Philosophy and Class Struggle. “Dialego” 1975

Chapter 3.
Marxism and the Theory of Knowledge

Previous articles have dealt with the importance of dialectical materialism in helping revolutionaries both to formulate and to put into practice scientific strategies for change. It is now necessary to examine more closely the area of Marxist philosophy which tackles the question of knowledge and ideas, how they arise, and how we assess the thorny issues of truth and falsehood, appearance and reality, freedom and necessity

It is true that these sort of questions are often very much “taken for granted” and not considered worthy of serious study, particularly by those who feel that they have enough on their own hands with the day to day pressures of political struggle. Yet it is important to remember that the objective of this political struggle is revolution — a far-reaching change in our present way of life and world outlook — and if a social revolution represents, in the words of Marx and Engels, “the most radical rupture with traditional property relations”, it is hardly surprising that

its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas. [1]

We can only eliminate apartheid and white supremacy, establish a national democracy and prepare the road for the advance to socialism if reactionary ideas in all their forms and at all levels are consciously combated. This ideological struggle — a crucial part of our political work — requires more than simply understanding what is wrong with this idea or that idea. It also requires an overall understanding of what ideas themselves are, how they develop in society, what makes them true or false and how we can effectively make use of them in our political struggle.

The events of June 16th in Soweto have unleashed a mighty wave of protest, demonstrations, strikes and street battles — an intensification of the struggle which makes it all the more important that we have a clear-headed conception of where we are going and what we want to achieve. In the ringing words of the ANC newsletter circulated shortly after the events,

It is time to hit back at the enemy with everything we have got. It is time to be more skilful and strike at him in small groups so as to vanish quickly. It is time to hit where he is weak and least prepared. Let us avoid concentrating in big numbers and deprive him of visible targets. [2]

Vital practical advice in the conduct of revolutionary struggle, but advice which can only be properly heeded and carried through to the full when we are able to speedily identify our mistakes and work effectively to rectify them. In this, a correct theoretical approach is crucially important, and although general philosophical study may seem remote from the burning issues of the day, in fact an overall grasp of the nature of knowledge and theory can only assist in putting our revolutionary ideas on to a firm and consistent basis.

Indeed, just how politically relevant questions of what we call “the theory of knowledge” really are, will become evident as I turn to examine:

1. The Development of Ideas in Social Production

How do ideas arise and what are they? For thousands of years people have observed that men, unlike animals, have a unique ability to think and religious people have explained this capacity by saying that God created man “in his own image” and thereby endowed him with certain qualities which animals do not have.

Marxism, however, as the scientific theory of the working class, focusses its attention upon material production in order to explain the development of human thought, for while it is always possible, as Marx and Engels put it, to distinguish men from animals “by consciousness, religion or anything else you like”,

they themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisasion. [3]

The activity of production requires the evolution of the species to the point in which man’s immediate ancestors began to adopt an upright posture, to develop manual dexterity, vocal cords capable of articulating speech sounds, and a complex nervous system in the brain, so that the formation of abstract ideas becomes possible. Indeed, the simplest act of production — the manufacture of stone flints, for example — is only possible if there is the coordination of all mental and manual faculties. To make something, we not only have to use our hands, we must also be able to identify the objects in our environment, and describe them with words and ideas to those with whom we cooperate, for production is and always has been, a social activity. This means — the question which concerns me here — we must develop the capacity to think. Just as natural evolution enables us to understand how it became physically possible for men to actually produce their means of subsistence, so the act of material production makes it possible to explain why men need to think as a necessary part of their social activity as producers. In a famous passage on “The Labour Process” in Capital, Marx comments:

a spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. [4]

The use of ideas is an essential part of the activity of production, for as Marx adds,

at the end of every labour process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.

It is true that we are able through our imagination to conjure up ideas which bear no obvious connection to the external world, and it is for this reason that idealists argue that ideas exist as “other worldly spirits” originating in a world all of their own. In fact, there is no mystery about the origin of our ideas, even in their most fantastic and unreal form: all ideas arise as a necessary part of our social activity, our relationships to one another and to the world around us. Because our outlook on life has its roots in the way we produce, Marxists reject all attempts to explain the differences between people simply in terms of their religion, nationality or “race”. The thoughts people have, the culture they develop, the society they build, arise in the last analysis from their activity in social production.

But if the roots of our ideas are to be found in the world of material production, what relationship do the ideas in our head bear to the objective world of reality? This is a vital question to answer if we are later to tackle the whole question of “truth” and “falsehood”. To explore it more fully, it is necessary first to go into the problem of:

2. Ideas as a Reflection of Objective Reality

In an immediate sense thinking is of course the activity of the brain as “matter which thinks” but the brain itself only functions as part of human activity in general, relying upon the stimuli it receives (via the nervous system) from our practical contact with the world at large. In fact, without this practical contact with things around us, we would have no ideas at all: the brain would remain a mere fossil, embryonic and undeveloped.

It is because the source of our ideas lies in our social activity — the relationships we have with other people and surrounding nature — that the character of our ideas takes the form of reflections in our minds of the objective world outside of us. It is obvious that a peasant farmer whose life is spent herding cattle in some remote district of the Transkei will have a very different outlook on life from someone who lives in one of the large townships on the outskirts of Cape Town or Johannesburg. The small shopkeeper who works by himself with the help of his family will see things quite differently from a man who has to work in a large factory or down a mine. If the practical experiences of people differ, so too must their ideas because these ideas are basically a mental reflection of the world around them.

It is true that this concept of ideas as a reflection of reality is some times taken to imply a rather static concept of the mind as a “mirror” which passively “reflects” the objects around it, and it is argued by some philosophers that if this is the case, then in fact we would never be able to acquire any real knowledge about the world our ideas reflect, since all we would have would be a series of images, often contradictory in character in the way, for example, that a penny is sometimes circular, sometimes eliptical, sometimes large, sometimes small: it all depends on how you look at it! Now this argument, that if thought reflects reality then the real world simply “lies in the eye of the beholder”, rests upon a completely mistaken attitude to the way our mind actually works and produces its reflections of external reality. The fact is that ideas only arise as part and parcel of our living practice. They are not drawn “mirror like” from the world in a passive way, but are derived solely from the practical activity through which we discover things, learn to identify them and understand how they work, “opening them up”, so to speak, altering their character, even making them ourselves so that we are able to understand what life is really like. The “sceptical” position which questions whether the real world actually exists outside of our reflected images, wrongly assumes that thinking simply involves “contemplating the world from afar”. Of course this is how the activity of thinking may appear to bourgeois philosophers who live off the wealth which others produce, but it is not how thinking actually takes place.

It is important here that mental reflection — the basic property of human ideas — should not be confused with mere “sensations” or “impressions” as they are sometimes called. A sensation simply refers to a stimulus that our senses receive from the outside — a reaction by our body to extremes of hot and cold, for example — whereas a mental reflection involves some degree, however minimal, of conscious understanding so that we can identify objects through language and express our thoughts through speech. The first is an instinctive activity which we share with animals; the second is a specifically human act which has to be learnt through social practice. Naturally as people develop they become able to perform many quite complicated acts — like riding a bicycle, driving a car, writing their name — almost unconsciously, but all these activities have had to be learnt through practice: they develop as the result of an infinite number of daily experiences which our mind continually reflects.

Indeed, this concept of an idea as a reflection of the real world is vital if we are to tackle the question of

3. Distinguishing Truth from Falsehood

If ideas arise in our minds as reflections of the external world, then the extent to which these ideas are true or false depends upon the accuracy with which they reflect or “reproduce” in our minds, the relationships, processes and objects of outside reality. But how can we tell? How can we say, for example; that the ideas of a factory worker may be more valid or truthful than those of a shopkeeper or farmer when all ideas derive from the particular experience of those who hold them?

The answer lies, once again, in the question of practice — in the active way in which we develop our ideas. It is because our knowledge is being continually put to practical use through production, in waging the class struggle, in performing scientific experiments, that we find, as the well known saying has it, that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”.

When our plans fail, when our experiments back-fire, when our way of life crumbles, when our strategies are wrecked, we soon discover which ideas match up to the outside world and which do not! We learn the truth by continually testing our ideas in practice — the practice of operating a machine correctly, of producing a leaflet which expresses the mood of the people at a particular time, of successfully hitting the enemy “where he is weak and least prepared” etc. — and because our ideas enable us to change the world through an infinite variety of practical activities, we learn in this way how things really function, what is true and what is false.

But if we judge the validity of our ideas by the extent to which they accurately reflect external reality, how do we account for the existence of ideas which are false? If, in fact, all ideas derive from practical experience and there is no other source (despite what idealists think), why should these ideas not always reflect the real world correctly?

The problem is that “truth” and “falsehood” are not the simple black and white categories that they sometimes seem: the Calvinist “dominie” may imagine that everything his bible tells him is absolutely true and that everything someone else’s bible says is absolutely false, but the fact is that once we remember that all ideas are drawn from our practical experience of the world, it is clear that even when ideas are basically false, they will still contain elements of truth in them, and even when ideas are basically true, they will still have elements which are false. Why? Be -cause all ideas, without exception, represent some kind of reflection of what is going on.

Take the concept of apartheid as an extreme example. This concept is regarded by the vast majority of people in South Africa and by world public opinion at large as one of the most deceitful and warped political and social policies ever to be implemented in modem times. And yet, although it is obvious to millions of progressive people that “separate development” is merely a cynical justification for denying democratic rights to the black people who live and work in an integrated economy, to a minority of die-hard reactionaries and white supremacists, apartheid appears as a “moral”, even divinely ordained, solution to the country’s “problems”. Why should this be? Looked at from the standpoint of the Marxist theory of knowledge, the answer can only be that the doctrine of apartheid is not merely a distorted theory of society, it is a distorted theory which reflects a warped and distorted way of life. The theory is inhuman because the practice is inhuman. For the financier who wants to draw vast profits without any “problems”, for the capitalist who wants a supply of cheap labour which can be turned on and off like a tap, for the labour aristocrat who wants to keep his job and privileges at his fellow workers’ expense, in short, for all who look upon the black people of South Africa as mere objects to be exploited, the doctrine of apartheid has a perverted logic which reflects one of the cruelest forms of capitalist exploitation anywhere in the world.

This is why eliminating apartheid is not, as liberals seem to think, merely a question of a “change of heart” or a “change of mind”; on the contrary, it is because distorted ideas must reflect a distorted reality that a revolution is required which will radically restructure the social relations of production in South Africa, nationalising the major industries and restoring the land to the people, so that the exploitation of one class by another — the material roots of racism and apartheid -can be checked and then eliminated. To change false ideas we need to alter the conditions which give rise to them. This is the Marxist approach to the question of truth.

It follows that just as false and reactionary ideas contain superficial elements of the “truth” in them, for they exist as the reflections of a real world, so likewise do ideas which are basically correct, contain elements of distortion and one-sidedness. The truth, in other words, is both absolute and relative. It is real and yet never complete. This is why serious revolutionaries constantly find it necessary to observe and study, to investigate both theory and reality. Political consciousness needs to be advanced by conscious effort as a regular part of political struggle.

Precisely because we acquire our knowledge through our practical experience in the objective world, this knowledge is always developed as part of an on-going process of discovery, in which, as Lenin puts it, “incomplete, inexact knowledge becomes more complete and more exact"[5]. We continually deepen our understanding of the real world as science advances, technology improves and our understanding of politics and society grows, and yet, although our expanding body of knowledge increasingly approximates to objective reality, nonetheless, as Engels stresses,

Each mental image of the world system is and remains in actual fact limited, objectively by the historical conditions and subjectively by the physical and mental constitution of its originator. [6]

Such images or reflections are absolutely true to the extent that they correctly reproduce elements of an objectively real world, but they are also of necessity relatively true in that the knowledge of any one individual, like the collective knowledge of all mankind, can never be more than a part of an infinite world which is always changing and developing. This unity of the absolute and the relative holds also of course for our Marxist world-outlook, for while the basic principles of dialectical materialism are true and correctly reflect reality, their truth is dynamic rather than static, for these principles are continually being applied to new circumstances and in new conditions. New aspects of Marxist theory — like the concept of a non-capitalist path to development for the countries of the third world — develop to take account of new situations and possibilities in a changing world. This is why all our ideas have a relative as well as an absolute side to them. Political tactics which may be correct at one time — like the ANC’s policies of peaceful resistance pursued until the end of the 1950s — have to be altered as conditions change: the resort by the Nationalist government to acts of bloody repression like Sharpeville and the introduction of police terror and torture on a massive scale, all made it necessary to develop a strategy of armed struggle. What is true at a particular time is not necessarily true forever.

In order to understand more of what is involved in this process of deepening our knowledge of the world through the progress of science, technology and the class struggle, I turn now to briefly examine the question of:

4. Scientific Knowledge and the Movement from Appearances to Reality

Marxists argue that all our knowledge arises through the activity of our senses and the impressions which our mind receives from the outside world are generally called sensations or, to take another word philosophers commonly use, perceptions. But although these perceptions form the basis of our ideas — and we can only develop thought through the action of our senses — on their own, perception or sensations, as already noted, are not ideas in the strict sense of the term. Ideas only emerge when perceptions develop into what we may call judgements (where we “conceive” as well as “perceive”) so that objects around us can be named and described. Indeed, even the simplest words in our vocabulary involve an element of “abstraction” or “conception” for the word “chair”, for example, requires us to be able to identify all chairs, irrespective of shape, size and location. Learning to speak, therefore, involves more than “perceiving": it involves learning to think.

The movement of perception to ideas, of sensations to “judgment” is often called the movement of our thinking beyond “appearances” to “reality” — a penetration beyond our first “impressions” of what things are like to a correct understanding of their reality: how they arise, develop, and relate to other things around them. Indeed, this movement of our thought beyond “appearances” is the precondition for knowledge as a science, for the development of a serious and systematic body of ideas.

Marx makes the point that our everyday experience “catches only the delusive appearance of things"[7] whereas scientific investigation looks towards the inner connections and relation ships which explains why things develop as they do. Appearances may be highly misleading as we know from the fact that whereas the earth appears to be flat with the sun moving around it, in reality, exactly the opposite is true. We can only go beyond superficial and often deceptive impressions by, as it were, “digging beneath the surface” so as to probe the underlying reality — a method which Marx employs with great skill in Capital by showing that the exchange of one commodity for another simply appears to be an exchange of “things”, whereas in reality, people have to enter into social relationships to produce the commodities. “Behind” the rosy appearance of the Cape apple or the glittering golden Kruger-Rand lies the “hidden” misery of sweated labour and low wages, just as the labour contract in which worker and capitalist “mutually agree” to exchange wages for work masks the brutal realities of exploitation. The acquisition of knowledge is a process, therefore, as Lenin describes it, of going “endlessly deeper” from appearance to essence, from essence of the first order, as it were, to essence of the second order, and so on without end"[8] and indeed it is precisely this restless search for the truth beneath appearances which makes it possible for us to learn from mistakes and adjust our plans so that they reflect more accurately the realities of the situation.

Thus we find that the South African Communist Party was able during the Rand strike of 1922 to grasp the importance of the class contradiction between the miners and the government but failed to penetrate sufficiently into the particular nature of this contradiction. Hence while the party was critical of the racist attitudes of the white miners, it still neglected the interests of the African miners and the importance of taking a vigorous stand in support of equal pay and conditions. As Lerumo comments,

these omissions cannot be ascribed only to the objective conditions, but also to the theoretical analysis made at the time. [9]

Indeed, it was only with the experience of the 1922 strike, a better understanding of the reactionary character of the S.A. Labour Party (which had been misleadingly compared to the Labour Party in Britain) and the growing African influence in the party, that a more precise understanding of the character of class contradictions in South Africa came to prevail. The “appearances” of white labour militancy had proved highly deceptive.

The importance of always searching for the reality beneath appearances brings me to the final point I want to consider in outlining the Marxist theory of knowledge and that is,

5. Freedom as the Understanding of Necessity

When we look superficially at what I have called the “appearances” of things, the world appears to be governed only by chance and accident. As we probe beneath the surface, we begin to understand how things are related to one another so that what initially seemed to be accidental now reveals itself as the work of necessity, the inevitable result of the forces at work. Thus a worker may think in the first instance that he is exploited simply because he has a “bad” employer, but further experience and study teaches him that all employers exploit their workers because exploitation is a necessary rather than accidental feature of the capitalist system. Reality can only be scientifically understood when we discover the “laws” or necessary forces which make things what they are.

This does not mean, however, that because everything is basically determined by laws of development there is no room in the world for accidents. On the contrary, just as reality always presents itself to us as a particular and often deceptive appearance; so the basic laws of motion at work in any particular process or situation can only realise themselves through a particular set of circumstances, the precise formation of which, is always accidental in character.

Thus we can say that while the great eruption of protest and demonstration that began in Soweto on June 16th 1976 was no accident in the sense that it was the necessary product of unbearable oppression, the particular character of this protest — against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in the schools — was “accidental” in that many other grievances could have served equally to spark off the protest. In fact, of course, the widespread actions of solidarity with the fighters of Soweto throughout the country show that it was not simply the language question which was under attack. It was and still is the whole system of apartheid itself.

While therefore all relevant factors need to be taken into account when we examine things, the accidental aspects of an event can only give us the surface causes or superficial reasons. A scientific analysis requires that we try to discover the laws of development at work which enable us to explain why an event or process is necessary and inevitable.

But if it is true that everything which takes place must be understood in terms of the “inner, hidden laws” which work themselves out through the “surface accidents”, how can we have any place for “freedom” or “free will” in our theory? Indeed, many critics argue that it is absurd to see, for example, a revolution as historically inevitable, a necessary product of social forces, and yet organise and mobilise the people to bring this revolution about.

In fact this contradiction between “free will” and “necessity” only exists for those who cannot understand that real freedom requires us to exercise a real control over the world around us and the only way in which we can extend our mastery over the forces of nature and society is through a clear-headed understanding of the laws of development, the forces of necessity which are actually operating. How else can we bring about change, so that what we want to happen does in fact take place? To change anything, whether it is a faulty machine or an unjust social order, we must understand why it is what it is: the forces which determine it. This is why the Communist Party and the ANC base their strategies for revolutionary change upon a close and careful analysis of the historical laws which govern the development of apartheid and white supremacy. Understanding the way the system necessarily works is a precondition for getting rid of it altogether! Indeed, the more ambitious our plans are to liberate society, the more soberly and scientifically we need to examine laws of necessity which affect the situation. One is essential if we are to achieve the other.

This is why a thorough grasp of the question of “freedom and necessity”, “appearances and reality”, the nature of truth as a reflection of the objective world is so important at this particular time. For who cm deny that the dramatic developments since June last year are compressing into months and weeks — even days — lessons which in more “normal” times take years to learn? In the great challenge facing the liberation movement in the days which lie ahead, the Marxist theory of knowledge has an important role to play, for never before has it become so important to scientifically analyse events and be crystal clear about where we are going.


1. “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Collected Works 6, (Moscow/London, 1976), p. 504.

2. The African Communist, 4th Quarter, 1976, p.12.

3. “The German Ideology”, Collected Works 5, (Moscow/London, 1976), p. 31.

4. Capital 1, (Lawrence and Wishart, 1970), p.178.

5. “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”, Collected Works 14, (Moscow, 1972), p.103.

6. Anti-Duhring, (Moscow, 1962), p.57.

7. “Wages, Price and Profit”, Selected Works in one vol, (Moscow/London, 1968), p. 209.

8. “Philosophical Notebooks”, Collected Works 38, (Moscow/London, 1961), p.253.

9. Fifty Fighting Years, (Inkululeko Publications, 1971), p.52.