Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Charles Loren

The Struggle for the Party

Two Lines in the Movement

The Mass Movement, Immediate Experience, and Correct Theory

Of late, philosophy has become popular in communist circles in the United States. People who do not know the elementary truths about classes taught in The State and Revolution know, or at least speak about, principal contradictions, unity and struggle, being dialectical and avoiding one-sidedness (such as by leaning to one class, the proletariat), etc. Taking advantage of this current fashion, the opportunists tell us that there is simply no question of arguing with their position that the party must be built by going to the masses, for it is impossible even to know what to do, to formulate a line, unless we do so. The speaker for the Guardian said at his newspaper’s recent forum:

A party of revolutionary practice is ever wary of the dangers of ultra-left adventurism and sectarian dogmatism and understands that the struggle to develop and implement the mass line of the party is the critical testing ground for revolutionary theory.

There are outstanding questions remaining to be resolved: which comes first–the building of the united front or the building of a party?; a precise analysis of the national question; what is the correct strategy for work in the trade unions?; the need for a class analysis of the struggle for women’s emancipation. Many of these questions will ultimately be resolved not in theoretical debate but in life. (Guardian, April 4, 1973)

To which the speaker from the October League added:

Like the Communist Party of China, we have to base our theoretical understanding, our programs, our view of the national question, on practice–and not just going in a back room somewhere and typing out a program based upon book learning only. (May 2, 1973)

The apparently conclusive quotation from Mao was made by the speaker from the Revolutionary Union:

Where does this party come from? Like correct ideas, it does not drop from the sky. ... a party must be built from mass struggle and not in the abstract. . . (April 25, 1973)

The only way to learn is to go out and get experience, direct and immediate experience by each party cadre, in the current mass struggles of the day. But is this what Mao said? Can this be scientific socialism, true materialism? Let us read what Mao actually said.

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. (“Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?” p. 134)

Correct ideas come from social practice – not only from the practice of the party and its current membership. Nor do correct ideas come from the current practice alone of the masses, which the party might hope to acquire by immersion in mass struggles. Correct ideas come from the entire history of human activity, in productive labor, in class struggles, and in scientific experiment. Men differ from other species precisely in their ability to accumulate culture and ideas from their experience of the world and to pass on growing insight into the world and its laws of motion to later generations of men.

How must most of this accumulated knowledge be preserved and passed on? In relatively permanent media – like books. The sneers of the anti-intellectual speaker from the October League to the contrary, it is necessary to do large amounts of “book learning” to acquire this experience. Labor history, political history, the history of the communist movement, as well as the laws of political economy and natural science, etc.–these we must absorb from written accounts and studies of them. The experience of the masses in the United States in the lifetime of a party member is vast – but it is a small fraction of the experience of the masses that is not directly accessible to the party (let alone to a single member). All the experiences of other countries–especially Russian and Chinese revolutionary history–which are now part of the past can only be acquired by indirect means, by histories and more distilled summations, scientific theory.

Furthermore, what do the opportunists think Marxist-Leninist theory is based on? Their attitude seems to be that this theory is simply the authors’ ideas, that we must pay homage to them but that they are not the stuff of life. But Lenin knew that Marx, for example, founded his economic theory on an analysis of the most common experience.

in capitalist society the production of commodities is predominant, and Marx’s analysis therefore begins with an analysis of a commodity. , . . Daily experience shows us that millions upon millions of such exchanges are constantly equating with one another every kind of use-value. . . (“Karl Marx,” pp. 15, 16)

In turn, we know that Lenin’s analysis of the state in The State and Revolution is based on the historical experience of the masses in great volume and suffering. How many times throughout history have peasant movements and other popular rebellions against an oppressive ruling class failed? And they often failed because these movements and their leaders did not understand that the state was a tool of the ruling class and not anything else, not a mediator, not a neutral force, not an instrument which the people might take over. This same error is at the core of revisionism, the revisionism of the Second International and Khrushchevite revisionism. By denigrating “book learning” and confining us only to our own immediate experience, the opportunists of the October League, the Revolutionary Union and the Guardian are not only displaying an anti-theory attitude–they are displaying contempt for the lessons in blood of millions of oppressed people who have lived through these experiences and died in them.

Refusal to learn, insistence on starting all over again and making the same errors – that is the method of the opportunists. Of course, it must be said that such a method allows the opportunists to deprecate the attempt to separate out truth from error. As purveyors of incorrect ideas, the opportunists are happy to avoid polemics within the communist movement and seek an escape valve in “mass practice.” It is silly to say that our divisive questions, of forming the party (“the building of the united front or the building of a party”), of the class analysis of racism (“a precise analysis of the national question”), and so forth will ultimately be resolved not in theoretical debate but in life. Of course, these questions will “ultimately” be resolved in life. However, we are not waiting for ultimately.

We seek to learn from the available history and theory, so that we may avoid the same futile reformism and revisionism. But the speaker from the Guardian evidently preferred to inculcate an anti-theory, anti-polemic mentality among his listeners.

What does the vaunted advice to “test our plans in practice” and to learn solely from certain narrow forms of direct experience amount to? It amounts to the trial and error method. Take a stab at it, fail, try a new tack, fail again. Never compare what we are doing with what other times teach us. Regard Marxist-Leninist theory as a burdensome heritage, which can at least be rejected under the excuse of “different conditions,” rather than a body of profound generalizations of the phenomena of nature and society. Never make a theoretical analysis; simply take a guess at what seems to be wrong and try a different tack. This is not Marxism-Leninism; it is pragmatism, good old bourgeois pragmatism which is especially characteristic of United States bourgeois ideology. Pragmatism is a form of the anti-theory mentality which covers up its intellectual poverty and its hatred of science by worship of “practical activity” and the trial and error method. If it succeeds, it must be correct–this is the pragmatist slogan. Get out there and find what succeeds by rapidly trying one then another tactic; beat the other guy to it.

Pragmatism ridicules the metaphysics both of materialism and idealism, acclaims experience and only experience, recognizes practice as the only criterion, refers to the positivist movement in general, especially turns for support to Ostwald, Mach, Pearson, Poincare and Duhem, for the belief that science is not an ’absolute copy of reality’ and.. . successfully deduces from all this a God for practical purposes, and only for practical purposes, without any metaphysics, and without transcending the bounds of experience (cf. William James, Pragmatism. A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, . . .) From the standpoint of materialism the difference between Machism and pragmatism is as insignificant and unimportant as the difference between empirio-criticism and empirio-monism. (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 342n.)

The only thing that is missing in pragmatism is the lawfulness which governs events in the material world and an understanding of these laws by the opportunists. Tactics are not correct because they succeed; they succeed because they are correct, because they are based on a profound understanding of the world–a scientific, theoretical understanding. Materialism insists that ideas depend on matter, and that correct ideas are copies of the world which reflect it deeply (and not only our most recent tinkering). Pragmatism is a form of idealism, which makes ideas primary and the real world secondary. It is a form of wishfulness: push hard enough with your plan, and you will, after some trial and error, succeed with it. The world will conform to your superficial, opportunist ideas.

Pragmatism is a capitalist philosophy. The aim of the pragmatist is success – individual, short-term, unprincipled material gain, regardless of collective interest, long-run basic consequences, and the type of person and society that result. Because of this capitalist goal of immediate, private gain, the pragmatist disdains truth; he maintains only the appearance of some interest in the truth with the claim that because a strategem succeeds, it is based on the truth. Actually, this pragmatist line is the opposite of the materialist principle that we must act on the truth in order to succeed in the struggle for production and the class struggle. Materialists are interested not in this “success” but in the needs of the working people, the long-term fundamental trend of development, and a society that is cooperative, productive, rational and a realization of all sides of human potential. Pragmatism is a particularly degenerate philosophy, developed for the monopoly capitalist class by servants like William James and John Dewey. When they espouse the pragmatist line and method, opportunists like Michael Klonsky of the October League and Robert Avakian of the Revolutionary Union simply betray the fact that they are bringing their education in capitalist ideas into the movement. These unreconstructed opportunist leaders from the student movement are trying to lead the working-class movement while using the philosophy of monopoly capitalism.

(Pragmatism is not, as it is popularly misunderstood, simply acting without a plan. It is possible to dream up a plan covering several weeks or a year or two, but the question of whether the plan has been formed in the materialist way–by conformance to the necessities of the real world–has not been answered thereby. There are “plans” which simply systematize error and ignorance, and acting according to such plans is being pragmatist, even if not “pragmatic.”)

Pushing pragmatism has a number of advantages for the opportunists. One, it reinforces their line that our prime necessity is to immerse ourselves in the mass labor movement; this is obviously where one obtains the necessary immediate experience. The sole and primary way to serve the working class, you see, is to know the worker at the next station in the shop. True, if he should become seriously interested in the struggle of his class, he will want you to be more than a pleasant fellow and a hard worker in the caucus. He will want to know the general theory of the struggle of the proletariat. But you will have nothing to contribute, because of neglect of all history and of the laws of motion of society distilled from human experience by the great theoreticians. At least you and he can feel fraternal in ignorance. Two, the pragmatic orientation shields the opportunists from quick exposure of their line. We have the history of the struggle between the two lines in the great historical cases – the Bolsheviks versus the Mensheviks, Lenin versus the Kautskyan revisionists, Lenin and Stalin versus Trotskyism, and the Chinese, Albanian and other Marxist-Leninists versus the Khrushchevite modern revisionists. Anyone who has studied the issues in these struggles sees how the new opportunism of the RU, the OL and the Guardian repeats the same old saws, reproduces the same economism, the same anti-revolutionary “practicality” (“success”). That is why it is necessary to quote extensively from Lenin and other classic writers: to show that the line of the anti-party opportunists is not only false but was recognized in the movement as false long ago. (This is well known to the more sophisticated opportunists, who are quite familiar with all the books they dissuade young communists from reading.) Three, pragmatism prevents real progress. Thrashing about with one method after another, following the anti-theory trial and error “plan,” we would never form a party, and this result would be interpreted as the vindication of the anti-party line of the new opportunism! Marxism-Leninism is not a nice adornment; it is the science of society. If we intend to be effective in organizing and leading the proletarian class struggle, we must know how society is put together and what are the laws of its activity and development. Great upheavals are in store for U.S. capitalism, and probably within a quick period, in historical terms. This much is inevitable; whether the working class will emancipate itself and find the socialist outcome in these crises depends on the communist contingent, the class-conscious vanguard, to a large degree. But being able to find the socialist path depends on having the broadest and deepest grasp of Marxist-Leninist theory in order to employ events rather than being dashed to ruin by them. We have no Guardian angel, and pragmatism, like all idealism, is botched-up thinking we cannot afford.

Idealism is all those philosophies and outlooks, pragmatism among them, which regard ideas as primary and matter in motion, the real world, as subservient to ideas. Materialism asserts that matter is primary, that ideas are a reflection in the human brain of matter in motion as it impinges upon us.

Those [philosophers] who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other. . . comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism. (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 31)

Materialism is the scientific outlook, since it is concerned that our ideas should be the most accurate and deep copies of matter, whereas idealism is anti-scientific, irrational, and a delusion of one kind or another (e. g. , mind over matter). Any class which holds an idealist outlook, such as the monopoly capitalists and their political agents, is doomed to historical shipwreck.

Understanding the difference between materialism and idealism, however, is not one of the virtues of the opportunists. The speaker from the October League said:

We will end up building a little clique, that’s isolated from the masses, that doesn’t understand the sentiments and the aspirations of the people. That’s not the way we intend to do things. This is the ultra-’leftist’ view, that abandons the mass struggle today for some high ideals – idealism – some ideals about a communist party. (Guardian, May 2, 1973)

We are proud to be “idealists” in this sense, Mr. Opportunist. We do indeed have high ideals about a communist party. We know from history and its summation in theory that a communist party is absolutely necessary for socialist revolution. We know that the Paris Commune failed for lack of such a party and that the Russian revolution succeeded because there was a Bolshevik Party and the Mensheviks did not and could not prevail. We also understand that when Marxists speak of idealism, they mean philosophies that put ideas in first place over the material world. Idealism does not mean having ideals, especially high ideals. By this criterion, Marxists as materialists would be base creatures without ideals.

The superstition that philosophical idealism is pivoted round a belief in ethical, that is, social, ideals, arose outside philosophy, among the German philistines. . . . the conviction that humanity. . . moves on the whole in a progressive direction has absolutely nothing to do with the antagonism between materialism and idealism. The French materialists no less than the deists Voltaire and Rousseau held this conviction to an almost fanatical degree, and often enough made the greatest personal sacrifices for it. If ever anybody dedicated his whole life to the ’enthusiasm for truth and justice’ – using this phrase in the good sense – it was Diderot, for instance. (Engels, Feuerbach, pp. 43-45)

And Diderot’s greatest project was the Encyclopedia, a summation of the accumulated knowledge of mankind to his day, from scientific experiment, from productive labor, and from class struggle. At one and the same time, Diderot really attended to social practice and was a profound theoretician. But for the pragmatist opportunists, he was only an “idealist.”

By telling young communists that they must seek the correct line by going out into current agitational activities and reform struggles, the anti-party opportunists are insidiously flattering the portion of our communists’ outlook which is still bourgeois. Why have we not got farther in our movement to date? The opportunists tell us it is because we have been holing up with those stuffy books by Marx and Lenin. But in reality, the problem has been precisely the bourgeois ideology of the movement. The labor movement in the United States is characterized by a level, intensity, and violence of mass struggles which put it in the front rank of such movements in the world. This has been its history; it is the case today (only the Canadian and Italian working classes are out on strike more days per worker per year). But the theoretical level has been low; bourgeois ideology has predominated. We will found a genuine communist party and make strides only when we acquire a sound basis in Marxist-Leninist theory. To tell new communists, in this situation, that the primary need is rather to acquire direct and immediate experience is actually to compound disorientation and confusion.

We will engage in mass struggles; we will form close connections with the people and know their aspirations and sentiments; we will keep our party close to the people with the method of the mass line – of all this, we shall have more to say. But we will do it as communists – trained in basic Marxist-Leninist political theory, familiar with revolutionary and labor history and hence confident in our work, able to compare our situation with similar situations from history, conscious of the reformist mistakes made so often in the past and determined to break with reformism in our own work. We will train workers who gravitate toward communism so that they can operate independently in the same way. Because we have the long-term view, we will be both dedicated and patient. This is our ideal of a communist.

In criticizing the recipe of forming a party by going out to mass struggles, and the pseudo-philosophical rationale for this evasion, it should not be understood that a rejection of mass activity is implied. On the contrary, the opportunists’ refusal to do the work of communists in the mass movement also demands criticism.