Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Clay Newlin

Idealism and “Rectification”

First Published: The Organizer April 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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A small error in politics can – if it is not corrected – lead to a fundamental deviation from revolutionary doctrine. If one clings to an incorrect formulation, refuses all hands extended in rescue and insists on following out the logic of one’s errors, sooner or later you will be faced with a major contradiction. Your original idea will be shown to clash with basic Marxist principles. And if at this point you stubbornly refuse to turn back, to retrace your steps, then you will have no choice but to revise scientific socialism.

In just this manner, the “rectification” circle has been driven to alter Marxism-Leninism. Beginning with Silber’s mistaken view that party-building is not in essence a question of fusion (first advanced in writing in early 1977) and moving through the elaboration of the tinsel-like “rectification” slogan, the rectificationists have recently come up against the contradiction between their views on party-building and dialectical materialism. And with characteristic “assertiveness” they have decided to “amend” Marxist philosophy.

Their revision of dialectical materialism is advanced in a study guide put out by the Marxist-Leninist Education Project, a project under the tutelage of leading exponents of “rectification.” This guide introduces what it attempts to pass off as a “clarification” of Mao Zedong’s On Practice.

According to the rectificationists, Mao “unfortunately . . . does not clearly distinguish (between) two different processes” – the process of knowledge and the process of cognition. In their view the process of knowledge consists in “going from shallow to deeper knowledge” whereas the process of cognition embodies “passing from ignorance to knowledge.”

As a result of merging these “two distinct (emphasis added – CN) processes, they assert, Mao misses the distinction between “two qualitatively different stages of knowledge” and “two qualitatively different stages of cognition.” This leads Mao to (incorrectly) assert the existence of “perceptual knowledge” as the lower stage of knowledge. From the point of view of the rectificationists, “perception” is not at all a stage of knowledge but merely the passive reception of sense stimuli from the external world. And while both animals and human beings perceive, only the latter is capable of thought.

It is true that Mao does incorrectly state that “at (the perceptual) stage (of knowledge), man cannot yet form concepts“ (Selected Wks., Vol. 1, p. 297). There is no such thing as knowledge without concepts. Concepts are the basic building blocks with which knowledge is constructed. Knowledge without concepts is as absurd as language without words.

Perceptual Knowledge

But the rectificationists are entirely wrong to deny on this basis the existence of a perceptual stage of knowledge. Perceptual knowledge, as opposed to theoretical knowledge, is that knowledge which corresponds directly to phenomena perceived by means of our senses. Concepts in such categories as (1) man, woman, chair, table, etc., (2) red, blue, hot, cold, big, little, etc., and (3) walking, running, eating – are all concepts belonging to the perceptual stage. These concepts certainly contain knowledge of important objects (or aspects and facets of objects)–albeit knowledge of a limited character. And it is these very concepts which provide the primary material for the formation of all other concepts.

The difference between perceptual and theoretical knowledge is not, as the rectificationists imply, that the latter utilizes concepts whereas the former does not. Rather, it is a question of the qualitatively different kinds of concepts which are the basic language of each stage.

Where perceptual knowledge deals with the outward appearance of phenomena, theoretical knowledge deals with their essence. Where the perceptual takes phenomena in their given state, the theoretical takes them in the context of their development. And where the perceptual relegates itself mainly to phenomena isolated from other phenomena that interact with and impinge upon it, the theoretical concentrates mainly on phenomena in the context of their relationships to other phenomena.

For example, suppose we want to study a particular person. Knowledge at the perceptual stage would consist of physical characteristics – say tall, thin, brown hair, etc. – and activity – say, walking quickly. But if we know that the person is also a capitalist then we are dealing with theoretical knowledge. No outward appearance can decisively determine that the person is capitalist. Such a determination can only be made on the basis of the essence of the social role the person plays and his/her social relationships to others.

The rectificationists are also wrong to imply that the character of animal perception is the same as that of a human being. Contrary to their prejudice, perception is not simply the passive reception in the mind of data given by the senses. Like all forms of consciousness, it is conditioned by active engagement with the material world and is both socially and historically determined. As Cornforth wrote: “The more varied and complex is the active relationship of the organism (animal or human – CN) to its surroundings, the more varied and complex will be the content of perception of those surroundings” (Maurice Cornforth, The Theory of Knowledge, [New York: International Publishers, 1971, p. 36]).

The difference between human and animal perception, then, stems from their different levels of active involvement in the world. Whereas animals for the most part accept, and at best rearrange, their environment, human beings actively mold and change their surroundings – and this on the basis of socially coordinated and historically developed action. For this reason human perception is qualitatively both richer and more varied than that of animals.

Both the rectificationists’ denial of the existence of perceptual knowledge and their merging of human and animal perception reveal what Lenin so aptly called the “ass’ ears of idealism” (Wks., Vol. 38, p. 228). The effect of both of these “clarifications” is to downplay the role of perception in the formation of human thought.

For a Marxist-Leninist and materialist, perception plays an extremely important role in the theory of knowledge – i.e., the “transition from non-knowledge to knowledge” (Lenin, Wks., Vol. 21, p. 54). It is the sole connection between human thought and the material world existing independently of it.

Perception forms both the basis of those concepts (perceptual) which distinguish objects from one another and which classify certain properties of objects but do not go beyond the appearance of phenomena. And it also provides the primary material for the formation of the higher (theoretical) class of concepts – those dealing with essence, development and interconnection.

Opening the Door to Idealism

To belittle the role of perception in either the lower (perceptual) or higher (theoretical) stage of knowledge is to open up the door to idealism. This is especially true if one grants, as the rectificationists do, the primacy of the material world in relation to thought.

For an idealist thought is primary and the material world secondary and derivative. But defending this view poses real contradictions, especially in dealing with the role of perception in human knowledge. Because on the one hand perception obviously plays an important role in providing that knowledge. While on the other hand, it appears to derive from material objects existing independently of it.

Idealist attempts to get out from under this contradiction not by denying the existence of perception outright, but instead by negating its direct source in an independent material world. They are only willing to acknowledge perception as the source of truth to the extent that they can sever it from the material phenomena of which it is a reflection. Thus, they tend to regard perception not as “the connection between consciousness and the external world, but as a fence, a wall, separating consciousness from the external world. . . .” (Lenin, Wks., Vol. 14, p. 51).

Now our rectificationists have read (but unfortunately not understood) too much Marxism to openly challenge perception as “the connection between consciousness and the external world.” But they are nevertheless set upon erecting a wall between the two. This they accomplish by downplaying the importance of perception in the foundation of human knowledge.

The effect of erecting a wall between knowledge and the material world from which it derives is a dangerous one. The higher the barrier the more thought (egotistically reveling in its “independence”) can begin to assume that it and not matter is primary, and that it alone is the source of all truth. The breach created by the rectificationists is admittedly only a narrow one. Their belittling of perception separates thought from external reality only slightly and thus allows only a toehold for idealist thinking. In the context of a generally sound ideological orientation, the foot of idealism could easily be dislodged and the door of materialism slammed shut.

Unfortunately, however, the “rectification” line can only encourage the door to be flung wide. Lenin wrote: “If we include the criterion of practice in the foundation of the theory of knowledge, we inevitably arrive at materialism, says the Marxist” (ibid., p. 140). But the rectificationists have effectively liquidated the criterion of practice – at least in the party-building period.

True, their liquidation is a veiled one. They do not straightforwardly challenge practice as the test for truth. Rather they argue that the kind of practice that communists can develop prior to the formation of a party is totally inadequate as a source for line verification. Prior to party formation, they maintain, it is the ability of a line “to clarify key questions for Marxist-Leninists” that proves it to be true (see Developing the Subjective Factor, p. 28).

A simple practical example should reveal the fallacy of such a test. Suppose you desire to learn how to cook chicken soup. Remember that you cannot arrive at the correct recipe by choosing the most sensible one available and testing it by actually attempting to make the soup. Instead you must adopt as the correct recipe that which “most clarifies the key questions” about making chicken soup.

(In order to avoid accusations of “unprincipled polemics” by supporters of “rectification,” let me state that it is not my intention to assert that there are clear parallels between the “rectification” line and chicken soup.)

Granted, developing a program and strategy for the U.S. revolution is a good bit more difficult than learning to cook chicken soup. The questions to be resolved are a great deal more complex and clearly important aspects of the program – such as our approach to the seizure of state power – cannot be fully tested in our immediate practice.

The Criterion of Practice

But this is no reason to liquidate “the criterion of practice in the foundation of the theory of knowledge” in the pre-party period. On the’ contrary, we can receive a good indication of our ability to grasp reality by testing some aspects of our line in practice. For if we prove to be incapable of developing line which can actually advance the influence of Marxism-Leninism in the mass movements, clearly we can forget about a line for the seizure of state power.

Having got themselves in hot water by liquidating the criterion of practice in the party-building period, the rectificationists were impelled to belittle the role of perception in the theory of knowledge. If attempting to test our line in practice inevitably “ties the consciousness of communists to the most narrow, partial and immediate phenomena” (ibid.), as they assert, then clearly perception itself must be downplayed. For is it not perception that provides the sole link between our practice on the one hand and the truth both derived from it and reflected in our consciousness on the other?

Moreover, from the standpoint of Marxist materialism the development of knowledge proceeds through the continual interfacing of theory and practice. It moves from practice through perception to consciousness and back again with each successive stage being higher than the preceding one – a never ending and ever upward spiral.

A break in one phase of the spiral inevitably leads to a break in another. And thus, once the rectificationists had erected a wall between knowledge and the testing of it in the material world, they were bound to eventually attempt to completely encircle it. This they accomplish by downplaying the role of perception in the process of moving from ignorance to truth.

An encirclement of knowledge is only the logical outgrowth of the rectificationists’ failure to grasp fusion as the essence of party-building. The fusion of communists with the advanced elements in the working class is very definitely a process that must go on in the real world. It can only develop on the basis of politics which solve the actual problems posed by the working class movement at the present state of its development. As a result, it demands on the one hand a clear grasp of the concrete conditions in the U.S. class struggle, and on the other hand, a continual refining of that grasp by testing it among the masses.

However, even as conceived by its exponents, “rectification” is fundamentally a mental process. It has neither use for perception nor a testing in practice of the grasp of truth given by perception. It can occur totally in the minds of communists without any real connection to the living reality which surrounds them. In fact, qualitatively speaking, the “general line of the communist movement” could theoretically be ”rectified” in the mind of one single Marxist-Leninist working in a hermetically sealed room!

And so beginning with their denial of fusion as the essence of party-building the rectificationists inevitably arrive at idealism. Having reduced party-building to a thought process – and one which needs neither immediate perception nor immediate practice – they soon stumbled upon the contradiction between their party-building line and dialectical materialism. Thus, they had no choice but to attempt to “clarify” the Marxist theory of knowledge.

The experience of the rectificationists sounds a warning to Marxist-Leninists: The “leftist” road of abandoning fusion terminates in idealism!