Mao poses a straightforward question: “Where do correct ideas come from?” and he responds with an equally straightforward answer: “From social practice, and from it alone.” (Mao, “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?” Selected Readings, p. 502) From this social practice, “rich experience” is gained from which man develops knowledge.
Mao’s direct question and answer are well known in the revolutionary movement and yet seem to be too straightforward for forces such as WV to really comprehend.
WV’s serious deviation on the question of the role of experience in the theory of knowledge results in their propagation of idealism, of a line that advocates that “correct” ideas come from Heaven or exist innate in the minds of WV’s leading ”theoreticians.” They view MLMTT in an idealistic way, unrelated to past, present and future human experience. Consequently, they deny the applicability of MLMTT to the social reality of the U.S. and replace MLMTT with their own new “original theory.”
WV’s error is that they see genuine knowledge as divorced from social practice, from human experience with the real world. WV actually descends into an idealist system of thought by advocating a view that denies that life, the real world, must be the source of ideas, plans and theories. (This is different and in many ways more fundamental than errors of dogmatism which deny the importance of having a concrete grasp of concrete conditions.)
The consequence of WV’s error is that they advocate an idealist approach to theoretical work, denying that theory is experience taken in its general aspect. And in practice this error leads WV consistently to have an erroneous understanding of reality. They consistently fail to develop a knowledge of the objective conditions from a Marxist-Leninist standpoint and therefore they are unable to provide more than their own shallow mechanical schemes to answer questions arising from real life and their work is characterized by arrogant disregard and disdain for the experiences of the masses. WV’s error is aptly described by Mao when he states:
Idealism and metaphysics are the easiest things in the world, because people can talk as much nonsense as they like without basing it on objective reality or having it tested against reality. Materialism and dialectics, on the other hand, need effort. They must be based on and tested by objective reality. Unless one makes the effort, one is liable to slip into idealism and metaphysics. (Mao Tsetung, Introductory note to “Material on the Hu Feng Counter-Revolutionary Clique,” Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung, p. 212)
WV’s idealism is apparent in their statements such as:
if a party programme were to be based on experience, one would be led to the ridiculous implicit rejection of the outlook of Marxism-Leninism. (WV #2, p. 22)
This seemingly profound pronouncement is profoundly wrong, for knowledge, including the science of MLMTT, comes from one source and one source alone– from the experience gained through social practice in the real world. To deviate in any way from this view is to fall, as WV does, into an idealist and anti-Marxist conception of where knowledge comes from. WV’s “knowledge,” plans and “theories” are therefore divorced from reality. It is fundamentally incorrect to counterpose MLMTT with experience, for this leads to viewing Marxism in an idealist fashion, rather than as the highest and most concentrated synthesis of human experience.
WV’s idealism should be contrasted with the fully materialist views of Stalin or Mao:
Knowledge begins with experience–this is the materialism of the theory of knowledge. (Mao Tsetung, “On Practice,” Selected Readings, p. 75)
Theory is the experience of the working-class movement in all countries taken in its general aspect. (Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism, p. 22)
Knowledge comes from experience–there are no two ways about it, and the party program, if it is to correctly reflect the objective needs of the actual revolutionary movement rather than the fantasies of certain individuals, must be based on the knowledge acquired from experience.
Our party program cannot be based on just our own direct experience, the experience we gather ourselves, but rather we must make use of the direct experiences of others (for us this is indirect experience, which includes the theoretical lessons of MLMTT). To deny the importance of indirect experience and base everything on our own partial direct experience certainly would lead to empiricism. Both empiricism and idealism lead to a false, incomplete and uncomprehensive view of reality, whereas the dialectical materialist approach to learning leads one to have an ever greater comprehension of the world.
Materialism leads one to have an appreciation of experience (direct and indirect) and thus offers a path for one to find one’s bearing in concrete situations; while idealism, in contrast, causes confusion and miscomprehension of the world. People are not able to find independent bearings, as is so frequently observed in the work of the WV cadre.
WV’s erroneous assertion regarding party programme is not Just one slip of the pen, but rather is an integral part of a consistently idealist outlook. For a time, many in the communist movement, including ourselves, recognized some incorrect aspects of WV’s line, but our understanding of its deviation was still shallow. Part of the reason for our unclarity was that WV was able to cover to a certain extent its own erroneous line by using a criticism of the RU’s empiricism as a cover. The following passage illustrates this point where WV raises some general MLMTT truths in exposing the opportunism of the RU in order to slip in their own idealism.
To the RU’s understanding of the concept of experience, we counterpose the very explicit dialectical materialist understanding. Dialectical materialism regards experience as a subjective and partial reflection of objective reality. It unequivocally advocates that objective reality is independent of subjective experience, that objective reality is the source of experience and not vice versa. Pragmatists and empiricists regard experience as the sole source of objective reality. (WV #2, p. 22)
In the midst of restating some truth (“objective reality is the source of experience and not vice versa”) WV asserts their own falsehood (“dialectical materialism regards experience as a subjective and partial reflection of objective reality”). Ideas and knowledge are “reflections of reality,” not experience. Contrary to WV’s muddled characterization, experience is the result of human practice with the real world. Experience is in a sense the raw material from which we derive ideas, knowledge, etc. Therefore it is wrong for WV to brand experience “subjective,” that is, prejudiced, as how WV uses the term in this context.
Furthermore, to even further confuse the role of experience in the theory of knowledge, WV formulates an entirely new, and entirely incorrect definition of an empiricist. WV states that an empiricist is an idealist, i.e., one who takes experiences as the ”sole source of objective reality.” (WV #2, p. 22) In WV’s definition, an empiricist is one who denies that an objective reality exists.
The correct definition of an empiricist is one who refuses to deepen the knowledge gained from experience, who does not raise this perceptual knowledge to the level of rational knowledge and thus cannot comprehend the inner essence of things and the inter-connection of processes. Empiricists, as Mao says, are “vulgar ’practical’” people who
respect experience but despise theory, and therefore cannot have a comprehensive view of an entire objective process, lack clear direction and long-range perspective, and are complacent over occasional successes and glimpses of the truth. (Mao Tsetung, “On Practice,” Selected Readings, p. 75)
Empiricists respect experience but they advocate remaining at a low and partial level of understanding. This is what, for example, the RU has consistently advocated.
WV’s pronouncements lead one to despise experience, direct and indirect, and to deny that it is through experience that humanity accumulates knowledge. And consequently, in opposition to the empiricism of the RU, WV raises an idealist understanding of the source of all knowledge and the proletariat’s process of learning. WV’s own ”logic” and “ideological constructions” become the source of knowledge and wisdom.
Unlike WV, Marxist-Leninists must appreciate experience, the experience of the international working class, the experience of the masses in this country as well as the experience of the developing communist movement, etc., for it is from this experience, integrated with the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, that we will be able to derive correct plans, lines and strategies. By denying the dependence of rational knowledge, theoretical knowledge, upon perceptual knowledge, WV becomes “rationalist,” admitting “the reality only of reason and not of experience, believing that reason alone is reliable while perceptual experience is not.” (Mao Tsetung, “On Practice,” Selected Readings, p. 71) WV believes its own “reason” alone is reliable–and from this flows their arrogance and lack of ability to critically and objectively examine their line and practice.
To further contrast WV’s understanding of experience and learning, we quote a passage from “On Practice” which clearly presents the Marxist-Leninist understanding of these issues:
All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. But one cannot have direct experience of everything; as a matter of fact, most of our knowledge comes from indirect experience, for example, all knowledge from past times and foreign lands. To our ancestors and to foreigners, such knowledge was–or is–a matter of direct experience and this knowledge is reliable if in the course of their direct experience the requirement of “scientific abstraction,” spoken of by Lenin, was–or is–fulfilled and objective reality scientifically reflected; otherwise it is not reliable. Hence a man’s knowledge consists only of two parts, that which comes from direct experience and that which comes from indirect experience. Moreover, what is indirect experience for me is direct experience for other people. Consequently, considered as a whole, knowledge of any kind is inseparable from direct experience. All knowledge originates in perception of the objective external world through man’s physical sense organs. Anyone who denies such perception, denies direct experience, or denies personal participation in the practice that changes reality, is not a materialist. That is why the “know-all” is ridiculous. There is an old Chinese saying, “How can you catch tiger cubs without entering the tiger’s lair?” This saying holds true for man’s practice and it also holds true for the theory of knowledge. There can be no knowledge apart from practice. (Mao Tsetung, “On Practice,” Selected Readings, pp. 71-72)
WV does not rest content with constructing their own new “theories” and definitions; they go on to actually distort what Lenin has written on experience to back up their “theoretical” substitution for MLMTT. WV states:
Lenin said, “the word ’experience,’ on which the Machists build their system, has long served as a shield for idealist systems, and now serves Avenarius and Co. for eclectically passing from the idealist position to the materialist position and vice versa.” This is precisely the manner in which the RU displays their sophistry. The RU conceals their line underneath the word “experience” and the CL buries their line under idealism and metaphysics. (WV #2, p. 23)
When we first read these quotes from Lenin they caused us to wonder, and so we wanted to check the original source from which they’re taken. Unfortunately, WV fails to provide the source and page numbers for these quotes and it took us some hunting to track down the selections from which they came.
WV lifts these quotes from Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism to try to turn Lenin’s materialism into idealism in order to bolster their own idealism.
In order to understand WV’s distortion of Lenin, let us briefly outline this work.
Lenin completed Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in late 1908 to defend the theoretical foundations of Marxism from the attacks of a number of reactionary idealist philosophers such as Bogdanov, Barzarov and others who belonged to the empirio-criticism school of philosophy. These writers condemned Marxism as being “out-of-date” and wanted to “update” materialism. Lenin however showed that this “update” was little more than reverting to idealism and agnosticism. Bogdanov and the others advocated “refined and polished idealism as opposed to Marxist materialism.” (History of the CPSU, p. 93) Lenin’s historic struggle against these swindlers rescued the revolutionary movement from the dangers of all sorts of fantasy, spiritualism and mysticism.
In the course of refuting the idealists, Lenin discusses a variety of fundamental theoretical issues of Marxism, the most important and relevant for the discussion here being the questions such as: Does an external, objective material world exist independent of our perception of it?; Can man come to correctly and objectively know this world?; and, How does man come to know this world?
The idealists put forward that a world independent of human senses did not exist; or that even if a world did exist independent of human existence, one can never be certain of its existence or come to know it accurately. In their view, the idealists believed that the world itself was simply a complex of “ideas” or “sensations” that exist in the mind. The idealists fundamentally deny that a real world exists and is the source of human sensation and perception. Their views result in denying the scientific nature of Marxism, that human society is knowable and thus transformable.
Lenin, in contrast, unequivocably defended the materialist view that a world external to our senses and perceptions exists. He upheld the Marxist view that man can come to know the real world through interaction with it. Social practice provides rich experience from which man develops an ever-expanding comprehension of the real world. The world is knowable and thus transformable. Revolution is put on a scientific basis.
A study of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism assists us today in uncovering attempts by such forces as WV to lead the movement into a “never-never land” of fantasy, and presents a revolutionary path for us to follow to know the real world.
While elaborating on the Marxist theory of knowledge, Lenin draws a clear line of distinction between the materialist and idealist conceptions of experience. He says:
“We know from the history of philosophy that the interpretation of the concept experience divided the classical materialists from the idealists,” (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 170) and it is in this context that Lenin makes crystal clear the materialist conception of experience:
All knowledge comes from experience, from sensation, from perception. That is true. But the question arises, does objective reality “belong to perception,” i.e., is it the source of perception? If you answer yes, you are a materialist. If you answer no, you are inconsistent and will inevitably arrive at subjectivism, or agnosticism. (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 102)
After making the materialist stand on experience clear, Lenin turns to Bogdanov and the idealists to show how they distort the term experience, their conception of experience being something that exists independently of the objective world, that exists only in the minds and senses of human beings. These idealists make experience, perceptions, sensations, ideas, etc. primary over the material. Thus the idealists use the term experience in an idealist fashion, and Lenin, whenever he refers to the idealists’ conception of experience, uses the notation “experience” (quote-unquote) to distinguish their view from the materialist view of experience.
WV, however, never makes Lenin’s distinctions clear but rather borrows Lenin’s criticisms of “experience” (used in the idealist sense) to oppose all experience, to oppose the materialist sense of experience. WV distorts Lenin to suit its own purposes in propagating their own idealism.
The consequence of WV’s distortion is the view that knowledge, including MLMTT, can be separated from experience in the real world. Hence knowledge and MLMTT are not derived from the real world by the proletariat. Hence in a like way, MLMTT is viewed in an idealist way, in a scholastic way, in a way that denies the importance of proceeding from life, denies that MLMTT is a path to follow to draw ever closer to complete absolute truth.
At the end of their article on the RU, WV tries to deliver an “uncontestable” argument for its propagation of idealism by quoting a long passage from Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. WV apparently believes this passage provides a telling blow for their position; however, a careful reading of the passage actually reveals WV’s own ideological bankruptcy.
WV distorts what Lenin says and their lack of accuracy in quoting Lenin is serious, for such unprincipled rewriting opens the door for all sorts of perversions of MLMTT. This is in itself a serious criticism of WV. But our criticism goes further than this for we point out the consistency of WV’s distortion, which reveals a definite anti-Marxist inclination. The errors which WV makes in distorting Lenin reveal an idealism so fundamental that they read into Lenin what they wish and rewrite or omit those passages of Lenin which oppose their view.
We print WV’s and Lenin’s words side by side to better contrast the two:
The standpoint of life, or practice, should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge.
“However” . . .
we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely (emphasis in original). This criterion too is sufficiently ’indefinite’ not to allow human knowledge to become ’obsolete’ but at the same time it is sufficiently definite to wage a ruthless fight on all varieties of idealism and agnosticism, . . .
For instance, Bogdanov is prepared to recognise Marx’s theory of the circulation of money as an objective truth only for ’our time,’ and calls it ’dogmatism’ to attribute to this theory a ’super-historically objective’ truth. This is again a muddle. The correspondence of this theory to practice cannot be altered by any future circumstances, for the simple reason that makes it an eternal truth that Napoleon died on May 5, 1821. But in as much as the criterion of practice, i.e., the course of development of all capitalist countries (emphasis in original) in the last few decades, proves only the objective truth of Marx’s whole social and economic theory in general, and not merely of one or other of its parts, formulations, etc., it is clear that to talk of the ’dogmatism’ of the Marxists is to make an unpardonable concession to bourgeois economics. (and the RU’s concession to bourgeois ideology of pragmatism) The sole conclusion to be drawn from the opinion held by Marxists that Marxist theory is an objective truth is that by following the path of Marxian theory we shall draw closer and closer to objective truth (without ever exhausting it): but by following any other path we shall arrive at nothing but bourgeois confusion and lies. (WV #2, pp. 29-30)
The standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge. And it inevitably leads to materialism, brushing aside the endless fabrications of professorial scholasticism. Of course, we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely.
This criterion also is sufficiently “indefinite” not to allow human knowledge to become “absolute,” but at the same time it is sufficiently definite to wage a ruthless fight on all varieties of idealism and agnosticism. If what our practice confirms is the sole, ultimate and objective truth, then from this must follow the recognition that the only path to this truth is the path of science, which holds the materialist point of view. For instance, Bogdanov is prepared to recognise Marx’s theory of the circulation of money as an objective truth only for “our time”, and calls it “dogmatism” to attribute to this theory a “super-historical objective” truth. This is again a muddle. The correspondence of this theory to practice cannot be altered by any future circumstance, for the simple reason that makes it an eternal truth that Napoleon died on May 5, 1821. But in as much as the criterion of practice, i.e. the course of development of all capitalist countries in the last few decades, proves only the objective truth of Marx’s whole social and economic theory in general, and not merely of one or other of its parts, formulations, etc., it is clear that to talk of the “dogmatism” of the Marxists is to make an unpardonable concession to bourgeois economics.
The sole conclusion to be drawn from the opinion of the Marxists that Marx’s theory is an objective truth is that by following the path of Marxist theory we shall draw closer and closer to objective truth (without ever exhausting it); but by following any other path we shall arrive at nothing but confusion and lies. (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, pp. 161-162)
Lenin’s passage, when cited in its entirety clearly presents the Marxist interpretation of the theory of knowledge and the relationship between absolute and relative knowledge. He opposes both the view that denies the existence of truth as well as the view that denies that human knowledge is constantly developing towards absolute truth, and thus can never be ossified. WV’s selective quoting of Lenin, and their rewriting, however, is one-sided and therefore winds up denying the fundamental importance of practice and that the struggle for truth is a process. Thus, WV falls into the camp that Lenin warns against, i.e. the camp of idealism and “professorial scholasticism!’
Let us examine the exact omissions and substitutions of WV.
First, note WV’s omission of the very important sentence of Lenin’s regarding how the “standpoint of life, or practice” leads inevitably to materialism “brushing aside the endless fabrications of professorial scholasticism.” Why does WV want to eliminate this one sentence from such a long quote? The elimination of this one sentence does not appreciably shorten such a long passage, so why eliminate it? Perhaps it describes too accurately WV’s own tendency of scholasticism, of transforming Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought into something divorced from life, as something that is an abstract body of thought rather than a living science that must be made an integral part of our struggle? Whatever their reason, it is clear that the elimination of this sentence lessens the significance of Lenin’s previous statement about proceeding from life in learning, and slants Lenin’s remaining words towards reinforcing WV’s own scholasticism and idealism.
The elimination of one sentence is not all that WV does but then proceeds to further distort Lenin’s quote by replacing the words “Of course” in the sentence which reads, “Of course, we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely.” WV changes “Of course,” which means Lenin’s second point is not in contrast to approaching from the standpoint of life, to “However,” which pits the one against the other, and WV thereby tries to qualify the importance of proceeding from the standpoint of life. This is part and parcel of WV’s attempts to belittle the importance of life–which is known through practice–to make it appear as if Lenin wants to qualify his stand regarding practice and where knowledge comes from.
Next, WV even goes so far as to change the actual words of Lenin. Lenin states that, “This criterion also practice] is sufficiently ’indefinite’ not to allow human knowledge to become ’absolute.,’ ...” whereas WV changes this to have Lenin say that, “This criterion too is sufficiently ’indefinite’ not to allow human knowledge to become ’obsolete’ ...” This distortion further promotes idealism and metaphysics and an attempt to emasculate the living essence of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought by implying that Marxism-Leninism in books has already exhausted absolute truth. Lenin’s whole point in the first half of this quote is to point out that human knowledge is constantly developing and that while we have accumulated many truths, our thinking has not become an “absolute.”
Practice constantly opens up new horizons of knowledge and deepens man’s understanding of the world. This is why Lenin stresses that practice verifies truth as well as that it cannot completely confirm or refute any human ideas since practice continuously develops knowledge.
Fourthly, WV drops the one sentence, “If what our practice confirms is the sole, ultimate and objective truth, then from this must follow the recognition that the only path to this truth is the path of science, which holds the materialist point of view.” Again this very important sentence is part and parcel of Lenin’s dialectical materialist theory of knowledge which places the role of practice, of life, as fundamental in knowledge. This omission by WV is another attempt to distort Lenin and put forth WV’s idealist belittling of the importance of life and the role of practice in the theory of knowledge.
And lastly, we point out WV’s deliberate misquoting through underlining certain things that they wish while eliminating Lenin’s own emphasis. The consequence of course, with the addition of all the other WV revisions of Lenin, is Lenin’s entire quote is distorted and used to promote WV’s own subjectivist outlook.
WV emphasizes all statements of Marxist theory being objective truth. Marxist theory certainly is objective truth but Lenin’s point here is that Marxist theory as an objective truth develops as our knowledge of the world expands through practice. By following the path of Marxism we will be able to draw closer and closer to absolute truth. It is for this reason that Lenin emphasizes the word path which WV conveniently downplays. Marxist theory provides us with scientific truths of the world and by following its path we will come to further comprehend reality. But WV’s distortion attempts to ossify Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought by implying that it is already complete absolute truth.
WV’s distortions, their consistency of distortions, reveal their idealist and metaphysical outlook and their attempt to attack the living essence of MLMTT rendering it unable to be the communist movement’s guide to revolution. By trying to make MLMTT ossified WV denies that it is our path to come ever closer to complete truth.
By denying the importance of experience, including the tremendously valuable historical and contemporary experience of revolutionaries and the masses, WV strays away from a materialist world outlook into the realm of idealism. All this indicates WV’s attempt to turn Lenin into his opposite, reject MLMTT and replace it with WV’s own authority.
 WV tends to make this error as well, which is seen in the statement, “Yes, it is true that the particular feature of our movement resulting from our rupture with the old Communist Party, is the loss of valuable experience and traditions . . . Experience is certainly necessary, but it is something that will take decades of struggle to reacquire.” (WV #2, p. 19)
WV is wrong to assert that because the “young communist movement” has not directly experienced all that the old CP did and because our movement has made a rupture with the CP, we are cut off from the “valuable experience and traditions of the CP.” Rather, we are in a very good position to make use of the experience of the CP, to summarize its strengths and weaknesses, etc. The experience of the CP provides excellent lessons that we must gather.
Again, WV’s tendency here is to misunderstand what is experience, both direct and indirect, which leads them to promote idealism sometimes and, at other times, such as in this statement, to promote empiricism– that experience is something that must be obtained directly.
 Comrade Mao also speaks of “idealist empiricism” which “confines experience to so-called introspection,” such as religious introspection, religious “experience,” but it is clear that WV is not speaking of this type of empiricism in their article.
 Agnosticism: an outlook which denies that truth or falsehood is possible to discover. The world is unknowable.
 Examine the following passage from WV’s article in which they try to outline what Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is all about. Note their superficial and misleading description and their refusal to make a clear definition of experience: “Lenin wrote the book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, especially to refute those people seemingly materialist in words, but idealist and metaphysical in deeds. At the turn of the century when modern science flourished, mysticism and outright idealism lost its popularity and attraction. Materialism in the form of scientific experimental “experiences” and all forms of raw data substituted an idealist conception of the world, so much so that suddenly “experience” and raw data became reality itself. Due to the bankruptcy of the idealist system, materialism became the fad of the day. It is no wonder then that all professors and crooks started to talk about “experience” and “practice.” Lenin wrote this book especially to refute those empirio-critics such as Ernest Mach, foremost physicist of the day, and Bogdanov, who used the weapon of “experience” and mechanical materialist tricks of all sorts to refute and slander dialectical materialism and Marxism. (WV #2, p. 29)