Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers Party

Study Marxist Philosophy: Penetrate the Appearance to Grasp the Essence

First Published: Workers Viewpoint, Vol. 5, No. 23, June 30, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Today the world is in great disorder. The danger of another world war is growing daily. The deepest and most extensive economic and political crisis in the history of the United States is altering every American’s life, forcing them to take sides on every issue and to become involved in politics. The ruling monopoly capitalist class has already had five members of the Communist Workers Party murdered and is desperately trying to impose fascism to contain the rising resistance of the U.S. people.

In this rapidly changing situation where decades are packed into a year, it is extremely important for communists and workers to not just look at the appearance of things, but to penetrate to grasp the essence of what’s happening and where people are really at, by applying the science of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought and implementing the Party’s line and tasks.

Public opinion is very fluid today, and the majority of Americans are still absorbing the brunt of the crisis. But they are frustrated and angry and feel more uncertain about their future and their children’s future than ever before. Any spark can set off rebellions like in Miami. It is crucial in this period for communists and revolutionary-minded people to give leadership to this new energy and direct it against the real enemy – the bourgeoisie.

Otherwise, as Lenin said, “... if you do not find a Social-Democratic (Communist) channel, they will rush into a non-Social-Democratic channel.” One example of this is the thousands of people in California who voted for KKK dog Metzger. They overwhelmingly rejected the Democratic and Republican parties but chose the Klan for lack of any clear alternative. That’s why we have to do communist propaganda to the masses every minute of our waking hours. We have to run the Party’s line to the fullest extent everywhere we go and win the majority of Americans over to seeing socialist revolution as the only solution.

If we only look at the appearance of things, we may think that life seems to be going on routinely as before for most of our neighbors and fellow workers. If you really think that way, then you are being fooled by the appearance and not grasp the essence–that today the U.S. people are disgusted with capitalism and all its lying politicians, that they can’t live in the old way any longer, and that the bourgeoisie can’t rule in the old way either. A most excellent, yet dangerous opportunity is around the corner–a spontaneous revolutionary situation is approaching.

All Things Are the Unity of The Two Opposing Aspects of Appearance and Essence

Chairman Mao said, “When we look at a thing, we must examine its essence and treat its appearance merely as an usher at the threshold, and once we cross the threshold, we must grasp the essence of the thing; this is the only reliable and scientific method of analysis.” (A Single Spark Can Start A Prairie Fire)

Objective things all have their two aspects of appearance and essence. Appearance is the different aspects of things – their external manifestations – the aspects that can be seen or touched. Essence is the whole body of a thing – its internal relations – which can’t be seen or touched and which hides behind appearance. Appearance is ever changing while essence is more stable. Like a tree, green with leaves in the spring, turning yellow, orange, and red in the fall, and all brown again in the winter. The essence of any object must show itself through a certain appearance, and any appearance expresses the essence of a thing from a certain angle.

Therefore for us to know the essence of a thing, figure out its ins and outs, we must penetrate its appearance.

Everything in society has its two aspects of appearance and essence. Big dairy capitalists pour tons of milk into the ocean because they are afraid that too much milk on the market would drive down the price. So behind the appearance of dumping milk into the ocean is concealed the essence that the purpose of capitalist production is to make money.

Today millions of workers are laid off and unemployed and many factories lay idle–this is just the appearance. The essence is that the monopoly capitalists own these factories and all other means of production and rake in high profits. Workers produce more than they can buy back (because the capitalists pay slave wages), and when the products start to pile up in warehouses, the capitalists lay off workers to cut costs so they can continue to make profits.

Thus, precisely because all things are the unity of the opposing appearance and essence, essence is concealed behind appearance. Therefore in order to know a thing, we need the scientific method of analysis of penetrating the appearance to see the essence.

A Real Image Directly Expresses The Essence But It Is Not The Essence Itself

Some people say that the essence of a thing is not necessarily expressed through its appearance. When a policeman shoots a 15-year old Afro-American boy for stealing a ham, they say it is clear and simple. The question of the essence expressing itself through appearance just didn’t exist in this case. We say that this murder is only a real image. We have to treat this fact as an usher into the threshold and go deeper into it. Behind the murder, we can see the life-and-death struggle between the working class, all oppressed and the capitalist class. The capitalist class uses its state (the police, courts, prisons, national guard) to oppress and exploit the people, and keep them down.

Just like the five members of the Communist Workers Party, Jim Waller, Sandy Smith, Cesar Cauce, Bill Sampson, and Mike Nathan, who were assassinated by the KKK/Nazis under FBI direction on November 3, 1979 in Greensboro, North Carolina. This was not just a battle between good and evil. The CWP 5 were actual leaders of the U.S. working class, and the Communist Workers Party leading the U.S. people against the bourgeoisie represents the rising trend of revolution in this country. They represent the hope for a bright socialist future. The KKK/Nazis are tools of the U.S. imperialists used to spearhead their drive to divide the working class, crush its resistance, and impose fascist rule so they can go to war to reconquer and redivide the world.

The question we must pay attention to here is not to confuse the real image of a thing and its essence. In order to grasp the essence, naturally we must first figure out the real image of a thing. But the real image is still not the essence. A real image can express the essence from certain angles, but it is not the essence itself. We must distinguish one from the other.

Our five comrades died fearlessly charging the enemy, with bare fists and sticks against machine guns. And this saved the lives of others on November 3 in Greensboro. Their heroic, selfless actions are the real images that express their revolutionary essence. The essence behind their revolutionary actions is their profound grasp of the Party’s Founding Congress line and their determination to fight for a socialist U.SA. and the final aim of communism worldwide.

As Jerry Tung, General Secretary of the Communist Workers Party, said:

Jim, Sandy, Cesar, Bill, and Mike were motivated by the Party’s Founding Congress line and the call to make sacrifices like we never knew before. And the more intensely we fight and prepare now in the next five years, the less casualties there will be in the coming decade. The sudden leap downward in the American people’s standard of living, and the most inflammable political situation ever since World War II have shown the correctness of the Party’s line. We must foresee the untold suffering and inevitable struggles, momentous struggles ahead which will make the struggles of the 60’s look like a picnic and a rehearsal. This will affect everyone’s life and inflict casualties on everyone’s family and deeply scar the hearts and minds of every American alive. It will also be a struggle for our final emancipation. It can be the last fight to end all wars, class exploitation and national oppression, a fight to eliminate all classes and all oppressive and exploitative ideology and practices which flow from class society.

We must learn from Jim, Sandy, Cesar, Bill, and Mike, not only from their courageous deeds, but more importantly from their proletarian world outlook, that defying the enemy, attacking wave upon wave is the proletarian way to prepare for the dictatorship of the proletariat – workers’ rule – and defeat the bourgeoisie. We must learn from their deep grasp of the Party’s line–the concrete application of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought to the U.S. and the world today.

Only in this way will our learning count for something, will we grasp the essence. And that’s how the CWP 5 will live forever.

Our people, the U.S. people, have shed rivers of blood as they repeatedly rose up spontaneously throughout history. But most of our class brothers and sisters died in vain, not knowing what they lived for and even what exploited and oppressed them to the very end of their lives. For the same reason, most of them are soon forgotten. Living in itself is only physical existence.

It’s the principle we live for that counts. Human beings are distinguished from animals precisely because of our consciousness. Living without principles is like living a lower form of life. Capitalism condemns most of our brothers and sisters to live as slaves, with no clarity on the purpose of their lives. Capitalism deprives them of the goal in their lives-the emancipation of the working class in order to emancipate the whole of mankind. The CWP 5 died fighting rather than live as slaves. For communists, this is the only way to live and to die. To die fighting for the working class and the noble goal of communism is the most humane and glorious way to die. Their death is merely the last physical act in their lives. It’s what they lived for that remains eternal. –Jerry Tung, Party General Secretary (WV, Nov. 12, 1979, p. 5)

The firmer we grasp the line for which they lived and remember how they fought for the Party’s line, their fighting spirit in defying all odds and fearing no sacrifice, the more they will grow in our hearts. And their strength will grow millions-fold as countless others take up their cause, replacing their bodies with millions of communist revolutionary successors.

This, to correctly know the appearance and essence of things, to get clear that the real image is the expression of essence and not essence itself, is not purely a theoretical need. It is also most significant for guiding our struggles and practice.

A False Image Is A Distorted Expression Of The Essence

Real images reflect the essence of a thing directly and realistically from a certain angle. It is one form of expression of the essence. A false image is also a form of expression of an object’s essence–except it is a distorted expression. A false image gives people an impression that is completely opposite to the essence of a thing. On first examination, it looks completely unrelated. But actually it is exactly a demand of the essence, an expression of it.

For example, a clever thief steals and then turns around and cries, “A thief has stolen some money, catch that thief!” The thief appears to be honestly asking for justice to be done. This is exactly the false image the thief wants to create so others’ suspicions won’t turn to him. This thief creates a false image which is completely contrary to his identity. Yet it is exactly the reflection of his essence, the demand of his essence.

The U.S. monopoly capitalist class uses many false images to cover up its bloodsucking essence. They tell our youth that the restoration of the draft is necessary to protect freedom in this country. The essence of this is the bourgeoisie preparing for world war and trying to impose fascism at home. They tell us that the OPEC countries are causing gasoline and heating oil prices to skyrocket. The essence of this is that Exxon made the highest profits of any corporation in the whole country this past year and that the U.S. imperialists have been ripping off oil from these countries for decades, and installing fascist puppets like the Shah of Iran to maintain their interests there.

All the politicians today hail how democratic our system is, that the American people can elect their own candidates into office. Meanwhile they’ll be spending over $300 million on police security for the Democratic National Convention in August in New York City to try to restrict the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly of the Communist Workers Party and friends. The essence of bourgeois democracy is the rule by force of the capitalist class over the working class. When we penetrate this false image to see the essence, then we understand why the proletariat led by the Party has to completely smash the capitalist state by violence and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie.

The Soviet Union, the other imperialist superpower, also uses false images to cover up its aggressive nature. It has the extra false image of socialism, so its deceptiveness is even greater. It invades other countries like Afghanistan under the guise of aiding the people’s libera5ion struggles. The Soviet ruling class has restored capitalism once again–this is the essence of the Soviet revisionist clique. It necessarily expresses itself through the appearance of the Soviet workers and peasants once again becoming exploited and oppressed.

To sum it up, any object is the unity of opposites of appearance and essence. There is no essence removed from appearance, and no appearance which does not reflect essence. Essence, through the appearance (including false image), is expressed straightforwardly or distortedly. And precisely because appearance and essence are thus related, for us to know the world, we must penetrate appearance to see the essence.

Chairman Mao said, “... what is perceived cannot at once be comprehended and that only what is comprehended can be more deeply perceived. Perception only solves the problem of phenomena, theory alone can solve the problem of essence.” (“On Practice”) Not to penetrate an object’s appearance, we cannot know its essence; and only by grasping an object’s essence can we deeply understand its appearance.

Penetrating The Appearance To See The Essence Must Go Through A Process

According to the theory of knowledge, penetrating the appearance to grasp the essence is a necessary process to know the objective world. The objective world is knowable, this must be affirmed. But to know a thing, especially a relatively complicated matter, to penetrate its various appearances to clearly see its essence always requires a process, be it long or short. It is impossible without a process. Why? Because people are often limited by scientific and technological conditions; also the objective matter itself must go through a process of coming into being, developing and exposing. So for v us to reflect it, know it, from seeing its appearance to grasping its essence inevitably needs a process.

Marx’s Capital was written after capitalism had been in existence for almost 200 years. Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was written after capitalism had completed the transition to imperialism. Just as Chairman Mao said,

In feudal society it was impossible to know the laws of capitalist society in advance because capitalism had not yet emerged, the relevant practice was lacking. Marxism could be the product only of capitalist society. Marx, in the era of laissez-faire capitalism, could not concretely know certain laws peculiar to the era of imperialism beforehand, because imperialism, the last stage of capitalism, had not yet emerged and the relevant practice was lacking; only Lenin and Stalin could undertake this task. (“On Practice”)

Human understanding of the natural world is also like this. The boundless development of the material world is very complicated and full of twists and turns. Very often many false images appear, distorting the original features of the natural world. For example, the earth revolves around the sun. But from earth, it appears that the sun is revolving around the earth. This is a false image, so it increases the difficulties for us to know objective things.

Then there are some things, which, although we are using them in practice, doesn’t mean we already know their essence and are clear on their internal relations. What is an X-ray? Why do we call it that? That’s because at the time nobody can clearly say what this kind of light is exactly–whether particle or waves. X is an unknown factor and symbolizes people’s not knowing it at the time.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s when the U.S. was the top imperialist power in the world, this was a period of stabilization for the capitalist system. The essence of capitalism, cruel exploitation of the broad masses, was hidden from the majority of Americans. Now, during this permanent crisis, a period of capitalist destabilization, its essence is more and more becoming exposed to the people. This is the third time since the birth of imperialism around 1900 when a spontaneous revolutionary situation is developing. It is only when we do all-rounded communist propaganda to the majority of Americans can they begin to penetrate to see the essence of capitalism, and know that the only solution is to destroy this evil system, and establish revolutionary socialism–workers’ rule.

What we’re saying above is that objective things have a process of self-exposure. So for us to penetrate the appearance to grasp the essence obviously also needs a process. However certain things already exist and are already exposed. So why is it that we often still don’t recognize them and commit the error of only looking at the appearance and not the essence? To get clarity on this question epistemologically (of how to gain knowledge) is of great significance for raising our ideological level and strengthening our ability to distinguish true from false.

Chairman Mao said many years ago, in criticizing the epistemological source of pessimistic views inside the Party,

When our comrades working in the Red Army are defeated in battle or encircled or pursued by strong enemy forces, they often unwittingly generalize and exaggerate their momentary, specific, and limited situation, as though the situation in China and the world as a whole gave no cause for optimism and the prospects of victory for the revolution were remote. The reason they seize on the appearance and brush aside the essence in their observation of things is that they have not made a scientific analysis of the essence of the overall situation. (“A Single Spark Can Start A Prairie Fire”)

In this case, although Chairman Mao was aiming directly at the rightist views inside the Party, at the same time he also deeply pointed out the epistemological source (method of obtaining knowledge) for only looking at appearance and not seeing the essence. There are two points we must pay special attention to. One is “to generalize and exaggerate the momentary, specific, and limited situation,” and the other is “to not make a scientific analysis of the essence of the overall situation.”

Why is it so easy to just look at appearance and not see the essence? The epistemological root lies here. To avoid this error, we must, in the process of knowing the objective world, first get clarity on the whole picture in the midst of struggle and practice. We must know all aspects of the appearance and not grab at certain onesided situations and generalize and expand from there. Even when we are clear on the whole situation, when we grasp it, that is merely the usher into the threshold. To truly grasp the essence of things, we must also “scientifically analyze it.” Only by doing our work in this serious manner can we continue to raise our ability to penetrate the appearance to see the essence.

Recently, candidate Kennedy spoke in front of 2,500 students at a college campus in San Diego. After he spoke, the students applauded. Supporters of the CWP were there, but did not disrupt and denounce Kennedy because they thought he had the support of the 2,500 students. Comrades did not see that due to bourgeois respectability, being taught to be “nice” and “polite,” people are often in awe of “big shots,” like politicians, especially when they make grand entrances with flashbulbs popping and followed by a crowd of ass-kissing career-seekers dressed in three piece suits and party dresses. We have to distinguish between these conditioned responses, and the real sentiments of the American people. Deep down, because of all the years of being tricked and swindled by politicians, the U.S. people hate these liars. So when the CWP and its friends serve notice to them, tell the truth and expose their dying system, we are speaking for the vast majority of Americans. “Distinguishing between appearance and essence is the philosophical basis for us to do vanguard actions.”–Jerry Tung, Party General Secretary.

Today, bourgeois respectability and anti-communism are only the conditioned responses of Americans. They are actually superficial, temporary, and unreal. We must not be fooled by this bourgeois realism, which focuses on the seeming appearances, spontaneous feelings and emotions, and never gets beyond this to the deeper essence behind events and people’s responses. Bourgeois realism is the realism of the bourgeoisie, not realism of the broad masses. Given that the class interest of the bourgeoisie is to lie and deceive the broad masses in order to maintain their rule, this kind of realism couldn’t be real. Communists would fall for it too if we do not analyse our narrow experience with the science of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

To Penetrate The Appearance To See The Essence, We Must Have The Political Telescope and Microscope of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought

Chairman Mao said, “The naked eye is not enough, we must have the aid of the telescope and the microscope. The Marxist method is our telescope and microscope in political and military matters.” (“Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War”)

To penetrate the appearance to see the essence, naturally we must first get to know the objective things through struggle and practice, and have a firm hold of sufficient material for us to carry out scientific analysis. But especially important is still to do our homework in how to penetrate. To truly penetrate appearance to see the essence, to carry “discarding the dross and selecting the essence, eliminating the false and retaining the true, proceeding from the one to the other and from the outside to the inside” (“On Practice”) to a large amount of phenomena, the key lies in grasping Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought.

Today there are some people who think that imperialism is still strong, and that revolution is far away because the American people won’t be ready for a long time. They think there has to be a big crash like in the 30’s Depression and that the masses have to be starving before they’ll be willing to fight for revolution.

Thus, they don’t see the excellent opportunity today and the urgent need for us to do communist propaganda all the time and everywhere we go. This is empiricism because these people are not using the science of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought to penetrate the appearance to see the essence. (We suggest that these people read and study Marxist political economy, particularly The 80’s Premier Issue Theoretical Journal of the Communist Workers Party: “The 80’s Economic Crisis Will Make the 30’s Great Depression Look Like A Picnic”)

Study is absolutely necessary, but by itself also insufficient to penetrate the appearance to see the essence. Only by revolutionary practice through carrying out the Party’s tasks, theoretical, political, and organizational, and implementing the Party’s organizational principle of democratic centralism can we grasp more tightly the Party’s line.

If you want to know a certain thing or a certain class of things directly, you must personally participate in the practical struggle to change reality, to change that thing or class of things, for only thus can you come into contact with them as phenomena; only through personal participation in the practical struggle to change reality can you uncover the essence of that thing or class of things and comprehend them. (“On Practice”)

The principle of penetrating the appearance to see the essence tells us that all objective things are knowable. Furthermore this knowledge continues to be deepened, without limit. The knowledge of man toward things, phenomena, proceeds from appearance to essence, from a not-too-deep essence to a deep essence. This goes through an unlimited process.


“On Practice,” Mao Zedong, Selected Readings, p .65.
“A Single Spark Can Start A Prairie Fire,” Selected Works, Vol. l, p.ll7.