leap through the test of practice. This leap is more important than the previous one. For it is this leap alone that can prove the correctness or incorrectness of the first leap in cognition, i.e., of the ideas, theories, policies, plans or measures formulated in the course of reflecting the objective external world. There is no other way of testing truth. Furthermore, the one and only purpose of the proletariat in knowing the world is to change it. Often, correct knowledge can be arrived at only after many repetitions of the process leading from matter to consciousness and then back to matter, that is, leading from practice to knowledge and then back to practice. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge, the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge. Among our comrades there are many who do not yet understand this theory of knowledge. When asked the sources of their ideas, opinions, policies, methods, plans and conclusions, eloquent speeches and long articles they consider the questions strange and cannot answer it. Nor do they comprehend that matter, can be transformed into consciousness and consciousness into matter, although such leaps are phenomena of everyday life. It is therefore necessary to educate our comrades in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge, so that they can orientate their thinking correctly, become good at investigation and study and at summing up experience, overcome difficulties, commit fewer mistakes, do their work better, and struggle hard so as to build China into a great and powerful socialist country and help the broad masses of the oppressed and exploited throughout the world in fulfillment of our great internationalist duty.