Revolution #105, October 21, 2007



Editors' Note: The following are excerpts from a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, in 2007. This has been edited for publication and footnotes have been added (among other things, in preparing this for publication, the author has considerably expanded the section on Karl Popper). Part 2 is also posted at

I want to begin by returning to a point that we continue to speak to—and for very good reasons—both because of its great importance and because it is still so little grasped and acted upon. This is the whole question of getting beyond the present narrow horizons imposed on society and on people and their thinking. Now, I am aware that in his latest CD, Modern Times, Bob Dylan has a song “Beyond the Horizon.” But what we are talking about is something entirely and radically different—it is the narrow horizon of bourgeois right, and the need for humanity to leap beyond that horizon.

“I Want to Get More”—or We Want Another World?

I was moved, or provoked, to speak to this again in reading some reports recounting the responses of different people, youth in particular, to watching the DVD of my 2003 talk Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, and What It’s All About. I want to begin with a comment of one youth (I believe it was a high school student in Oakland) who watched this DVD, and said he really liked it—”I agree with everything in there, and I really liked the vision of the future society”—but, he went on, “if I invent something, I want to get more for it.”

Here we come right up against the question of making (or not making) a leap beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right. What do we mean by “bourgeois right”? This refers to the concept of “right” which essentially corresponds to commodity relations—relations in which people confront each other as owners (or non-owners) of things, which are to be exchanged—and more specifically relations in which the appearance of equality covers over profound inequalities, relations which are grounded in the exploitation and oppression of the many by a relative handful. In its most fundamental terms, this is grounded in a relationship where a small number of people dominate ownership not only of the wealth of society, but more fundamentally the means to produce wealth (land, raw materials, technology of various kinds, and so on), and a large number of people own little or none of these things, and so must sell their ability to work to those who do own them (and, if they are not able to sell their ability to work—if they cannot get a job—they will either starve or be forced into other means, often illegal means, in order to be able to live). Once again, this exchange—of the ability to work (or “labor power”) for a wage (or salary)—appears to be an equal exchange; but in reality it involves and embodies a profoundly unequal relation, in which those without capital are forced into a subordinate position: forced to work for—and, in the process of working, creating more wealth for—those who do own and control capital.

This fundamental relation of inequality, of domination and exploitation, is extended into and embodied in all the relations of capitalist society. Take, for example, the concept of “equality before the law.” This is supposed to mean that the same laws are applied, in the same ways, to everyone, regardless of what their “station” in life is, how much money they have, and so on. Experience shows, however, that this is not how things work out in reality. People with more money have more political influence—and those with a great deal of money have a great deal of political influence and power—while those with less money, and especially those with very little, also have no significant political influence, connections with political power, and so on. And this plays out, repeatedly, in legal proceedings, right down to the way in which those presiding over legal procedures (judges) look—very differently—at different kinds of people who become involved in legal proceedings. But what is even more decisive is the reality that the laws themselves (and the Constitution which sets the basis for the laws) reflect and reinforce the essential relations in society, and most fundamentally the economic (production) relations of capitalism. This, for example, is why it is perfectly legal for capitalists to lay off thousands of people, or to refuse to hire them in the first place, if these capitalists cannot make sufficient profit by employing (and exploiting) them—or if they can make more profit by employing, and exploiting, people in some other place—but it is illegal for people who have been denied employment in this way to take the things they need, without paying for them (without giving money in exchange for these things—money which in fact they do not have, money they cannot earn, because they have been prevented from working, by means that are perfectly legal under this system). All this—and the many ways in which this finds expression in society, in the relations between groups and individuals, in the laws and institutions, and in the thinking of people—is what is meant in referring to “bourgeois right.”

To dig further into what this means, let’s return to the example of someone “wanting more” if they invent something. This is hardly an uncommon view. It is “spontaneous” thinking that is very common when living in a society like this, where everything is ultimately—and very often not so ultimately—measured in the very narrow, constricting terms of the cash nexus and gets expressed crudely in “what’s in it for me?” So this youth could see the sweep of all that is presented in that “Revolution” talk, and agree with it—but, then, there was one little sticking point: “If I do something special, I want something in exchange for it, I want the chance to get something more for me.”

Well, we have to examine: How do things actually work when and where people “get more”? And, for that matter, how do things actually work when and where people invent something in the first place? What is it that happens most of the time when someone invents something, and then someone ends up “getting more out of it”? Usually, it’s not the person who does the inventing who “gets more”—or gets most of the profit—from this, but instead the people who have control of capital and who can turn the invention into a commodity and into capital. Because that’s what has to happen, in order for someone to get more out of something that is invented: there have to be the social relations, and ultimately and fundamentally the production relations, which enable that, which make it possible to turn that invention into “intellectual property”—into a commodity and into capital.

Well, in order for that to happen, there must be a whole network of capitalist relations. Otherwise, on what basis are you going to get anything—and, specifically, get more than others—if there is not a whole network of commodity relations and of capital which is undergirding and is the basis on which the whole society is functioning? And this whole network of commodity relations, and of capital, is in reality a network of exploitation. That is what has to be in operation, in order for someone—and most likely not the inventor, but a class of people, a class of capitalists (and particular capitalists in particular instances)—to get more out of it. It is those who already control large amounts of capital, and who have a dominant position in the capitalist economy, who are most likely to benefit the most—to get more than others.

And what happens if we have a whole network of capitalist relations? What kind of world do we then have? We have the same world that’s being dissected and indicted in the “Revolution” talk on the DVD—the same world that drove this person to say, in the first place, “I really liked what is said in that talk.” You don’t like this world. But if you don’t want this world, then you cannot want the things that define this world and that are the underlying and driving forces in this world. You cannot want a network of commodity relations and of capital, because then you have everything that goes along with that, not only immediately around you, but throughout the world, and all the horrors that we know about and could catalog almost endlessly.

To paraphrase Lenin, capitalism puts into the hands of individuals, as individual wealth and capital, that which has been produced by all of society. Production under capitalism—and the turning of an invention into something which not only has use value but exchange value, which can summon money back and even “surplus value,” more money than at the start of the process—requires a social production process which ends up with the surplus value (the wealth that’s produced as capital) going into the hands of individuals—and a relative handful of individuals, at that. This is the point Lenin was making when he said that capitalism puts into the hands of individuals, as individual wealth and capital, that which has been produced by all of society—and today, more than ever, this takes place on a worldwide scale. After all, capital is not something neutral, and it is not wealth in some abstract sense—divorced and abstracted from the social production relations through which that wealth is produced—capital is a social relation in which some have command over the labor power (the ability to work) of others and accumulate wealth for themselves by utilizing that labor power of others.

Lenin added that capitalism forces people to calculate, with the stinginess of a miser, how much more they’re getting than somebody else. Put that—and everything that’s bound up with that, all the horrors that go along with that—up against what it would mean to move beyond all that, to get beyond these production relations, and the corresponding social relations, and all the conditions that are bound up with them and intertwined with them. And, further, in the situation where humanity had finally managed to throw off all this, and all the horrors that go along with it, the orientation of “wanting more for myself” would very quickly move things backward, in the direction of the capitalist system, with all its very real horrors. There is no other way in which ultimately and fundamentally certain individuals can “get more”—no way other than to have a whole network of relations that makes that possible, with everything that goes along with that.

Does this mean—as is often claimed by people attacking and slandering communism—that in communist society everybody will have exactly the same amount of things, regardless of their particular situation and their particular needs? No, the slogan of communism—the principle that will be applied in communist society—is precisely from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. In other words, people will contribute what they can to society and will get back what they need, to meet the requirements of a decent and fulfilling life, intellectually and culturally, as well as materially, on an ever expanding basis. This will involve and require a whole different outlook and morality, along with radically different economic, social, and political relations, in which it will no longer be the case that a relatively small group dominates and exploits masses of people and in which it is presented as “right and natural” for some people to have a superior position over others.

Look at that present reality, and the principles and morals that go along with it—where everyone is pushed into trying to “get more” than others, and where a small number “get much more” than the great majority—and contrast that with the much more lofty and liberating principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs—where we move beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right—of “what’s in it for me, what do I get,” in accordance with the commodities and, in many cases, the capital that I have been able to accumulate through this process. This, once again, is not a neutral process, but a process of degrading and brutalizing exploitation and oppression—and today this involves exploitation and oppression of literally billions of people throughout the world, including huge numbers of children. This is the foundation of the present system, the capitalist-imperialist system—this is the reality of life under this system—in which it is a driving principle to “get more.”

Again let’s pose the basic question: Which is a much more liberating and lofty vision of society, and which would make a better world—this system, with its fundamental relations, and the corresponding ideas, or one in which people are receiving according to their needs while contributing according to their abilities—not on the basis of what they are going to get back out of it, in some narrow sense, but on the basis of understanding that society as a whole, including the flourishing of the individuals who make up society, is going to be on a much better foundation and reach to much greater heights if that whole orientation of “what do I get out of it” has been moved beyond, together with moving beyond the material basis for that and the necessity that is bound up with that?

This is a point we’re going to have to continually struggle with people about. What kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want all the things that now characterize the world? We can go down the list of them: the oppression of women, racism and national oppression, exploitation of little children, despoliation of the environment, the wars fought in which the people on the bottom are dragged into them as the cannon fodder (as the old saying goes)…and on and on and on. Is that the world you want, so that maybe—and very unlikely—you might be able to “get more”? Certainly most people will not “get more.” Or do you want a world free of and beyond all that, beyond the narrow horizon of bourgeois right?

Are All “Ideal Visions of Society” Equally Valid and Good?

Now, let’s take up another question that came up when some college students were watching the DVD of the same “Revolution” talk, and in particular the “Imagine” section of it (where people are called on to imagine what it would be like to live in a radically different society, a socialist society on the road to communism). Their response was: This is really inspiring, this vision of an ideal world (that, apparently, is how they saw it). But then they began to grapple with the question: Isn’t it unfair to impose one vision of an ideal world over others? Maybe I have one idea of what an ideal world is, but you have another idea and someone else has another idea—isn’t it unfair to impose one vision and to favor that over others?

Well, once again, we have to answer this with a scientific outlook and method, with materialism and dialectics. And there are a number of different levels on which, and angles from which, we can and should answer this. Let’s start by putting the question very bluntly: Do we really not want to oppose—and, yes, in some cases suppress—some notions of an “ideal world” that some people and some sections of society hold and try to implement? What about the Ku Klux Klan? Is their vision of an “ideal world” one we don’t want to oppose and suppress? Is it unfair to insist that the “ideal vision” they hold cannot be implemented? What about fanatical Islamic fundamentalists and their counterpart Christian Fascists? Are their visions and programs for an “ideal world” things that we don’t want to oppose—and, yes, even suppress? Should “honor killings”—where unmarried girls and women who “lose their virginity,” even if they are raped, are murdered to preserve the “honor” of their family—should that not be opposed—and, yes, prevented? Should women’s right to abortion and birth control be taken away, in accordance with the Christian Fascist vision of a good society, of an “ideal world”—and should the laws of society be based on a literalist reading of the Bible, as many powerful Christian Fascists insist (which would mean stoning to death or otherwise executing: women who are not virgins when they are married; women who are accused of being witches; homosexuals; children who are rebellious against their parents; and many others who defy “God’s will,” as insisted upon by these Christian Fascists)? Should all that really not be opposed, and yes suppressed—should it be allowed because it corresponds to these people’s “vision of an ideal world”?

What about the people who now rule this country and much of the world, who think that their “ideal world” is such a good thing that it’s right to impose it on the rest of the world, through massive organized violence and mechanized destruction? Do we really not want to oppose—and, yes, when we are finally able to do so, do we really not want to suppress—that “vision of an ideal world”?

How does human society actually develop?

The basic problem with this way of thinking—and the use of the word “ideal” points to the problem—is that it is fundamentally idealist, and is in fundamental conflict with reality. This is not how societies have emerged and developed, or can emerge and develop—that different people come up with ideal visions of how society ought to be and then they set about imposing them on society, or trying to convince other people that this is the way to go, without regard to what the realities of society, and the driving forces of social development, actually are. As historical materialists, applying dialectical materialism to the history of humanity and the development of human society, we can see that society does not develop this way, but develops out of the constant struggle and transformation involved in the relation between necessity and freedom. “Ideal visions” of society—and programs for changing society—can and do play a very important role in the transformation of society, if and when those “ideals” and programs correspond to ways in which it is possible to transform society at a given time, under given circumstances. But if an “ideal vision of society” has no basis in reality—if it does not reflect the way society is moving and tending, or if it does not represent a certain resolution of the actual contradictions that characterize society and impel its motion and development—then such an “ideal vision of society” cannot be realized. Human beings don’t come together in society out of an “ideal vision”; they come together to deal with the necessity with which they’re confronted. They transform that necessity in one way or another, and in so doing they bring into being new necessity. Often—as has been pointed out before [1] —what goes along with this is unintended consequences: People do things to deal with what’s immediately impinging upon them, and in so doing they may, and often do, set in motion a process which leads to results and consequences that had not been anticipated, or intended, by them.

Let’s look at an example I’ve used before: people in ancient Mexico who were living in hunting and gathering societies, and then their conditions changed. Partly as a result of environmental changes, but also partly because of what they themselves had done over generations, with the killing off of game through hunting, they could no longer maintain the way of life that they were previously engaged in. And so in some cases these people settled in one area, instead of living a more migratory life, and they began to carry out settled agriculture where the material conditions were at hand to do that. And that brought forth all kinds of changes which were largely unintended, and even unimagined, by them, including the emergence and development of new, oppressive social divisions among them. When something like this happens, new necessity is brought into being.

This is just one illustration of the basic reality that people come into certain relations with each other in order to deal with necessity which largely occurs “behind their backs,” and without their consciously deciding to do something—until, at a certain point, they become more conscious of this. This has gone through spirals and different stages of development, and has taken different forms, in the overall history of human beings and their societies. This is the way human societies have actually emerged, developed, and been transformed (or in some cases eliminated). And, without being linear, and determinist, in our understanding of this—without seeing this as some kind of “straight line” process, going onward, and upward, according to some predetermined plan, or some unavoidable, inexorable laws of development—this is the only basis on which human society can emerge and develop, and be transformed.

So, what is being spoken about in this “Revolution” DVD (and in particular the “Imagine” section of that talk) is the next leap that it is possible—not inevitable, but possible—to make on the basis of what has emerged through the complex and many-sided process of development that has in fact taken place in the historical development of human society up to this point. This is not something that was all laid out in someone’s mind from the beginning—neither god’s nor anyone else’s. But it is something which corresponds to the present situation humanity is confronted with, where another leap is possible to a radically different and much better world, namely communism.

We can make an analogy here to evolution in the natural world. One of the points that is repeatedly stressed in the book on evolution by Ardea Skybreak [2] is that the process of evolution can only bring about changes on the basis of what already exists. First of all, there is no “intelligent design”—no “design” of any kind—in all this. And, along with that, it is not possible for something to emerge through the process of natural evolution which doesn’t have its basis in what already exists. Evolutionary changes—including qualitative changes leading to the emergence of completely new species—can and do occur on the basis of genetic variation and mutation, in interaction with the environment (where changes involving features that confer a reproductive advantage to those individuals with those features can lead to the predominance of those features within a grouping and even, in certain conditions, to the emergence of a new species). But such changes do not, and cannot, come about on the basis that something would be favorable for a species (or for individual members of a species) to have, and so it just emerges to fill a need. Evolution in the natural world comes about, and can only come about, through changes that arise on the basis of, and in relation to, the existing reality and the existing constraints (or, to put it another way, the existing necessity).

And, in fundamental terms, the same thing is true in human social development, in the history of human society. This is why socialism is, in fact, such a goddamn hard thing: As Marx emphasized in a basic way, and Lenin began to grapple with more concretely as well, and Mao grappled with on a whole other level—you’re dealing with socialism as it emerges out of capitalism, out of the previous society. That is why Lenin said we don’t get to make socialism with people as we would like them to be; we have to build socialism, to transform society under socialism, with people as they have emerged from the old society. And that is true with regard not only to people but all the old conditions, including the material conditions of production (the technology but also, and even more essentially, the production relations, and the social relations, as well as all the ideas and the political institutions). That is what you set out to transform, in a qualitative and radical way. You don’t get to go to a drawing board and say: “What would we like to have here?” This doesn’t happen through a process where different people put down their “ideal vision,” and then there is a grand debate until everybody’s convinced of what’s the best ideal (and meanwhile, everybody has starved). You don’t get to do that, that’s not the way it works.

Yes, the “ideal” of communism is a very beautiful and desirable thing; but it emerges out of—its basis and its possibility exists in relation to—the prior constraints, the prior necessity, the results of the previous transformations of society through this dialectical, back and forth interplay between necessity and the transformation of necessity into freedom…which brings with it—what? New necessity.

Well, this is what we have to enable people to understand. This is why it takes science to deal with the transformation of society, and particularly to deal with it in a way that actually can, at this point, bring about the abolition of oppressive and exploitative relations, antagonistic relations generally among people, and lead to a whole new and far better world for humanity. This can only be done on a scientific basis—on the basis of a materialist and dialectical analysis and synthesis of reality and a scientific understanding of where we are in that process and what that opens up in terms of the transformation of necessity into freedom at this stage.

Changes in Society and in People: A Materialist, and Dialectical, Understanding of the Relation Between People’s Conditions and Their Consciousness

Changing circumstances, and changing people

I want to broaden out the discussion of human society and its historical development, to provide more a foundation for a scientific understanding of this. What I am going to speak to here relates to and proceeds from longer discussions found in “Views On” and “Basis, Goals and Methods.” I’m not going to try to repeat much of what’s said there, but I do want to touch on some of the essential points.

First, I want to talk about the two radical ruptures and their interconnection, their dialectical interplay and mutual influence throughout the development and revolutionary transformation that is involved in the advance to communism. Here, of course, I am referring to what is said in the Communist Manifesto about how the communist revolution represents the radical rupture with all traditional property relations and with all traditional ideas. What’s involved in this—and, in fact, in the development of human society overall—is the back and forth interaction (the dialectical relation) between the forces and relations of production and between the economic base [3], on the one hand, and the superstructure of politics and ideology, on the other hand. To put this in other, and more general terms, what is involved is the dialectical relation between material conditions and their transformation, on the one hand, and the thinking of people and its transformation—or, in other words, the back and forth, as Marx once put it, between changing circumstances and changing people, the dialectical interplay of that and the dynamics involved in that.

Now, in this connection, one of the most fundamental things that Marx brought to light—and this is something to which I have spoken in a number of other works [4] but which is worth returning to again, because it is at the one and the same time so important and so little understood, and in fact so thoroughly and consistently ignored, where it is not covered over, obfuscated and distorted—is his concentrated presentation of what goes into human society and its development. As opposed to philosophical idealism, Marx brought forward the materialist and dialectical understanding that the most basic and essential of all human activity is the production and reproduction of the material requirements of life, and that people can only carry out the struggle to produce, and reproduce, the material requirements of life by entering into very definite relations of production, and that on the basis of these production relations there arises a definite legal, political and ideological superstructure.

Just think how little understood is this very fundamental point about human society and its historical development—and the basic and overall relation between people’s social being and their social consciousness, as Marx put it. People have all kinds of other views of what constitutes human society and why people come together in society—theories of “social contract” and all other kinds of elaborated intellectual theses (and their popular variations of different kinds). But this fundamental point that Marx brought to light is so little known about, let alone understood. How many times do people talk about “the economy” this, and “the economy” that—as though “the economy” were an abstraction, divorced from people and void of any social relations among people? But in that way you can’t get anywhere near the actual dynamics of what’s going on. This is so profoundly important for us to grasp, but also to propagate in a popularized way—in a way that is accessible to people who are now unfamiliar with all this. It is extremely important to enable masses of people, of all different strata, including the basic masses, to grasp this and related fundamental truths—fundamental analyses and syntheses about society and reality. In any society, people in the most fundamental sense enter into definite social production relations in order for anything to happen—in order for people to eat, in order to make possible all the other things that go on in society. At the foundation of that, as the underlying fundamental relations and dynamics of that, is the fact that people enter into definite social production relations in the process of producing and reproducing the material requirements of life and of society.

And, along with this, the fact is that these social production relations are historically evolved. Once again, it is not a matter of an “ideal society,” of simply realizing someone’s “ideal.” It is not a matter that someone sits around and draws up a blueprint for how society ought to be, and then causes society to fall in line with that blueprint. It is the interaction between necessity and human beings—consciously, or somewhat unconsciously, or a combination of the two—struggling to transform necessity and forge freedom out of that…which brings forward new necessity.

People make history—but on a certain material foundation

Or, to paraphrase another profound—and at the same time widely ignored, or misrepresented and distorted—point that Marx emphasized: People make history—but not any way they want. They do so on the basis of the productive forces and the corresponding production relations which they inherit from preceding generations. Now, of course, this is not a linear development: It involves ruptures and leaps, revolutions in human society, in those times and circumstances when, as Marx pointed out, the production relations have undergone a transformation from being the most appropriate form for the development of the productive forces, into being more a fetter on than an appropriate form for that development. This calls forth social revolutions. This, of course, does not occur in some “automatic” sense, and such revolutions do not occur directly, one to one, with the objective transformation of the production relations (from the most appropriate form for the development of the productive forces, into a fetter on that development). But, when this objective transformation (in the relation between the production relations and the productive forces) has objectively taken place, sooner or later, however much (or little) they may be conscious of this objective transformation, people develop theories and programs and form organizations to resolve this contradiction, which is objectively imposing itself more and more on them. This is what Mao meant when he said that when tools become frustrated, they speak through people: when the productive forces are more being held back than being facilitated, if you will, by the character of the production relations, this calls forth things in the superstructure. It calls forth ideas in the minds of people—ideas about changes in society, about what the problems in society are and how they can be addressed. For much of human history, these ideas were a combination of some understanding, and a great deal of misunderstanding, of what was objectively being called forth, what objective developments were being reflected, however “imperfectly,” in people’s minds. Now we are on a threshold where there can be qualitatively more understanding—not complete understanding, there will always be the contradiction between knowledge and ignorance—but more understanding of what this is about, a more conscious approach to what it is that we’re setting out to do, and why, in terms of transforming the underlying relations as well as the superstructure of society.

It is important to grasp this point that the need for radical change in society gets called forth in the superstructure—in the thinking of people, and then in the political organization of people. People form groups, they form parties with programs and objectives which reflect—reflect not in a reductionist, linear and one-to-one sense, but reflect ultimately—what’s going on in the basic relations in society, in terms, most fundamentally, of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. This gets reflected more or less consciously in people’s thinking and then in their political organization. And in acting on their ideas, in seeking to bring about change in correspondence with their ideas, they come up against constraints—not only economic but also political constraints—the force of the state and the power relations in society which they have to shatter and transform in order to (once again in relative, not absolute terms) unleash and liberate the productive forces, including the people. This is how societies change in a fundamental and qualitative way—how and why revolutions are called forth and occur, through momentous struggle.

So, while, as Marx explained, the legal, political and ideological superstructure arises on the basis of and corresponds to a given economic base (or mode of production) at any given time, it is also crucial—it is a decisive aspect of a dialectical as well as materialist understanding and method—to grasp that there is a great deal of initiative (and, if you want to use that term, autonomy) in the superstructure. The superstructure is not merely a linear and mechanical extension of the economic base. Different ideas are formulated by people and a struggle is carried out in the realm of ideas. Different political forces arise and battle it out. Ultimately, this comes down to a battle for power over society. And power, by the way, is not a dirty word. In fact, in the hands of the proletariat, it is a very, very good thing. Power, speaking in political terms, means the ability to implement a program, and most essentially the ability to make decisions affecting the overall course of society, the ability to determine the direction of society.

Now, as I have repeatedly emphasized, this is grounded in a certain material foundation, it is rooted in the fundamental contradictions of society, and the dynamics associated with these fundamental contradictions. But, on the basis of the motion of these contradictions—and the struggle to resolve them in a certain way by taking initiative, more or less consciously, in the superstructure, and specifically in the struggle for political power—it is possible to gain qualitatively new and greater freedom (not absolute freedom, but qualitatively greater freedom) to make radical changes in society. When we talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat, we are talking about power, increasingly residing with the masses of people, to make radical transformations in their interests, and ultimately in the interests of humanity as a whole. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat.

State power—to effect radical changes

Why does the proletariat want power—to use that phrase? Why does it need state power? In order to effect the changes, the radical transformations of society in all spheres, that are in its interests and ultimately are in the interests of humanity as a whole.

These transformations cannot be achieved under the rule of the bourgeoisie, no matter what the form of that rule is. Bourgeois rule may assume the most “wonderfully democratic” form—but it is still the rule of a class whose interests are fundamentally and antagonistically in opposition to the transformations that the masses of people need to carry out in order to have a world in which they can live as human beings and flourish in a fuller sense (not in some metaphysical absolute sense, but in a fuller, qualitatively greater sense). As long as the power over society is in the hands of the bourgeoisie, even with this “clever device” they’ve evolved of elections, the proletariat and the masses of people are prevented from carrying out these changes. This is why we have the truly horrific conditions we have in the world—and all the votes in the world under this system will never change these fundamental things. It’s just as simple and as basic as that. When a monopoly of political power—and, in a concentrated way, the monopoly of “legitimate” armed force—is in the hands of one group in society, and that group excludes others from that monopoly of power and force, then that is a dictatorship of the ruling group—or class—regardless of whether or not that ruling group allows those it excludes from power, and over whom it rules in fact, to take part in elections to vote for different representatives of the ruling class, as happens in the U.S. and a number of other countries. Political rule in the U.S., regardless of whether or not there is an open and undisguised tyranny, is and always has been a bourgeois dictatorship, a dictatorship of the ruling capitalist class (or, in the early history of the U.S., before the defeat and abolition of the slave system, through the Civil War, what existed was the dictatorship of the ruling classes—the slaveowning as well as the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie).

This is a most fundamental truth, a crucial and essential statement about reality—the reality of on what basis, and in accordance with what defining interests, the society functions. When we get into struggle with people, we have to get to the essence of this. We need a different political system, a different system of political rule, whose objective is the radical transformation of society, on every level and in every dimension. (I will talk further about what that means, and should mean—and what it should not mean—as we go along.)

Communism Will Not Be a “Utopia”—It Will Be a Radically Different and Far Better World

Proceeding from the basic theoretical breakthroughs that Marx made, and building also on what Lenin had added to this understanding—with regard to the state and in terms of an analysis of imperialism and other key dimensions of human society and its revolutionary transformation—Mao made a crucial addition or extension in the understanding of communists about these basic questions. He stressed a number of times (this is found particularly in Mao’s more informal speeches and talks, conversations and writings, more than in the officially published works of Mao, even the ones that were put out before the revisionists took power in China in 1976) that even with the achievement of communism, society will still be marked and driven forward by the contradictions between the forces and relations of production and between the base and the superstructure. Now, this was not exactly denied previously in Marxism, but there was not the kind of clear understanding and emphasis that Mao gave to this. Previously, there were some aspects of how communism was conceived that actually, and ironically, incorporated some metaphysical thinking. For example, Engels, and Marx as well, talked about moving from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, with the achievement of communism, as though—I’m exaggerating, or overstating, but there was a certain tendency toward thinking that—when you get to communism you will be in a realm of freedom in relation to necessity in a whole different way. And this, Mao came to see, is not really correct—does not correctly grasp the essence of things.

It is true that, with communism, human beings will be consciously interacting with nature, and with each other, in a qualitatively greater way than at any previous time; but they will still be dealing with constraints and the transformation of constraints. You will always be dealing with the basic principle that Marx enumerated about the foundations and the driving contradictions of human society. No matter how far ahead you go into communist society, you will still be dealing with necessity which presents itself as something “external” to you, which you have to act on and struggle to transform—and, in doing so, bring forward new necessity. The contradictions between the forces and relations of production, and between the base and the superstructure, are still going to be the things defining and driving forward society. And it will be a question of more and more consciously grasping this—but never having anything approaching complete freedom in this regard.

Even in Mao’s early writings you see references (invoking some traditional Chinese terms) that talk about communism as the “Kingdom of Great Harmony.” Well, the more Mao went on and dealt with reality, and the revolutionary struggle, the more he came to see: that’s not exactly the way it is. But that notion of the “Kingdom of Great Harmony” corresponds, in significant measure, to at least much of the understanding in the international communist movement prior to Mao. You can see it in Stalin: In his discussions of socialism, you see things tending toward a notion of the end of contradiction. Not that he literally said all contradiction has come to an end in socialist society, but he did say, in the mid-1930s, that class antagonisms had come to an end in the Soviet Union.

Now it’s true that, in communist society, you won’t have class antagonism, but it is the case—and something that has been demonstrated very dramatically and through bitter experience with the restoration of capitalism in formerly socialist countries—that in socialist society there remain antagonistic class contradictions. And even in communist society, you are still going to have to struggle to transform necessity, you are still going to have to grasp and act in relation to the driving forces in society which are based in the contradictions between the forces and relations of production and between the base and superstructure, and the interrelation between the dynamics of those two contradictions.

Freedom…and Necessity

Fundamental to this is the fact that freedom is the recognition—and, as Mao emphasized, the transformation—of necessity. That’s where freedom lies. It doesn’t lie in idealist notions of how you would like things to be. Not that there’s no role for imagining—there is indeed a very important role for this (which is why a major part of my “Revolution” DVD talk is referred to as “Imagine”). There is a great role for imagining. But, while this imagining should proceed without being narrowly restricted at any given time to the prevailing conditions, in an overall and ultimate sense it does have to be grounded in and returned to material reality, if this imagining and dreaming is really going to be able to be realized in the real world (this is a point Lenin gave emphasis to).

There is a lot of room for dreaming and imagining that isn’t immediately and “tightly” tied to whatever the material reality is at a given time. This is a point I have made in talking about myth (in the Observations book [5] ). I recalled there (in that discussion about myth) that in a conversation with a comrade, a number of years ago, I had taken this really wrong position that, when we get to communism, we shouldn’t have science fiction anymore. And then, fortunately, before too long I realized that it would amount to liquidating the role of art, if you were to follow that out to its logical conclusion. Why is this so, and why is this important? Because there is a big role, an important role, for things like science fiction, in terms of people’s needs aesthetically, if you will, but also in terms of the larger societal need to be able to envision, or imagine, how contradictions might play out in the future. There is, and there always will be, for individuals and for society, a very real and important need to look at things from different angles, through the distorting prism of art, if you will.

But, fundamentally (and, so to speak, underneath all this) freedom does lie in the recognition and transformation of necessity. The point is that this recognition and the ability to carry out that transformation goes through a lot of different “channels,” and is not tied in a positivist or reductionist or linear way to however the main social contradictions are posing themselves at a given time. If that were the case—or if we approached it that way—we would liquidate the role of art and much of the superstructure in general. Why do we battle in the realm of morals? It is because there is relative initiative and autonomy in the superstructure. And the more correctly that’s given expression, the better it will be, in terms of the kind of society we have at a given time and in terms of our ability to recognize necessity and carry out the struggle to transform necessity.

It is also very important to emphasize that necessity is both necessity residing in material reality beyond human society—the natural world as a whole—and, more specifically, the necessity residing in human social relations at any given time, grounded in the fundamental reality whose essence Marx concentrated. Both of those constitute necessity, and understanding this is particularly important for people setting out to transform reality in any essential way. It is not just that you have nature “out there”; nor, on the other hand, is it just that you have society somehow divorced from the rest of nature. What is society, but human beings interacting with each other and interacting with nature and transforming nature in one way or another—sometimes for ill and sometimes for better in terms of human needs in the largest sense?

These basic points of materialism and dialectics constitute and establish the theoretical basis for a thoroughly, consistently and systematically scientific understanding of and approach to the freedom of humanity as a whole—and, as a matter of fact, for the freedom of individuals in relation to human society overall.

Freedom, Right, and the Nature of Society

This relates, once again, to that well-known statement by Marx—which we also, for good reason, keep returning to—about how right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby—another little-known and even less understood statement. All the time, in discussions which, in fundamental terms, are proceeding from a bourgeois standpoint and outlook, you hear things put forward which are ignorant of, or ignore, this basic principle and understanding (it’s either ignorance, or more deliberate ignore-ance).

Let’s go back to the comments by a youth in Oakland who said, in referring to my talk “Revolution”: “I agree with everything in there, and I really liked the vision of the future society”—but “if I invent something, I want to get more for it.”

Well, in terms of the “right” to “get something more” by inventing something, even if you could realize this “right,” where does that “right” proceed from and what does it correspond to? It proceeds from and corresponds to a certain economic structure of society, as Marx put it, and a culture conditioned thereby. It corresponds to and proceeds from a certain economic base and the corresponding superstructure. And, in turn, it reinforces that kind of society and that kind of world. For that “right” to have meaning, it is necessary to have the kinds of conditions and the kinds of relations that make this possible. In feudal society, even though there were fairly developed commodity relations, if you were a serf, you didn’t have any such conception of a right. Now, at a certain point in feudal society, there began to be a certain amount of social mobility, although it remained limited in many ways. Still, this notion of getting more for inventing something was not a right characteristic of feudal society—it is a right characteristic of a certain kind of economic structure and culture, a certain kind of system, namely capitalism. And insofar as that right (to get more for inventing something) applies, it applies and can only apply for a relative handful of individuals. At the same time, all the conditions that are bound up with this economic structure, and the corresponding culture, involve all kinds of horrific consequences for the great majority of individuals in the world and for humanity as a whole. So there we can see—by negative example, so to speak—how right is embedded, if you will, in the economic structure of society and the culture conditioned thereby.

Let’s turn to some examples of more “positive rights.” What about the right to live in a world in which human beings no longer confront each other through antagonistic relations? Where does the “right” to do that exist—under what conditions does that right have any meaning? Certainly, in the present world, you don’t have that right. You may proclaim it as much as you want. You may develop all kinds of utopian schemes to give expression to your desire to live in a world in which human beings no longer relate to and confront each other through antagonistic relations. But, within the present social system and with the way in which that system dominates and shapes the world, you have no ability whatsoever to effect such an ideal. That right can only be realized with a different economic structure, a different set of production relations, namely those of communism, and the culture conditioned thereby—or, in other words, the superstructure that corresponds to communist economic and social relations. Only through the revolution to advance to communism can humanity reach the point where finally human beings no longer confront each other through antagonistic relations. This is another expression of the fact that, as Marx put it, right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural development conditioned thereby.

What about the “right” of the masses of people in the world to explore scientific questions? What kind of economic structure and culture—what kind of production and social relations, and what kind of superstructure—is necessary for that, and does that correspond to? Again, only a communist world. With the kind of division of labor that has existed in and has characterized every form of class-divided society—and in particular societies ruled by exploiting classes—there is no real right for the masses of people, for the great majority of society, to explore scientific questions. It doesn’t exist for them. A few individuals here and there may emerge from among the masses and change class position, if you will, and be able to do that as their life’s work and avocation. But for the masses of people there is no such right. The very functioning of the economic base, in dialectical relation with the superstructure—the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and the workings of the corresponding political system, the educational system, and the dominant ideas propagated throughout society, along with the division of labor that’s bound up with all this—make it impossible for the masses of people to have the “right” to explore scientific questions.

And what about those who presently do have the ability to do this? What about their “right” to explore scientific questions in a whole new social context and framework, where much greater numbers of people are increasingly being freed and enabled to do this as well? What about the ability of people—even those who are presently conducting scientific work—to carry this out in a much more unfettered (not absolutely unfettered but in a qualitatively more unfettered) way, freed from the constraints imposed by exploitative and oppressive relations in society and the corresponding ways of thinking? What about that? What about having a situation where you’re not scrounging around for grants on the basis of having to vitiate your own scientific project by presenting it in a way that meets the requirements of the ruling class—for example: “This will help the Defense Department.” What about that “right”?

The point is not that in communist society everybody will do everything—or will want to do everything—all with the same emphasis, or passion, or in the same way. There are and there will always be differences among human beings, and certainly this will be so—and will be consciously recognized and given expression, in a qualitatively greater way than ever before—in communist society. Not everyone will want to be engaged in science all the time, or in politics all the time. But the barriers and social divisions that presently exist and are characteristic of exploitative society will have been overthrown and surpassed.

What about the “right” for all that to happen? What kind of economic structure and what kind of “cultural development conditioned thereby” is necessary for that to happen? This is impossible under the present system, and is only possible under the future system, in other words, in communist society. This is what the “4 Alls” are all about—this is what it means to achieve those “4 Alls” that mark the advance to communism: the abolition of all class distinctions; of all the production relations that underlie those class distinctions; of all the social relations that correspond to those production relations; and the revolutionization of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations. All that, and all the “rights” which adhere to that, are only possible in a future communist society—which is not some utopian ideal but an actual possibility, a possibility whose realization lies in the freedom that can be wrenched out of the current necessity that confronts humanity in this era, and in particular confronts the proletariat as a class and those who consciously take up the worldview and objectives of the proletarian revolution. [6]

What about the “right” of people in society, in the world as a whole, to have to spend only a small part of their waking hours and energy in simply contributing to the reproduction (and the expansion of the means of production) of the material requirements of life? What about the “right” of the people to only have to spend a few hours a day doing that, and to have more time, instead, to devote to political, social and cultural affairs, and to recreation…and just plain fucking off? Where does that “right” exist for the great majority of humanity, including little children, now? The present economic structure and the culture conditioned thereby prevents the great majority of humanity, including small children, from having anything approximating such a “right”; and only with communist society can that “right” be actually realized (and then, in fact, it will no longer be conceived of as a “right” but will be a “natural” part of the functioning of human society, without having to be institutionalized and to assume a special status as a “right”).

This is a profoundly important point that we have to really grasp deeply. And, again, the point of grasping this is to act on it, including by popularizing it and bringing forward more people who consciously understand this and act on that understanding.

Does it make a difference if people think that we’re just trying to impose one ideal of society over another? Or whether, instead, they really have a materialist and dialectical understanding of how the possibility of achieving the things I’m talking about here relates to the existing contradictions in society and is called forth through the struggles based in those contradictions—how the possibility and the potential for a whole different human society, characterized by radically different and much better relations among people, and the corresponding culture and ways of thinking, actually exists and resides in the present material contradictions of society, in the world today? Does it make a difference whether they understand this in a completely utopian and idealist way, or with materialism and dialectics? Will that make a difference in terms of what they think is desirable, what they think is possible, what they believe is worth struggling for? Of course it will.

Bourgeois Democracy, Bourgeois Right

Grasping and acting on all this is a crucial part of making a real leap and rupture in our conception and understanding of reality and how it can and must be changed—a leap and a rupture beyond what is indeed a very narrow horizon of bourgeois right. Democracy, or an attempt at “perfecting” what is in fact—and, under this system, with its material base, can only be—bourgeois democracy: this is not our goal. That is still well within the bounds, the narrow horizon, of bourgeois right. It is not what humanity needs. How many people have you heard who are generally progressive, or are oppositional in some serious way, who always formulate their political objectives, and their vision of society, in terms of—what is in reality bourgeois—democracy? It is very much like the scientists who always have to formulate (or re-formulate) their projects in terms of how this will help the Defense Department or the Department of Homeland Security or some other agency of the current state. How many people do you hear fashioning their “political projects” to talk about “perfecting our democracy,” when in reality we need to leap beyond and rupture with that whole framework, beyond that narrow horizon.

Democracy, let us be clear, is an expression of bourgeois right. And bourgeois right means all the things that we are all too familiar with, all the suffering in the world that goes along with this system of bourgeois rule grounded in bourgeois production and social relations. That’s what bourgeois right—including the democracy that people are so enamored of—actually amounts to and means in living terms for humanity as a whole. And we really have to struggle with people about this: quit fashioning everything that comes out of your mouth in terms of bourgeois right. Let’s struggle about what humanity really needs.

The Rupture with Outmoded Thinking and Beliefs

Bound up with all this are important questions of epistemology (theory of knowledge). There is the urgent need for people to take up a thoroughly scientific, materialist and dialectical outlook and method. There’s a need, even on the part of communists—and obviously more broadly in society—for further ruptures with, and for winning people away from, idealism and metaphysics, which gets expressed in innumerable and seemingly very creative, and actually sometimes very creative, ways and variations. People are constantly regenerating various forms of philosophical idealism and metaphysics, which posit the existence of—and give a pivotal place and determining role to—beings, or “forces” and “causes,” that are said to be beyond the realm of the material universe—things which, in reality, do not exist.

Obviously, there is religion. We run into this all the time: You’ll be having a discussion with somebody and they’ll be agreeing with you about many things that are terribly wrong in the world, and then at a certain point they will say: “But, you know, it’s all in God’s hands”; or, “God’s gonna take care of things and deal with those people, pretty soon now.” Yeah, God’s been doing a great job with that so far! Still, this is constantly regenerated. These religious notions don’t appear out of, or arise out of, the mist or out of nowhere, but of course have their roots, historically, in the ignorance, the lack of knowledge, of human beings in early society; but they have been carried forward, codified and institutionalized by ruling classes throughout the ages as part of enforcing their rule. Clearly, this is something that the ruling classes throughout history, and down to today, have recognized as important for the maintenance of their rule (whether or not individual members of those ruling classes actually believed in the religions they promoted among the masses).

In a general sense, this kind of thinking is very widespread among people, in a number of different forms. Some people will say, “I agree with you, this is bad, that is bad, the way people are treated is terrible…but I’m a Buddhist—you know, karma, all that.” And among many such people, there is a real ignorance of what the doctrine of karma really means—what its most profound effect has been—conveying to masses of people that they are in the position they’re in because of karma, and there really isn’t anything they can do about it other than to go along and be a good person, within the established order, and maybe in the next life they will have a better fate. This is what it really means for people—the notions of Buddhism or Hinduism. I mean, for God’s sake, if you’ll pardon the expression, look at the world. You watch scenes from India and you say, “for Christ sake”— well, you can’t really say for Christ’s sake [laughter], but in any case, you want to scream: “Get out of that Ganges and get rid of those religious ceremonies that are polluting that river and getting you into that polluted river and spreading disease all over the place.” Or the Islamic religious authorities, in parts of Africa and elsewhere, who tell people not to get treatment for AIDS and other diseases because the treatment is a plot and it’s against the will of Allah. This does concrete harm, great harm, to masses of people throughout the world, billions of people. Now, again, fundamentally it is the production and social relations and the rule of the exploiting classes—and above all, on a world scale, it is the domination by imperialism—that is responsible, but they couldn’t rule without these ideologies, and in particular these religions and religious traditions, and the ignorance and superstition they embody and reinforce.

Changes in Society, Changes in “Human Nature”

And then you have other theories that are not necessarily dressed in religious garb but still have the same effect and represent the same fundamental outlook—notions of “human nature,” for example: “You can’t really change human nature; that’s just the way people are; everybody wants to get more for themselves, and to hell with everybody else.” Well, that “human nature” corresponds to what? To a certain economic structure and culture conditioned thereby. It is not innate in human beings, it is not “in their genes,” people are not “hard wired” for this. Once more, another profound point made by Marx, which is so little known about and even less understood, is that “All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.” (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy) Yes, in broad terms, there are certain characteristics of human beings that distinguish them from even other mammals, let alone other forms of life. Human beings are different than a chipmunk, or a tree, that’s true—they do have a certain “nature” in that sense. But one of the defining characteristics of the “nature” of human beings is precisely the great “plasticity” that they have—the ability to respond in a variety of ways to things, and the ability to change how they see and respond to things when they change their conditions and change themselves in dialectical relation with that.

In short, “human nature,” to the degree that we can speak of such a thing, is very flexible and changes with changes in human society. But how many people understand anything approximating that? And how much harm is done by people not understanding that? How much suffering is intensified and prolonged as a result of people having a fundamental misunderstanding of this and a belief in notions that amount to idealism and metaphysics?

We need to be much more consciously and, yes, resolutely—but in a good and living way, not in a dogmatic way—struggling with people over these things. And there are plenty of good ways to do it, once you really have an understanding of how important this is. I’m sure that the more deeply we grasp this, the more we can come up with very creative ways to struggle around this in a good and living way—and, as is appropriate in most cases, a comradely and friendly way, even while struggling sharply. But it takes a grasp of the essential materialism and dialectics to do this, and do it well. You can’t do it with religion—or the “communist equivalent” of religious dogma. And you can’t do it with utopian and idealist notions of how you’d like the world to be. We have to, ourselves, leap and rupture—and bring forward more and more people to leap and rupture—beyond that.

Marxism as a Science—In Opposition to Mechanical Materialism, Idealism and Religiosity

Along with breaking with all expressions of religious tendencies, within the communist movement itself as well as more generally, there is a need to leap beyond and rupture with a definite legacy of the communist movement in terms of tendencies (which still exist and exert a significant influence) toward pragmatism and empiricism, reification of the proletariat, and reification of socialism (or the process of the socialist transformation of society and the advance to communism), as though this is some sort of religious-tending process, some teleological process that’s all working out toward some predetermined end (what Bill Martin refers to as “inevitable-ism” [7] ). These kinds of viewpoints and approaches, along with reductionism and positivism—and the tendency to mechanical materialism and determinism in general—lead to reducing everything to the more immediate and narrow dimensions and to acting as if things that happened were bound to happen, and/or were determined by a linear progression of causes (or seeming causes), without leaps and qualitative changes from one state of matter to another, and without the interaction of different levels of matter in motion.

A while ago there was a program on TV—it didn’t last very long, only a few episodes, but I don’t think it was because of its bad philosophy and bad science—this was a program where Stanley Tucci played a neurosurgeon/brain surgeon and at one point (in one of the few episodes that made it on TV before the show was canceled) he said to another doctor: “The brain is just a box with wires.” Well, this is an example of what I mean by reductionism and positivism. The brain is a great deal more than that, and human thinking involves a great deal more than a box with wires. It involves a great deal more than what goes on with a computer, for example—a much more complex process is involved, within the brain itself, and in the interactions between the brain and the rest of the body, and between the body (or, better said, the person) as a whole and the “outside world.” All that is involved in the functioning of the human brain and in human thought.

These kinds of tendencies toward positivism and reductionism are, of course, in evidence not just in bad TV programs, or even just in some approaches to medical science. You see this all the time in the outlook and method of people—including communists—reducing things to the most narrow terms, looking for the causes of things just in the most immediate thing that suggests itself, not looking to the deeper dynamics and the larger picture—along with a lot of apriorism and instrumentalism (trying to make reality fit preconceived notions and predetermined aims).

Well, there are, among communists, those tendencies, which go along with religiosity—and this has no place in what we’re doing. Ours is not, and must not be, a religious, but rather a scientific, approach to things, to everything. We are not out to do something because we cooked up a nice vision, to us, of an “ideal world” and now—as the “anti-totalitarians” are always claiming, we’re setting out to impose, with as much force as proves necessary, this utopian ideal vision on everyone. This is one of the classical charges against communists in the “anti-totalitarian” arsenal—that we have these utopian dreams and schemes that may sound good but have no grounding or basis in reality, so we’re forced to increasingly use coercion against the very people in whose name we proclaim such a utopia, and we end up utilizing the most horrific means to try to impose this utopian ideal. That is not what this is about.

What we are setting out to do, and the principles and methods involved in this, are not a matter of apriorism and instrumentalism—we know the answers to everything going in, and it’s simply a matter of reconfiguring things so that everybody we’re working with gives us the right answers when we pose the right questions. To the degree that there are tendencies in this direction, it is something we have to thoroughly rupture with and root out. We must be engaging reality, on as scientific a basis as we possibly can, at any given time. And, in this process, we are interacting with other people who are applying different outlooks and different approaches with different objectives. Their thinking, their objectives, their inclinations and their ideas—some of which may actually better reflect reality than our understanding at times and with regard to certain phenomena, lest we forget—this is also part of the larger objective reality that we need to engage. It is necessary to have a scientific approach to that as well. We need to have a systematically, consistently, and comprehensively scientific approach, to everything—and the communist outlook and method provides the means to do that, if we actually take up and apply it, and don’t corrupt it with religious or other philosophically idealist and metaphysical notions and approaches.

This is why I like the image, or metaphor, of our being a team of scientists—scientists setting out to transform the world in the most profound way. What we’re about is not anything different than that. So we have to be consistently and thoroughly scientific ourselves, even when we’re interacting with many people who are anything but that—or are that at certain times and to a certain degree, but then again are not scientific in the most consistent, systematic, and comprehensive sense.

Running through everything I have been speaking to so far is the whole emphasis on the fact that Marxism/Communism is a science, a scientific outlook and method for understanding and, yes, for changing the world. It’s a science as opposed to dogma and religiosity—including dogma and religiosity in the guise of science. As I have pointed out before, we are not dealing with nature and history in capital letters—Nature and History endowed with will and purpose—and all this is not some grand process of the working out of Nature and History toward the inevitable goal of communism. We’re dealing with material reality in its various forms, including human social relations. There is no will operating through this, other than human beings with their “wills” and their understanding. There is no teleology unfolding, there is no predetermined end toward which everything is bound to proceed. And the fact is that, besides everything else that is wrong with this, it is also true that replacing science and the continual struggle to more and more consistently and systematically grasp and apply a scientific method and approach—replacing that with what amounts to religiosity will sooner or later, and often sooner, lead to “losing your faith”—the “god that failed” phenomenon that we have seen before. Religious viewpoints, in whatever guise and whatever form, are not going to stand up to the real world and to all the many, truly daunting challenges and profound contradictions that have to be struggled with and transformed. Religiosity, especially when you are setting out to radically change the world and are up against all the difficult challenges posed in this process, will lead to disorientation and to clinging (at least for a time) to a set of beliefs that is very brittle—and to being lifeless and uninspiring, for yourself or anyone else.

So we communists really need to rupture thoroughly with dogma and religiosity, and be consistently and systematically scientific. Let me keep emphasizing that fundamental point. And let me also emphasize that what we need, and must base ourselves on, is the scientific outlook and method of communism that is also opposed to what I call revisionist “determinist realism.” Lenin made that very insightful observation (or captured something very insightfully in the formulation) that one of the main expressions of revisionism is this: what is desirable is what’s possible, and what’s possible is what is already being done. Now, that is one of the main expressions of “determinist realism.” But this “determinist realism” also expresses itself in the form of not seeing the possibility of sudden, dramatic change and radical ruptures—only dealing with the surface appearance of things, not penetrating to the underlying contradictions and the dynamics that are bound up with those contradictions; not casting your gaze broadly enough at what’s going on in the world that might impinge upon and interpenetrate with things happening in one part of the world; not looking with a fresh and creative enough approach to reality, seeing only the existing patterns of things, but not the possibility of something emerging, yes, out of the existing contradictions—not out of nowhere—but perhaps in unexpected and unanticipated ways, being unprepared in your orientation for that.

The failure to do all that leads to this “determinist realism.” You look at the world as it is, you see what appears on the surface to be possible in the world the way it is, and you assume it will indefinitely continue the way it is—and therefore your options become more and more narrowed, your vision more and more constricted. Now it’s not that we can be voluntarist and think we can do whatever we want, regardless of material reality. But this is where dialectics comes in, together with materialism—this is why materialism, in the fullest and most consistent sense, dialectical materialism, does not lead to “determinist realism.” It involves an engagement with material reality, and key concentrations of material reality at any given time, in their contradictoriness—in their living, moving and changing character, and in their interconnection with other aspects of matter in motion—and not approaching things statically and as if things will continue on indefinitely the way they are. It looks beneath the surface to see the more profound undergirdings and dynamics that are driving things, and grapples with the ways in which this may bring forward radical ruptures and leaps, while also being oriented to expect the unexpected—to be alert and tense to the possibility of unanticipated events arising, or erupting, out of the motion and development of things that are already apparent, in interconnection with things that may not yet be apparent.

Marxism as a Science—Refuting Karl Popper

Marxism’s “falsifiability,” Popper’s falsehoods, and a scientific approach

Now, in this connection, I want to speak to the attempt by Karl Popper to discredit and attack Marxism. [8] Popper claims that Marxism is not a science because it is not falsifiable. Or to put it another way, Popper asserts that Marxism is in effect a religious worldview, which makes historical prophecies; and when, as Popper asserts, these “prophecies” turn out to be false—when reality turns out differently than what has been “prophesied” by Marxism—then Marxists simply invent rationalizations to explain away the failure of their “prophecy.”

This deserves to be addressed, because it gets to the heart of what, in fact, the Marxist outlook and method is—and is not—and how it not only meets the standards of science but represents the most consistent and systematic application of the scientific outlook and method, and is in the most fundamental and profound opposition to religious worldviews and approaches to reality.

Let’s begin by discussing the question of falsifiability, and its application to Marxism, and then get into some of Popper’s main attacks on Marxism and how in reality they turn out to be apologies for capitalism-imperialism. In The Science of Evolution and The Myth Of Creationism—Knowing What’s Real And Why It Matters, Ardea Skybreak emphasizes this contrast: “unlike ‘religious beliefs,’ scientific predictions (including predictions made about the processes involved in evolution) are actually testable and verifiable.” (p. 70, emphasis in original) And:

“A good scientific theory puts forward some predictions about what we should expect to find in the real world if the theory is true; and it also makes predictions about some of the things we should not be able to find in the world if the theory is true. This is known as the principle of ‘scientific falsifiability’: a genuine scientific theory, as a matter of principle, has to be capable of being disproved by facts (things which, if discovered, would prove your theory to be wrong).” (pp. 215-17, emphasis in original)

In short, the “falsifiability” criterion means that if something is really scientific, then it can be put to the test of reality. If things emerge in reality which the theory not only doesn’t anticipate, but which the theory would predict cannot happen, then obviously there is something wrong, incorrect, about the theory. If, to take an example cited by Skybreak, it could actually be shown—and not pretended in creationist museums—that dinosaurs and human beings existed at the same time, that would be one means of falsifying the theory of evolution, of showing that it is wrong. In reality, dinosaurs and human beings are separated in time by tens of millions of years; and in reality the evidence, from many different fields, that has been continually discovered and examined since the time of Darwin has increasingly verified the theory of evolution, demonstrating from a growing number of directions that it is in fact true, not false. But the point is that evolution, as a scientific theory, is falsifiable. And so, in a fundamental and essential sense, is Marxism—scientific communist theory.

Of course, it is possible that a scientific theory is true—correctly reflects reality—in its main and essential aspects, but is shown to be incorrect in certain secondary aspects—and, in accordance with that, some of its particular predictions prove not to be true. And when that is the case, the application of the scientific method leads to a further development of the theory—through the discarding, or modifying, of certain aspects and the addition of new elements into the theory. In fact, this happens all the time with scientific theories in all fields—physics, geology, biology, archaeology, medicine, and so on. To determine whether a theory as a whole has been falsified—has been shown, through investigation and analysis, utilizing scientific methods, not to be true—or whether, on the other hand, only certain secondary aspects have been falsified in this way, it is necessary to examine whether those things that have been shown not to be true actually bear on and undermine the main and essential elements of that theory or only secondary aspects which do not go to the essence of the theory as a whole. To put this another way, if the elements which have been shown not to be true can be eliminated, or modified, without calling into question the fundamental assertions of the theory, then it is not the theory itself, but only secondary aspects of the theory, that have been falsified; whereas, if the demonstration that certain elements of the theory are in fact not true causes the theory itself to collapse, then it is the theory as a whole, and in its essence, that has been falsified.

Let’s see how all this applies to Marxism. There are definitely things in Marxism that are falsifiable. For example, dialectical materialism. If the world were made up of something other than matter in motion—if that could be shown—then clearly Marxism in its fundamentals, in its essence and at its core, would be falsified, proven wrong. Or, if it could be shown that, yes, all reality consists of matter, but that some forms of matter do not change, do not have internal contradiction and motion and development—that too would be a fundamental refutation of dialectical materialism. But none of that has been shown.

Another “core element” of Marxism is concentrated in the statement by Marx, cited earlier, concerning the foundation of all society in the struggle of people to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life, and the fact that in carrying out this most fundamental activity people enter into definite production relations, which are independent of their will. That is falsifiable, as is the Marxist analysis of the underlying dynamics of change in society, rooted in the contradictory relation between the productive forces and the production relations, and the economic base and the superstructure. That is also falsifiable—but it has not been falsified. It is true—the examination of human society in a scientific way bears out the truth that Marx was concentrating in that analysis.

There is the Marxist analysis of the basic contradictions and the driving forces and dynamics of the capitalist system in particular, including the pivotal element of the production of surplus value through the exploitation of wage-labor by capital. All that is falsifiable—but it hasn’t been falsified—it is true, it corresponds to reality.

There is the Marxist analysis, sharpened by Lenin, of the nature of the state as a decisive part of the relation between the economic base and the legal, political and ideological superstructure. This analysis that the state, of whatever kind, always represents a dictatorship of one class or another—this, too, is falsifiable. Show us a state that is not an instrument of class rule. If anyone could show that—in reality, and not in fanciful illusions—then at least that part of Marxism would be shown to be false (and that is a crucial part of Marxism). But this has not been shown to be false: Everywhere experience has shown, often at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering, that in fact this Marxist analysis of the state—that all states, even the “most democratic” ones, are in fact dictatorships—is profoundly true.

All these are core elements of Marxism—of scientific communist theory. All of them are falsifiable—but the application of a scientific approach and method has shown them not to be false but true, to in fact correspond to reality.

Now, of course, precisely as a science, Marxism continues to develop—to, if you will, refine its analysis and synthesis of reality, both “natural” and social reality. It continues to discard particular aspects which have proven not to be true, or to no longer apply. For example, Lenin analyzed capitalism’s development into imperialism and showed that, while the basic contradictions and underlying dynamics of capitalism remained fundamentally the same, its development into imperialism modified certain features of more “classical capitalism” that Marx had analyzed (that is, capitalism before it had reached the stage where it was defined by the domination of monopolies and other features which, Lenin showed, were characteristic of a new stage of capitalism: imperialism). Lenin also showed how this development (of capitalism into this new stage of imperialism) led to changes in the political realm as well as the economic realm. For example, Lenin analyzed the split in the proletariat, particularly in the imperialist countries, where certain sections of the working class were, to a significant extent, bribed from the spoils of imperialism’s international exploitation and plunder; and he emphasized that, in this situation, the revolutionary movement representing the interests of the proletariat as a class must be based, fundamentally, on the “lower, deeper” sections of the proletariat, as opposed to the more bourgeoisified or “labor aristocratic” sections of the working class. These were modifications in the theory of communism, but they did not constitute an abandoning, or a refutation, of the core and essential elements of this scientific theory.

Marx and Engels had anticipated that the communist revolution would come first to Europe where, in their time, capitalism—and, along with it, the proletariat—was already more fully developed. When that did not happen—because this is a real life struggle and not something pre-determined, not something teleological, heading toward some predestined end—Lenin analyzed this and showed how the potential for socialism was in fact strengthened on an international basis, while the class contradictions and the potential for socialist revolution in the capitalist-imperialist countries themselves were attenuated and retarded in some ways by the development of capitalism into imperialism—revolutionary possibility in the capitalist-imperialist countries was not eliminated but held back, in certain ways and for a certain period of time.

Does all this make Marxism not a science? No. In reality, it demonstrates Marxism’s scientific character: Marxism has continued to refine its understanding of reality, but it has, correctly, retained its core elements, and its basic outlook and methodology—which are falsifiable, but are not false.

Similarly, Mao, on the basis of the development of imperialism and its effects in countries like China (the emergence of semi-colonial and semi-feudal society under the domination of foreign imperialism), applied the scientific outlook and method of communism to analyze this reality and brought forward the conception of new-democratic revolution in these semi-colonial, semi-feudal countries—a revolution that would not be immediately socialist but would first pass through an essentially bourgeois-democratic stage, aimed at defeating imperialism and feudalism, and then, with victory in that stage (which Mao termed “new-democratic” because the struggle was under the leadership of the proletariat, and not the bourgeoisie), the revolution would achieve a new state power—a new form of the dictatorship of the proletariat—which would open the door to establishing socialism and advancing through the socialist transition toward communism. Along with this, Mao developed the strategic conception and road of protracted people’s war as the means for carrying out this revolution. This was a new element added to Marxism—on a scientific basis.

Further, on the basis of the positive and negative experience of socialism itself over more than a half century, first in the Soviet Union and then in China itself—which, when scientifically analyzed, and synthesized, showed that in socialist society itself there continue to be antagonistic classes and in particular that a new bourgeoisie is continually regenerated on the basis of the remaining material conditions left over from the old society, which can only be transformed through a protracted process, and ultimately on a world scale—Mao developed the theory of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This, again, represented the application of the scientific outlook and method of communism to investigate and to draw profound lessons from historical experience and from reality broadly.

And, over the whole period of more than 150 years since the time when Marx and Engels first formulated communism as a scientific theory, there has also been the continuing enrichment of the understanding of dialectical materialism itself, on the basis of learning from continuing discoveries, in natural science as well as social science and history. It is not that these developments have shown that, after all, reality does not consist only of matter in motion; it is that they have deepened our understanding of what that means, and at the same time have posed new challenges in understanding particular forms of matter and particular aspects of the laws of motion of matter. In the realm of physics, for example, scientists are straining for further synthesis, striving in particular for a theory that will unify the principles of relativity with those of quantum mechanics. I have to admit that much of the particulars of this is beyond my understanding, but it is clear that none of this has pointed to any conclusion other than that all reality consists of matter in motion.

As people who adhere to and seek to apply a consistently and systematically scientific world outlook and method, we communists will continue the struggle to refine and develop our understanding of all of this, including the basic scientific principles of dialectical materialism and its application to nature and to human society as well. But, once again, all of this is on the foundation of certain basic principles and methods which do continue to apply—to conform to objective reality—and which, yes, have been and can be subjected to the criterion of falsifiability but have not been shown to be false, have in fact been shown to be true, in their essential core elements.

If we turn more directly now to Karl Popper’s attempt to discredit Marxism, this can shed further light on what has been discussed so far, in terms of Marxism as a scientific theory, and it will bring to light some of the main ways in which Popper’s attack on Marxism is in reality not only a distortion of communism but also a distortion of, and in reality an apology for, capitalism-imperialism.


Popper includes Marx and Marxism, along with Hegel and others, in what he characterizes as “historicism,” by which he means a certain kind of determinism, akin or equivalent to teleology: the notion that there is some design or purpose in nature, and/or history, and that things are all being directed, in accordance with this design or purpose, toward some predetermined end. And Popper attempts to show that such theories, including Marxism, lead in reality to totalitarianism. This is linked to Popper’s claim that Marxism cannot meet, and in fact fails, the test of falsifiability. Here, I will not attempt to speak to and refute everything that is wrong with not only Popper’s conclusions but his basic approach and method—to do that might well require more volumes than Popper’s original material—but I will focus on a few elements which are central to Popper’s thesis and which, upon scientific examination, reveal at least some of the basic flaws not only in Popper’s conclusions but in his method and approach as well.

Let’s begin with the question of capitalism’s development into imperialism and, along with that, the fact that the class contradictions in the imperialist countries themselves, rather than being intensified, as Marx and Engels had originally predicted, became mitigated and modified. Already, toward the end of the 19th century, Engels in particular had begun to analyze how the widespread British colonial empire—and the exploitation and depredation that British imperialism carried out in its colonies—had led to changes in the condition of sections of the British working class.

But here is what Popper says about Engels’ analysis:

“Forced to admit that in Britain the prevailing tendency was not towards an increase in misery [among the working class] but rather towards a considerable improvement, he hints that this may be due to the fact that Britain ‘is exploiting the whole world’; and he scornfully assails ‘the British working class’ which, instead of suffering as he expected them to do, ‘is actually becoming more and more bourgeois’.” (Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2, Hegel and Marx, p.187)

Here it is Popper who has insinuated into the discussion a certain method, and certain motives, which he attributes to Engels. Engels is angry, according to Popper, because the British working class did not suffer as he expected—and, the implication is, wanted—them to suffer; and this, says Popper, is the reason Engels is speaking about this British working class in the “scornful” terms he does. Note that here Popper in effect ignores, or sidesteps, the question of whether Engels is right (and, as we shall see presently, when Popper does try to show that Engels is not right, Popper falls into assertions that are not only false but fatuous). Popper is out to show that Engels (along with Marx) was proceeding according to an apriorist and instrumentalist theory, and when reality (in this case in the persons of the British workers) did not conform to this apriorist and instrumentalist theory, then the conclusion was that there was something wrong with reality (with the reality of the British working class) rather than with the theory.

So argues Popper. And he further elaborates on this with the comment that

“Marx blamed capitalism for ‘proletarianizing the middle class and the lower bourgeoisie’, and for reducing the workers to pauperism. Engels now blames the system—it is still blamed—for making bourgeois out of workers. But the nicest touch in Engels’ complaint is the indignation that makes him call the British who behave so inconsiderately as to falsify Marxist prophecies ‘this most bourgeois of all nations’.” (Popper, p. 188)

Note that here Popper smuggles in the concept of “prophecies”—attributing this religious orientation to Engels, and Marx—and paints them as fanatics who are bent on forcing reality to conform to their essentially religious-teleological convictions. This is a canard common to the “anti-totalitarian” theorists, such as Popper. And Popper extends this as well to Lenin and his analysis of capitalism’s development into the stage of imperialism and its effects on the working class in countries like England. Speaking of Lenin’s description of how imperialism has led to the bourgeoisification of a part of the British proletariat, Popper remarks: “Having given such a pretty Marxist name, ‘the bourgeoisification of the proletariat’, to a hateful tendency—hateful mainly because it did not fit in with the way the world should go according to Marx—Lenin apparently believes that it has become a Marxist tendency.” (Popper, p. 188, emphasis added here)

But the truth is that Engels, as well as Lenin, was applying Marxism—the scientific theory of communism—to analyze what had actually happened in objective reality, while it is Popper himself who is proceeding according to an apriorist and instrumentalist theory (namely, the theory that Marxism is not a science but a “historicist” approach which attempts to shape reality to its teleological conceptions…and becomes infuriated when reality refuses to oblige). Popper’s own apriorism and instrumentalism in this regard becomes strikingly clear when he attempts to refute the analysis of Engels—which was carried further and generalized by Lenin with the further development of reality, in the first part of the 20th century—concerning the effects of imperialism in the imperialist countries themselves, as well as in the colonized world. Listen to what Popper is not embarrassed to argue:

“There are countries, for instance the Scandinavian democracies, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, to say nothing of the United States, in which a democratic interventionism secured to the workers a high standard of living, in spite of the fact that colonial exploitation had no influence there, or was at any rate far too unimportant to support the hypothesis…. Furthermore, although the misery imposed upon the natives through colonization is one of the darkest chapters in the history of civilization, it cannot be asserted that their misery has tended to increase since the days of Marx. The exact opposite is the case; things have greatly improved. And yet, increasing misery would have to be very noticeable there if the auxiliary hypothesis [about the effects of colonialism and imperialism] and the original theory [of Marx] were both correct.” (Popper, p. 189, emphasis added here)

It is hard to know which is more astounding: the fact that someone who claims to be making a serious argument, by way of critiquing Marxism, can actually state things such as this, which are so flagrantly and demonstrably in conflict with reality (and this was clearly the case at the time that Popper wrote this); or that such a person, authoring such statements, can apparently be taken seriously by people who think of themselves as seriously engaging reality, and many of whom consider themselves “progressive” opponents of the injustices in the world.

Here, I don’t believe it is necessary to cite much of the great abundance of facts and analysis which give the lie to Popper’s claims (and in particular the ones highlighted in the passages above), since the stinging refutation that reality itself provides is there for anyone willing to see, or to do even minimal investigation into the matter. But let me just introduce a few basic facts into the picture. In Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, at the beginning of chapter 5 (“Imperialism, Democracy, and Dictatorship”) I cited a few statistics which point to the profound disparities in the world, particularly between the imperialist countries, on the one hand, and the colonies (or neo-colonies) of the Third World, on the other hand. For example: the gross national product, per capita (in relation to each person) was then (the early 1980s) more than 35 times greater in Great Britain than in India; more than 25 times greater in France than in Senegal; and more than 40 times greater in the U.S. than in Haiti; and so on. In the 20 or so years since that was written, with the effects of things like IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs in many Third World countries, and the opening up of these countries and their peoples to even more unfettered exploitation and plunder by imperialism, the situation for great numbers of people in the Third World has only grown worse. (And it has been estimated, for example, that with regard to things like nutritional standards, the people in Latin America are worse off than their ancestors were at the time of the invasion by the Spanish and other European colonialists, 500 or so years ago.) The recent book by Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, provides a compelling picture of the desperate situation and extreme misery of literally billions of people throughout the Third World, whose lot today is hardly better than it was in “the days of Marx.”

In short, the words of Marx, in characterizing the results of the capitalist accumulation process—words which Popper cites in order to mock Marx—stand out as all the more profoundly true today, and the reality that these words capture (even while they cannot do so fully) stands as a stinging rebuttal to Popper, especially as this is viewed not simply within the narrow circle of a handful of imperialist countries but rather on a world scale: “The accumulation of wealth at the one pole of society involves at the same time an accumulation of misery, of the agony of toil, of slavery, ignorance, brutalization, and of moral degradation, at the opposite pole.” (Marx, as cited in Popper, p. 186) For anyone with a willingness to look honestly at the situation in the world, there can be no doubt that the kind of thing that is cited above from Popper, in his attempt to discredit the Marxist and Leninist analysis of imperialism and its effects, should be dismissed as monumental foolishness if it were not for the very sinister intent and effect of Popper’s denial and distortion of reality. [9]

The state, bourgeois democracy and dictatorship

Popper does not fare any better when it comes to his attempt to refute the basic Marxist analysis of the state. Consistent with his overall approach, Popper argues that in the Marxist view of the state—which recognizes that the state is an instrument of class dictatorship—there is a strong element of “essentialism.” This is another way of saying that Marxism attempts to impose “categories” on reality, rather than examining what actually happens in reality. So, Popper asserts: “Instead of making his demands or proposals concerning the functions which he wants the state, the legal institutions or the government to perform, he [Marx] asks, ‘What is the state?’; that is to say, he tries to discover the essential function of legal institutions.” (Popper, p. 119, emphasis in original)

This is like criticizing a man as an “essentialist” because, when seeing a gun pointed at his head, he focuses on the danger it poses (the “essential nature” of the gun and the bullets it can fire), rather than “making his demands or proposals concerning the functions which he wants…[the gun] to perform”! Here it has to be said that this concept of “essentialism” is completely erroneous, and harmful, if it is applied to mean that one should not try to determine what the essence of something actually is. While taking into account that all things, all forms of matter in motion, themselves involve internal contradiction and are constantly moving and changing (and interacting with other forms of matter in motion), and that particular forms of matter in motion have a beginning and an end (come into existence and eventually go out of existence), it is not wrong, and in fact it is very important, to recognize that these particular forms of matter in motion have a certain identity, or essential character, in any given circumstances, and to identify what exactly that identity or essential character is. (As Mao Tsetung pointed out, the essence of a thing is defined by its principal aspect. That essential character is not something unchangeable—it may change, and will change if the principal aspect changes, as a result of struggle; but the particular nature of that change, what it gives rise to, will be influenced and largely shaped by the nature of the thing itself, and of its contradictory aspects—this change and what it gives rise to cannot result from, and be determined by, the subjective wishes or desires of anyone—here we see another parallel with evolutionary changes in the natural world and the role of constraints in relation to that, as spoken to earlier.)

Here, as we will see again, Popper is actually proceeding according to an apriorist and instrumentalist approach: he wants to argue that reform, not revolution, is what is called for, in order to deal with certain ills of capitalism that he does not feel inclined to deny, and in accordance with that he fashions attempts to refute the validity of the Marxist analysis of the state—attempts which, upon examination, do not really even address, let alone refute, that analysis. In short, instead of making wrong-headed accusations about “essentialism” with regard to the Marxist analysis of the (essence of the) state, what is required, in order to refute this analysis, is to show that it is wrong. And when Popper attempts to do this, the flaws in his method and approach once again forcefully assert themselves.

Popper’s essential argument on this (so to say) is that where a people can remove their political leaders, there cannot be a dictatorship but there is rather a democracy (as is common, Popper suggests that where there is democracy there cannot be a dictatorship, and vice versa, rather than recognizing the reality that a certain kind of democracy—bourgeois democracy—can be, and often is, a useful form for the exercise of dictatorship by the bourgeoisie). Here is the crux of Popper’s attempted refutation of the Marxist theory that the state is an instrument of class dictatorship:

“Moreover, from the point of view we have reached, what Marxists describe despairingly as ‘mere formal freedom’ becomes the basis of everything else. This ‘mere formal freedom’, i.e. democracy, the right of the people to judge and to dismiss their government, is the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power; it is the control of the rulers by the ruled.” (Popper, p. 127, emphasis added here)

Although it was not written as a response to Popper, in a real sense the whole of my book Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? constitutes, objectively, a refutation of this statement by Popper and the whole line of thinking of which it is a typical expression. Particularly in the third chapter of that book—very appropriately titled “The Illusions of Democracy”—I demonstrated how, in a bourgeois dictatorship in the democratic form (which Popper, along with many others, simply refers to as “democracy,” without regard to, or in denial of, its actual class content and character), while it may be true that the people can “dismiss” (vote out of office) particular politicians, they cannot by this means—or any means, other than revolution—“dismiss” the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) which in reality rules society, which exerts control over the electoral process itself, and which in any case dominates the political decision-making process, and, most essentially, exercises a monopoly of “legitimate” armed force. As I have emphasized, in Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? and elsewhere, no serious—and certainly no genuinely scientific—analysis of the dynamics of political power and of the political decision-making process in “democratic” countries, such as the U.S., can lead to any other conclusion than that all this is, in reality, completely monopolized and dominated by the ruling class of capitalist-imperialists, and that others, besides this ruling class, are effectively excluded from the exercise of political power and meaningful political decision-making, notwithstanding the participation of the populace in elections. And, with no apologies to Popper, it can, and must, be said that this is owing to the essential nature of the capitalist system and the state which arises on the basis of and serves to maintain this system.

Thus, Popper is profoundly wrong—he turns things precisely upside down—when he argues that the followers of Marx (and, as Popper sees it, of Plato and Hegel as well) “will never see that the old question ‘Who shall be the rulers?’ must be superseded by the more real one ‘How can we tame them?’” (Popper, p. 133) In reality, who—that is, which class—rules, and more specifically in today’s world, whether there is rule by the bourgeoisie or by the proletariat, makes all the difference, in terms of what kind of society, and world, there is going to be. Under the rule, the dictatorship, of the bourgeoisie, the masses of people can never in any meaningful sense “tame” those who rule over them, nor more fundamentally can they change the basic character of society. But, with the overthrow of the capitalist dictatorship, and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the door is finally opened to putting an end to all relations of domination, oppression, and exploitation—and, in fact, to finally abolishing the state (dictatorship) in any form, with the achievement of communism throughout the world. Of course, as experience has clearly demonstrated, to maintain rule by the proletariat, once it has been achieved—and, moreover, to continue, with this rule, to transform society, overcoming step by step the division between mental and manual labor, and other major social contradictions characteristic of class-divided society, drawing the masses of people increasingly into the process of decision-making and administration of society, and continuing the advance toward communism as part of the overall world revolutionary struggle—all this requires a profound, protracted and epochal struggle. Later in this talk, I will return to some of the most important lessons, positive and negative, that can and must be drawn from the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat so far. But what needs to be emphasized here is that a decisive, qualitative change in the nature of the state, in who rules society, and how it is ruled—the overthrow of bourgeois dictatorship and the establishment and exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat—is the necessary, and first great, leap that must be made in order to enable the masses of people to truly become masters of society, and then finally to reach the point where there are no longer class divisions, no more exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed, and therefore no need, and no basis, for the existence and role of an institution—the state—whereby one class rules over and suppresses the classes whose interests are antagonistic to its own.

Capitalist exploitation

Next, let’s turn to how Popper attempts to refute Marx’s theory of exploitation (of the creation of surplus value through the exploitation by the capitalists of the wage-labor of the proletarians) and to show how this theory, too, is “essentialist or metaphysical” and is insufficient without, less important than, and dependent upon the mechanism of supply and demand (see Popper, p. 174). It is not really possible here to discuss everything that is wrong with Popper’s argument in this case. Suffice it to say that here, as elsewhere, Popper does not understand, and/or deliberately misrepresents, Marx’s analysis. To cite just one aspect of this, Marx amply shows how the mechanism of supply and demand, while it can explain the “ups and downs” in the prices of things, does not, and cannot, determine the value of things. This is why, for example, supply and demand may influence the price of a candy bar, on the one hand, and an airplane on the other hand, but no variation in supply and demand is likely to make the prices of a candy bar and an airplane the same, for the basic reason that the actual value of each is, as Marx demonstrates, determined by something other than supply and demand—it is determined by the total amount of socially necessary labor time that goes into the production of each. Thus, Popper has stood reality on its head: the mechanism of supply and demand is subordinate to and less important than the theory of value and surplus value developed by Marx, which explains how particular items have the value that they do, and also explains how capitalists accumulate profit (surplus value) through the exploitation of the wage-labor of the proletarians—through paying the workers an amount equal to the socially necessary labor time that is involved in producing the requirements of life of the workers, while in fact the workers, in the course of their working hours, produce value beyond that which is equivalent to the value embodied in their requirements of life, extra value which goes to the capitalist. And, as Marx also demonstrated, commodities and commodity exchange existed well before and independently of capitalism, and it is not merely the production and exchange of things as commodities that is the distinguishing feature of capitalism, and the secret of its accumulation process, but rather the conversion of labor power itself (the ability to work in general) into a commodity, a commodity with the particular quality of being able to produce more wealth through its use (its employment, in one form or another, in the production process under capitalism). As explained in the book America in Decline, in a discussion of the basic principles of Marxist political economy:

“Capital is value which generates surplus value. Capital is both a social relation and a process whose essence is the domination of labor power by alien, antagonistic interests, a social relation and a process whose inner dynamic is to constantly reproduce and extend itself.” (Raymond Lotta, with Frank Shannon, America in Decline, An Analysis of the Developments Toward War and Revolution, in the U.S. and Worldwide in the 1980s [Chicago: Banner Press, 1984], p. 44, emphasis in original)

Philosophy and method

In his pathbreaking dissection and analysis of capitalism and its inner tendencies—and of the development of human society overall—Marx examines, in a living way, the real mainsprings and dynamics involved and, yes, points to the direction in which the underlying contradictions are driving things. The method of Marx, and of Marxism as it has developed since the time of Marx, is anything but a metaphysical approach that proceeds from abstract principles and categories and seeks to superimpose them on reality. On the contrary, Marx—who, after all, spent more than 10 years in the library of the British Museum, sifting through voluminous studies of different economies and societies and subjecting to critical analysis different theories with regard to political economy, as well as philosophy and other subjects—this actual Marx (as opposed to the distortions of Marx concocted by his enemies, including Popper) investigated reality, in a deep and all-sided way, and drew theoretical conclusions from that investigation and study, through the application of scientific principles and methods. And, in the time since Marx, while certain of his conclusions, or predictions, have not been borne out, overwhelmingly the decisive things that he brought to life have been shown, in reality, to be true; and Marxism has continued to develop, as all genuinely scientific theories do, by applying and testing in practice its basic principles and methods, drawing conclusions through that process and, yes, discarding or modifying—or, on the other hand, amplifying and further developing—particular aspects of this theory.

Although Marx and Engels were inspired by and learned a great deal from Hegel and his dialectical method, they also moved beyond Hegel and his philosophical system in qualitative ways; as they made very clear, they cast aside the idealist and metaphysical core of Hegel’s philosophical system, with its teleological constructs, but they carried forward, further developed and, in a real sense, reconstructed his dialectical method, on a materialist foundation. [10]

Marxism, scientific communism, does not embody, but in fact rejects, any teleological (or, as Popper would have it, “historicist”) notion that there is some kind of will or purpose with which nature, or history, is endowed. As I put it more than 20 years ago now:

“Neither the emergence of the human species nor the development of human society to the present was predetermined or followed predetermined pathways. There is no transcendent will or agent which has conceived and shaped all such development, and nature and history should not be treated as such—as Nature and History. Rather, such development occurs through the dialectical interplay between necessity and accident and in the case of human history between underlying material forces and the conscious activity and struggle of people.” (First cited in Ardea Skybreak, Of Primeval Steps & Future Leaps, An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, The Source of Women’s Oppression, and the Road to Emancipation [Chicago: Banner Press, 1984]). [11]

But this does not mean that history is all accident—or, as Popper essentially argues—that history is whatever we make of it. To return again to another crucially important insight of Marx’s: People make history, but not in any way they wish—they do so on a definite material foundation, which is independent of their will, not in the sense that they cannot act to change this material reality, but that they can do so on the basis, and only on the basis, of correctly understanding what that material reality is, and how it is moving and changing, and the possibility this opens for radical change of one kind or another. While there is no will or purpose—and no predetermined end—to human history, there is, as Marx also pointed out, a certain coherence to it. As Marx explained:

“Because of the simple fact that every succeeding generation finds itself in possession of the productive forces acquired by the previous generation, and that they serve it as the raw material for new production, a coherence arises in human history, a history of humanity takes shape which becomes all the more a history of humanity the more the productive forces of men and therefore their social relations develop.” (Marx, Letter to P.V. Annenkov, December 28, 1846.)

And, as Engels expanded on this point, elucidating further the dialectical—as opposed to mechanical and determinist—materialism of Marxism:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure…also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular.” (Engels, Letter to J. Bloch, September 21-22, 1890, as cited in For a Harvest of Dragons, p. 29, emphasis in original)

From all this, it can be seen that Popper’s attack on Marxism constitutes a distortion of Marxism and a rather crude and clumsy apology for the system of capitalism-imperialism, and that the best refutation of this is…Marxism itself—the real Marxism, a living science which, like all real scientific theories, is constantly developing, including through interrogation of itself.

Science and scientific truths

Popper’s distortions of Marxism are in fact closely linked with his misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what science in general is, and what science enables human beings to know. In the “Addenda” to the second volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies—ironically, in the course of a polemic against relativism (“Facts, Standards, and Truth: A Further Criticism of Relativism,” 1961), Popper reveals the significant elements of relativism in his own outlook and approach. Popper insists that “though we may seek for truth, and though we may even find truth (as I believe we do in very many cases), we can never be quite certain that we have found it.” And: “we cannot establish or justify anything as certain, or even as probable, but have to content ourselves with theories which withstand criticism.” (Popper, pp. 375, 379)

But this is clearly wrong. Some things can be known with certainty, and some theories can be determined, with a high degree of certainty, to be true, as is the case, for example, with the theory of evolution. The fact that I have used here the phrase “with a high degree of certainty” is a reflection of the fact that, as Lenin emphasized in his philosophical writings (most notably “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”), Marxism rejects relativism philosophically, but it recognizes that even within absolute truth there is an element of the relative. As Mao wrote, in “On Practice”:

“Marxists recognize that in the absolute and general process of the development of the universe, the development of each particular process is relative, and that hence, in the endless flow of absolute truth, man’s knowledge of a particular process at any given stage of development is only relative truth.”

It is relative truth, but it is truth—such are the (again, no apologies to the likes of Popper) dialectics of the matter.

The way in which Marxism differs with, and is in opposition to Popper’s theory of knowledge, including its relativist elements, also stands out in the emphasis Marxism places on the centrality of practice, precisely within the acquisition of knowledge—its insistence that, while theoretical abstraction, and engagement and grappling in the realm of theoretical abstraction, is extremely important and indeed indispensable in the development of knowledge, practice is the ultimate point of origin and point of verification of theoretical knowledge. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx put it this way: “The question whether objective truth can be attained by human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question.” And:

“In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness, of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” (Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” emphasis in original)

In opposition to this, to what is in fact the correct understanding and approach, while Popper recognizes a role for practice in the pursuit of knowledge—and he writes that “In the realm of facts, we do not merely criticize our theories, we criticize them by an appeal to experimental and observational experience” (Popper, p. 388, emphasis in original)—he does not place practice in the central and determining role in regard to the development of human knowledge. Rather, he assigns this role to criticism. That is the meaning of his statement that “we cannot establish or justify anything as certain, or even as probable, but have to content ourselves with theories which withstand criticism.” (Popper, p. 379, emphasis added) And he goes on to assert that

“we learn from our mistakes, rather than by the accumulation of data.... the role of thought is to carry out revolutions by means of critical debates rather than by means of violence and warfare; that is the great tradition of Western rationalism to fight our battles with words rather than with swords. This is why our Western civilization is an essentially pluralistic one, and why monolithic social ends would mean the death of freedom: of the freedom of thought, of the free search for truth, and with it, of the rationality and dignity of man.” (Popper, p. 396)

Here, in a sense, we have the “good fortune” of seeing Popper’s relativist aspects, his rather rank “Western chauvinism” and his prettifying of the nature of “Western civilization” and its relation with the rest of the world (his ignoring, or covering over, the fact that “Western rationalism” has quite often been used to rationalize wars of aggression as well as colonial conquest and plunder, and exploitation at home and abroad), together with his bourgeois “pluralism.” Just as in the political sphere—and specifically with regard to the nature and role of the state—Popper ignores, or refuses to recognize, the way in which class relations—relations of class domination—influence everything in the capitalist society he idealizes. As applied to the field of science, for example, while such things as “peer review” of scientific discoveries, theories, etc.—subjecting them to the criticism of others with specialized knowledge and experience in the particular field—can play an important positive role, it can by no means guarantee that the truth will win out, in any given circumstance. It has, unfortunately, been demonstrated repeatedly that when something touches on the essential interests of the ruling class in such a society, those considerations (of interest) will often overrule matters of objective truth, in various disciplines and even in academia overall. If, as with Popper, we were to place “criticism,” in place of practice, in the central role in our evaluation of theories and ideas in general, we would rob ourselves of the most solid objective basis for determining what is true.

But for Popper that is not important, since he denies that it is possible to determine what is true, or even more probable: we must, he insists, content ourselves with what best withstands criticism. Here again, the relativism of Popper stands out. For, if it is impossible even to determine what is most probable—and if, as Popper argues, the development of human theories and knowledge consists only in the replacement of one theory by what seems, at the time, to be a better one—then, even though Popper allows that there is truth, and even that humanity can advance in its knowledge of the truth, in reality and objectively he is saying that there is no truth, or in any case that we cannot really advance in our approximation of the truth, because after all if it is only a matter of a “better” theory replacing one that has proved to be less good, then really there is no way of knowing whether either of them is—or even whether either one of them stands in any way closer to—the truth.

Again, this is fine with Popper because, with his bourgeois “pluralist” outlook, what is important is the—illusory—ideal that all ideas and theories have “equal opportunity” (my phrase) to be expressed. Like all bourgeois “pluralist” ways of thinking, this ignores the fact that, in reality, and particularly in a society ruled by an exploiting class, including the “Western democracies,” all ideas will not have an equal opportunity to be expressed and considered, and certain ideas, which are considered subversive of the established order—and particularly when this subversive nature is regarded as posing a significant threat to that order—will be actively suppressed by the ruling class and its state. As I pointed out in Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, in reality, the workings of the “free market place of ideas” within capitalist society work out in the same way as the literal market, in the context of the underlying dynamics of capitalist accumulation: not in equality, even in the form of equal right to compete, but in domination by those who have achieved, and are determined to maintain, a monopolizing and controlling position.

As for communists and the scientific theory of communism, we recognize and insist upon the possibility of arriving at the truth—even with the relative element within objective truth, as spoken to here—and the importance of the search for the truth. We recognize that the way in which it is possible to continually acquire more knowledge, and to be able to determine that this knowledge in fact corresponds to objective reality, is to proceed on the basis of the store of knowledge that has been acquired—and that has been shown to be true through the application of the scientific method and its handling of the dialectical relation between practice and theory—and in this way to further engage reality, to accumulate further “raw materials” of knowledge through this process, then to synthesize this, raising it to the level of theory, and then again returning this to practice, in order to test, and to learn more about, the reality that this theory aims to concentrate. And we recognize the importance of the clash of ideas, of the struggle in the realm of ideas—and all the more so as this is unfettered from relations of class domination. The communist method and approach is to apply, as consistently and systematically as possible, scientific principles in engaging—in learning about and transforming—reality; and, as I have emphasized, this involves and requires acting on what is understood (through the application of this scientific approach) to be true, at any given time, while “being open to the understanding that you may not be right about this or that particular, or even about big questions.” (See “The Struggle in the Realm of Ideas,” in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, p. 6) [12]

Historical Experience and the New Synthesis

The crimes of this system—and the rationalizations for these crimes

In the history of the communist movement and of socialist society, the basic orientation has been one of dealing with the material reality and the conditions of the masses of people as the priority, as the focus and as the foundation, as opposed to the bourgeois approach of ignoring—or, in fact, reinforcing—the oppressive conditions of the masses of people, the great majority of humanity. And it is very important to grasp firmly that, in the name of the individual and “individual rights,” advocates in one form or another of this bourgeois approach actually uphold the interests of a class—and the dynamics of a system in which that class, the bourgeoisie, rules—where masses of people, literally billions of individuals within the exploited and oppressed classes, are mercilessly ground down and chewed up, and where their individuality and any notion of their individual dignity is counted as nothing.

Think of the children in India, millions of them, as young as four years old sometimes, working 12 hours a day, every day of the week, in conditions that are extremely injurious to their health—and that is way understating the matter. Or think of the children in Africa living in unspeakable slums. Think of the people throughout the Third World, living in the most undescribable conditions, literally amidst shit and other filth, as their everyday environment. How does this capitalist system count their individuality? It counts it as nothing.

Sometimes, as a comrade recently said to me, even we underestimate or don’t have a full and fully living sense of the towering crimes of this system. Anywhere you look, if you look with the penetrating gaze of science—if you take a real, honest and scientific look at the history of what has gone on, and what is going on today, in the world (and what is going on in this country, for example), if you think about the first part of the talk on the “Revolution” DVD and what it brings to light about the history of this country, down to the present day, you will see that the most monstrous crimes have been carried out by this system and with the backing of those who rule it. Think about the reality that this system embodies and the reality of what that means for the people who have been subjected to this, who are bound up in this, in literal slavery sometimes even today [13] (and for generations in the history of this country), but in horrific conditions no matter what the particular forms. Think of what this system actually means while they’re pontificating about “the individual” and “the rights of individuals.” For whom—for which class of people—does that apply, and for whom and for which classes does that have no application and meaning, other than the most bitter and mocking irony?

And, as we know, they’ve always got excuses. People who rule in this way have to have a lot of excuses. The ruling class and its apologists in this country will say: “We had to do certain things—pulling off a coup and putting the butcher Pinochet in power in Chile, doing the same kind of thing in Guatemala and Indonesia, Iran and other places—because of a greater evil, you see.” “We were up against a greater evil,” is a constant refrain of theirs. Today it’s Islamic fundamentalism or “Islamo fascism.” Previously it was other forms of “totalitarianism”—and, of course, communism in particular.

Well, leaving aside for the moment the distortions and slanders of what communism, the communist movement, and the experience of socialist states have actually been about, let’s speak to this argument. Okay, then, what about the Philippines? You invaded the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, betrayed your promises to the people in the Philippines fighting for independence, waged a war of aggression to colonize the Philippines, massacred Philippine people in the hundreds of thousands and carried out unspeakable atrocities in the process—not just murdering people but parading around with the body parts of those who were killed, and all the rest that is so characteristic of your armed forces. Where was the Soviet Union then? Where was the People’s Republic of China, when you did all this? They didn’t even exist yet.

Or let’s go back a little further. What about the genocide against the native peoples (the original peoples on this continent)? What about the enslavement of the African peoples, in the millions and millions, and all the consequences of that? Guess what? Karl Marx wasn’t even born when you started doing that.

Your answer that you have done these things in response to greater evils is merely covering up a fundamental truth: I don’t like to use the word evil (especially because of its religious connotations or “echoes”), but if “evil” has any meaning you are it. You and your system are the concentration in the modern world of the horrors of what humanity is put through, and the fundamental cause of the horrors that humanity is put through. And you have been carrying this out for centuries now—this has been carried out from the beginning of this country (and in the period of European settlement and conquest that led to the establishment of this country). And, yes it is true, these horrors are far greater than even we communists usually are capable of comprehending and giving voice to.

A “Ted Bundy” Country, a “Ted Bundy” System

Yet you hear people, including people with progressive sentiments, say: “Yes, I know, all that’s true, but, you see, we have our founders” (they don’t call them “founding fathers” any more, that doesn’t square with their progressive sentiments, or pretensions—it is too obviously patriarchal) “we have our founders, and they bequeathed to us this democratic system of government which has its checks and balances and all the rest.” And for many people, far too many people—whether more aggressively and grotesquely in the form of the “neo-conservatives” and the overt exponents of imperialism, or in the more muted terms of those who are, at least objectively, “progressive” apologists for this system—this notion of “American exceptionalism,” in a “positive” sense, keeps coming through: Yes, the more “liberal” and “progressive” among these people will acknowledge, there are many horrible things that this country has done and is still doing, but “there is just something about this system that’s inherently good when you get down to the real nature of it.”

Now, in this connection there is a very telling analogy that was made by a comrade in the leadership of our Party. He described this as “the Ted Bundy phenomenon.” Ted Bundy, as most of you know (and for those of you who don’t know) was a serial rapist and serial killer several decades ago. But he was college-educated and somewhat “refined.” He carried out these horrific crimes of brutalizing, raping and then murdering women over a number of years, before he was finally caught and convicted and eventually was executed. But there was just something about that Ted Bundy. He didn’t fit the stereotype of a frightening, and perhaps demented-looking, serial killer. He was very polished and smooth. Yes, he committed all these terrible crimes. He was a serial rapist in the most brutal terms. He was a serial killer. But—to continue the analogy this comrade made—“there’s just something about that Ted Bundy; if you just put what he did in perspective and you see his larger qualities, there is something still, at the core, that is good about that Ted Bundy.” Well, as this comrade pointed out, this, by analogy, is the way a lot of radical, and not-so-radical, bourgeois democrats look at this country, their country. Yes, they’ll readily agree, our government has committed and is committing all these horrible crimes, but: “There is just something about that constitutional form of government and that democratic system we have. Yes, you can chronicle the crimes from slavery here to mass slaughter around the world, but there’s just something about this America that our founders gave us that we just have to hang onto.” As though all that (the form of government, and so on) is somehow separable from “the Ted Bundy essence” of this system on a greatly magnified and international scale.

The same comrade who came up with this “Ted Bundy” analogy also made the point that the crimes of this system, once again, are even worse and even more monstrous than even we realize—until we examine them concretely and really dig more fully and deeply into the reality of this. And this comrade made a very good suggestion in this regard: We should challenge anyone, and especially anyone who tries to say that there is still something inherently good about this system, to look at any part of the world and actually examine what this system has done and confront the actual horrors this has involved for the masses of people—and then tell us why you want to preserve any part of this.

Setting the Record Straight

This brings out another dimension to the importance of the Set the Record Straight project. People’s sights have been lowered by the “verdict” on communism and the experience of socialist states led by communists—a verdict which, in fact, has been “passed” and relentlessly propagated by the rulers of this imperialist system and their “intellectual camp followers.” Many people who should know better—and even some who once did know better—have in effect been reduced down to these kind of “Ted Bundy” rationalizations, because their sights have been lowered by the notion that what they once thought was good, or what they might in other times have been attracted to as an alternative to this whole society and this whole imperialist-dominated world, is unworkable at best and a nightmare of tyranny at worst. This gives further emphasis to the importance of honestly and scientifically examining the great achievements as well as the real shortcomings of the socialist countries that have existed so far—and of comparing and contrasting this with what imperialism and bourgeois rule has actually done and has actually meant for the masses of people of the earth. For example, in the main presentation [14] of the Set the Record Straight project, a comparison is made between the claims (even the most exaggerated and extravagant claims) of the lives that communism has cost vis-a-vis the reality of the deaths that were caused by the ongoing operation of the system just in the country of India during the same period—what has actually happened to the masses of people in India, in “the world’s largest democracy” (as it is repeatedly referred to in the bourgeois media and by bourgeois commentators).

It is very important—and this is one of the things that is brought out through the Set the Record Straight Project—to keep in mind what socialist states have had to go up against: the necessity they have had to deal with, including the legacy of the past societies from which they emerged—which they overthrew—the remnants of those societies in both the economic base and the political and ideological superstructure, and the continuing existence of class forces hostile to the existence of socialism and to the continuation of socialist transformation—all this intertwined and interacting with the continued presence and encirclement of hostile imperialist powers and other reactionary states.

House and the Experience of Socialist Society So Far

Here I think an analogy to the TV program House is very relevant. If you watch House, you see that a constant motif in this program, and in the unfolding of the plot in various episodes, involves the way in which the main character, Dr. House, in his own way, goes to the brink. He is a very unorthodox doctor, and when he’s faced with extreme cases, he will do things which, if they fail, may actually kill the patient. In episode after episode, there is this tremendous tension: will House discover by these means the actual cause of the disease and be able to save the patient, or is he going to kill the patient by the means he is using to try to discover the cause? This is a constant tension in House. Now, if you walked into the middle of a show and you didn’t understand what was going on and why House is doing these things, imagine how monstrous you would think House is. “My God” (if you’ll pardon the expression), “he’s actually doing things that could kill the patient.” And it’s not just that he tries one of those dangerous and seemingly “extreme” measures once; if one doesn’t work, he tries another—and if that doesn’t work, he tries yet another. And, in the short run, many times he actually causes the suffering of the patient to increase. Why? Because he’s a demented, sadistic tyrant? Or because he’s trying to get to the essence of a disease and cure it?

Well, there’s an analogy here to socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. If you “walked into the middle” of this experience—or if you viewed it through bourgeois blinders—and you saw that certain measures were being taken that seemed “extreme,” but you didn’t know, or didn’t understand, what the “disease” was that was being dealt with; or, more fundamentally, if you didn’t even know that there was a disease to begin with—if, to speak more directly, you thought that the societies where socialism has come into being were places where everything was fine for the majority of people, and they were doing very well, instead of understanding that, on the contrary, for the great majority of people the old society was a very real horror, and that they were exploited, oppressed, degraded and demeaned in a thousand ways every day in that society—if you didn’t have any understanding of that, you could look at some measures that were being taken to overcome all that, and to prevent new and old exploiters from bringing back all that, and you could think: “What a terrible thing this socialism is. Look at what they’re doing, look what they’re putting people through.”

And not only that, you would miss the many ways in which, right then, people’s lives were being vastly improved and the nature of the relations among people, and the outlook and values of the people, were being radically changed, in a very positive direction. You would miss the ways in which this was increasingly happening through the conscious initiative of the masses of people themselves.

But even taking all that into account, including the House analogy and its very real meaning, and without ignoring the daunting necessity that socialist societies have been confronted with, it is still important to sum up that in dealing with all this, in the historical experience of socialist states so far, along with the very great achievements, which are in fact the main thing, there have also been secondary but nonetheless important ways in which things have gone off track, and in some instances seriously so, with undeniably negative consequences. There has been a definite tendency toward positivism and reductionism—toward, if you will, flattening out contradictions and applying a mechanical approach, including in the manner of treating the superstructure as too closely linked to the goal of economic transformation at any given time, linking things in the superstructure too closely to the immediate tasks at hand, particularly with regard to the economic base. And then, in turn, economic transformation, especially in the experience of the Soviet Union, even when it was socialist, was too much reduced to mere economic expansion on the basis of state ownership, without sufficient attention to the transformation of the relations among people in production, in various aspects, as well as other social relations, and the expression of all this in the superstructure.

Along with this, as spoken to earlier, there has been a tendency toward the reification of the proletariat (by this I mean the tendency, which is linked to positivism, to equate the proletariat, as a class, with individual members of that class, and in so doing to reduce, diminish, and undermine the revolutionary cause to which the interests of the proletariat, as a class, actually correspond): a tendency—which is linked to positivism—toward viewing things in such a way that whether or not someone is a proletarian is a crucial factor in determining whether or not that someone has the truth in their hands, so to speak. This tendency was very pronounced in the Soviet Union, although it also existed—even if to a lesser degree, and even if contradicted and counteracted by other, more correct approaches—in China when it was socialist, with the leadership of Mao.

And, along with this reification of the proletariat, there was, in the Soviet Union especially, a reification of socialism itself in a certain sense—viewing socialism as a static thing and more or less an end in itself, rather than its being understood as a very dynamic process and a transition to communism. This is something that, especially after a number of years of the experience of socialism in China, Mao recognized and began to combat, but it nonetheless remained a real tendency, even in socialist China.

This involved—once again, qualitatively more so in the Soviet Union than in China—a constriction, or a tendency toward constriction, of the process of socialist transformation; and, insofar as this tendency exerted itself, it led to some mishandling of the relation between the goal and the process, so that whatever was happening at a given time became, or tended to be identified with, the goal itself—rather than being understood as part of a process toward a larger goal. And, along with this, there was a constriction of the relation between the necessary main direction, in fundamental terms, and what were objectively “detours” or departures from—but were seen and treated as dangerous deviations from—that main direction. This, to a certain degree and sometimes to a considerable degree, led to a stifling of creativity, initiative, individual expression and, yes, individual rights in the overall process, especially when these appeared to conflict—or actually did conflict, in the short run—with the expressed goals of the socialist state and its leading party.

The New Synthesis

How does the “new synthesis” relate to this experience? To try to concentrate—or to present a basic synthesis—of what is represented by this new synthesis, it can be said:

This new synthesis involves a recasting and recombining of the positive aspects of the experience so far of the communist movement and of socialist society, while learning from the negative aspects of this experience, in the philosophical and ideological as well as the political dimensions, so as to have a more deeply and firmly rooted scientific orientation, method and approach with regard not only to making revolution and seizing power but then, yes, to meeting the material requirements of society and the needs of the masses of people, in an increasingly expanding way, in socialist society—overcoming the deep scars of the past and continuing the revolutionary transformation of society, while at the same time actively supporting the world revolutionary struggle and acting on the recognition that the world arena and the world struggle are most fundamental and important, in an overall sense—together with opening up qualitatively more space to give expression to the intellectual and cultural needs of the people, broadly understood, and enabling a more diverse and rich process of exploration and experimentation in the realms of science, art and culture, and intellectual life overall, with increasing scope for the contention of different ideas and schools of thought and for individual initiative and creativity and protection of individual rights, including space for individuals to interact in “civil society” independently of the state—all within an overall cooperative and collective framework and at the same time as state power is maintained and further developed as a revolutionary state power serving the interests of the proletarian revolution, in the particular country and worldwide, with this state being the leading and central element in the economy and in the overall direction of society, while the state itself is being continually transformed into something radically different from all previous states, as a crucial part of the advance toward the eventual abolition of the state with the achievement of communism on a world scale.

In a sense, it could be said that the new synthesis is a synthesis of the previous experience of socialist society and of the international communist movement more broadly, on the one hand, and of the criticisms, of various kinds and from various standpoints, of that experience, on the other hand. That does not mean that this new synthesis represents a mere “pasting together” of that experience on the one hand, and the criticisms on the other hand. It is not an eclectic combination of these things, but a sifting through, a recasting and recombining on the basis of a scientific, materialist and dialectical outlook and method, and of the need to continue advancing toward communism, a need and objective which this outlook and method continues to point to—and, the more thoroughly and deeply it is taken up and applied, the more firmly it points to this need and objective.

If you really grasp what this is about, you will understand why I continually talk about going to the brink of being drawn and quartered in terms of providing leadership to the communist movement and the future socialist society. Some sense of that was brought alive, I believe, in the article recently published in Revolution—or a letter from a reader criticizing a previous article (on elections, in capitalist and socialist society, and larger questions bound up with this) and then a response from the editors. [15]

Now, this is not a formulation that is being lightly thrown around—going to the brink of being drawn and quartered. Let’s remember what drawn and quartered means. Especially in feudal society, and particularly for offenses like treason, the punishment was often being drawn and quartered: this meant that your body was pulled apart in four directions. That’s what “drawn and quartered” means. And if you understand what’s being talked about here, in terms of being the core of leadership—yes, an ever broadening core, but being at the core of this whole revolutionary process and leading this in the ways I have been speaking to, not as a tightly controlled process but one where people are, as I’ve put it, “running in all kinds of directions”—then you see that there will be tremendous pressure and tension pulling on you. Why? Because you can’t let go of the reins, ultimately, but you also cannot hold the reins too tightly. You have to keep all this going toward the objective of communism, which is scientifically established as a necessity, but without keeping things tightly under your control throughout the process. And that does repeatedly—and will repeatedly if you’re doing what you should be doing—bring you to the brink of being drawn and quartered. And if we’re not willing to do that, then we don’t deserve to lead—and, more fundamentally and importantly, we’re not going to get where we need to go.

Now, this whole approach, this new synthesis, has been encapsulated in the formulation, “solid core with a lot of elasticity.” But this formulation must be understood precisely as a concentration—a concentrated expression of this whole rich process—and must not be turned into yet another meaningless phrase, or some sort of religious concept, which is repeatedly uttered without any substance. What is captured in “solid core with a lot of elasticity” must be grasped, and applied, in a living way, all throughout the process of revolution—before and then after the seizure of power and the establishment of the socialist state. And, in fact, this basic concept—“solid core with a lot of elasticity”—will apply even in communist society, although in a different way, when there is no longer a state nor an ongoing and institutionalized core of leadership.

I have spoken before about the four objectives of the solid core, in socialist society—namely: to maintain power for the proletarian revolution; to expand the solid core to the greatest extent possible at any given time; to work to constantly narrow, and work toward finally overcoming, the difference between the solid core and the rest of society (this speaks to “the withering away of the state”); and to foster the maximum elasticity on the basis of the necessary solid core at any given time. All four of these objectives form a unity and are mutually interdependent and mutually influence each other, one way or the other. And, as I’ve said, even in communist society—although in a radically different way—this same principle will still apply, because it conforms to, or is an expression of, the nature of reality and its development through contradictory motion.

In concluding on this point, I want to stress that it is very important not to underestimate the significance and potential positive force of this new synthesis: criticizing and rupturing with significant errors and shortcomings while bringing forward and recasting what has been positive from the historical experience of the international communist movements and the socialist countries that have so far existed; in a real sense reviving—on a new, more advanced basis—the viability and, yes, the desirability of a whole new and radically different world, and placing this on an even firmer foundation of materialism and dialectics. This new synthesis is bound up with and interpenetrates closely with key ruptures in the realm of epistemology—ruptures with instrumentalism and apriorism, dogmatism and religiosity, positivism, empiricism and pragmatism, as well as nationalism in the realm of how we view the whole process of advancing to communism.

So, we should not underestimate the potential of this as a source of hope and of daring on a solid scientific foundation. In the 1960s, when the Black Panther Party emerged on the scene, Eldridge Cleaver made the pungent observation that the old revisionist Communist Party had “ideologized” revolution off the scene, but the Panthers had ideologized it back on the scene. In the present period in the U.S., revolution has once more been “ideologized” off the scene. And in the world as a whole, to a very large degree, revolution aiming for communism and the vision of a communist world—this has been “ideologized” off the scene—and with it the only road that actually represents the possibility of a radically different and far better world, in the real world, one that people really would want to live in and would really thrive in. The new synthesis has objectively “ideologized” this back on the scene once more, on a higher level and in a potentially very powerful way.

But what will be done with this? Will it become a powerful political as well as ideological force? It is up to us to take this out everywhere—very, very boldly and with substance, linking it with the widespread, if still largely latent, desire for another way, for another world—and engage ever growing numbers of people with this new synthesis in a good, lively and living way.


[1] See, for example, two works by Bob Avakian: Views on Socialism and Communism: A Radically New Kind of State, A Radically Different and Far Greater Vision of Freedom (which appeared as a series in Revolution #37, #39, #40, #41, #42, and #43, complete version available online at and The Basis, the Goals, and the Methods of the Communist Revolution (which appeared as a series in Revolution #45, #46, #47, #48, #49, #50, complete version available online at

[2] THE SCIENCE OF EVOLUTION AND THE MYTH OF CREATIONISM—Knowing What’s Real And Why It Matters, Ardea Skybreak, Insight Press, Chicago, 2006.

[3] Footnote by the author: The forces of production (or productive forces) of society refers to the physical components of production—the land, raw materials, machinery and other technology—as well as the people, with their knowledge and skills, etc. The relations of production refers to the relations people enter into in carrying out the process of production in society. The economic base (or the mode of production) consists of the relations of production, corresponding in a basic sense, at any given time, to the character of the productive forces.

[4] See, for example, FOR A HARVEST OF DRAGONS: On the “Crisis of Marxism” and the Power of Marxism Now More Than Ever, An Essay Marking the 100th Anniversary of Marx’s Death (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1983); and Phony Communism is Dead…Long Live Real Communism! (Chicago: RCP Publications, First Edition, 1992; Second Edition, 2004). The passage from Marx, which is paraphrased in the text above, is:

“In the social production of their existence, men enter into definite, necessary relations, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production corresponding to a determinate stage of development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which there arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life-process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

[5] See “Materialism and Romanticism: Can We Do Without Myth?” in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, (Chicago: Insight Press, 2005).

[6] This discussion of the “4 Alls” relates to the observation by Marx, in The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50, that “socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.” (See Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 1, emphasis in original)

The formulation of the “4 Alls” to refer to this analysis by Marx was popularized by the revolutionaries within the Chinese Communist Party in the course of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, during the years 1966-76.

[7] Bill Martin, a radical professor of philosophy and maverick social theorist, is the author of a number of works, including, with Bob Avakian, the book Marxism and the Call of the Future, Conversations on Ethics, History, and Politics (Chicago: Open Court Publishing/Carus Publishing, 2005).

[8] The discussion here of the views of Karl Popper, a 20th-century English philosopher (born in Austria), will focus on one of Popper’s more influential works, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and in particular Volume 2, The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, Revised First Edition, 1966 [First Princeton Paperback Printing, 1971]).

[9] Footnote by the author: As for Popper’s references to “the Scandinavian democracies,” etc., Lenin, in his analysis of imperialism, spoke to how even small and “neutral” countries like Switzerland took part in and benefited from the overall imperialist domination and plunder of the colonies.

[10] Footnote by the author: Even though it is not my focus here, I cannot help but register a protest, or rebuke, to the shoddy and smugly philistine way in which Popper discusses Hegel. Dealing to a large extent in ad hominem attacks, Popper treats Hegel as little more than a “charlatan” (this is the word he repeatedly uses to describe Hegel) and as a tool of the German monarchal state, as someone whose philosophical theories were in essence little more than a conscious crafting of a rationalization and apology for that state. For example, Popper writes: “There is nothing in Hegel’s writing that has not been said better before him. There is nothing in his apologetic method that is not borrowed from his apologetic forerunners. But he devoted these borrowed thoughts and methods with singleness of purpose, though without a trace of brilliancy, to one aim: to fight against the open society, and thus to serve his employer, Frederick William [the absolute monarch] of Prussia.” (Popper, p. 32) And Popper asserts not only that Hegelianism can be reduced to merely “an apology for Prussianism” (p. 35), but even that “the reason why he [Hegel] wishes to admit contradictions is that he wants to stop rational argument, and with it scientific and intellectual progress.” (p. 40) Perhaps sensing that this treatment of Hegel—as in effect a babbling mercenary of the Prussian autocratic state—may not sit well with some readers, Popper feels obliged to observe that “some may contend, all this, even if it is true, does not prove anything against the excellence of Hegel’s dialectic philosophy, or against his greatness as a philosopher.” But then Popper’s immediate rejoinder is to refer again to a characterization of Hegel and his philosophy by Schopenhauer, which does not really speak to the objection Popper has just cited. (See Popper, p. 46)

Where he does attempt to treat Hegel’s philosophy, and in particular his dialectical method, Popper betrays a glaring lack of appreciation of what Hegel’s dialectical method consisted in and what it actually liberated in the field of philosophy. Especially in light of this, it is worth reading Engels’ discussion of this, in works such as Anti-Duhring and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, where Engels provides a much more—dare we say it?—dialectical evaluation of Hegel’s philosophy and its impact. Consider, for example, the following from Engels—and contrast it with Popper’s narrow-minded, shallow, and instrumentalist treatment of Hegel and his philosophy.

“No philosophical proposition has earned more gratitude from narrow-minded governments and [note well—BA] wrath from equally narrow-minded liberals than Hegel’s famous statement: ‘All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.’ That was tangibly a sanctification of things that be, a philosophical benediction bestowed upon despotism, police government, Star Chamber proceedings and censorship. That is how Frederick William III and how his subjects understood it….

“Now, according to Hegel, reality is, however, in no way an attribute predictable of any given state of affairs, social or political, in all circumstances and at all times. On the contrary, the Roman Republic was real, but so was the Roman Empire, which superseded it. In 1789, the French monarchy had become so unreal, that is to say, so robbed of all necessity, so irrational, that it had to be destroyed by the Great Revolution, of which Hegel always speaks with the greatest enthusiasm….In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.

“But precisely therein lay the true significance and the revolutionary character of the Hegelian philosophy…that it once and for all dealt the death blow to the finality of all product of human thought and action. Truth, the cognition of which is the business of philosophy, was in the hands of Hegel no longer an aggregate of finished dogmatic statements, which, once discovered, had merely to be learned by heart. Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering so-called absolute truth, a point at which it can proceed no further, where it would have nothing more to do than fold its hands and gaze with wonder at the absolute truth to which it had attained….

“But at the end of the whole philosophy, a similar return to the beginning is possible only in one way. Namely, by conceiving of the end of history as follows: mankind arrives at the cognition of the self-same absolute idea, and declares that this cognition of the absolute idea is reached in Hegelian philosophy. In this way, however, the whole dogmatic content of the Hegelian system is declared to be absolute truth, in contradiction to his dialectical method, which dissolves all dogmatism. Thus the revolutionary side is smothered beneath the overgrowth of the conservative side….

“The inner necessities of the system are, therefore, of themselves sufficient to explain why a thoroughly revolutionary method of thinking produced an extremely tame political conclusion….

“But all this did not prevent the Hegelian system from covering an incomparably greater domain than any earlier system, nor from developing in this domain a wealth of thought, which is astounding even today.” (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, part 1 “Hegel”)

[11] Footnote by the author: I have myself raised certain criticisms of what I view as elements of metaphysics within the way Marx, and in particular Engels, presented the dialectical method—elements which, in fact, were carried forward from concepts found in Hegel, in particular the notion of the “negation of the negation.” But to the degree that such tendencies existed in Engels, and even in Marx, they were very definitely of a secondary character, and did not define their view and application of the dialectical method, of dialectical materialism. And, as Marxism has continued to develop, it has increasingly moved away from these metaphysical tendencies; this can be seen in the works of Lenin and Mao, and is reflected in the criticisms I have referred to here.

[12] Footnote by the author: What has been said here, by way of refutation of Popper, and his claims that Marxism is not a science and fails the test of science, also stands more broadly as an answer to the claim, which is not infrequently made, that there is, and there can be, no such thing as social science, and in particular no science of human society and its historical development. As I have spoken to at length here, Marxism is in fact a science. Often people distort and narrow and constrict what Marxism is. Marxism is not merely a social science. Dialectical materialism is a concentration of reality in the largest sense, and it embraces “natural reality,” that is, the processes in nature, as well as social reality. But Marxism is also a social science—and it is a social science. The matter in motion that constitutes human beings and their social interrelations is also capable of being subjected to scientific analysis and synthesis, no less than other forms of matter in motion.

Once you rupture with idealism and metaphysics, and specifically with Cartesian ideas of the duality of existence—the notion, identified with the 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes, that there is material reality, and then there’s the human mind, which is somehow something else—once you rupture with notions of that kind (that human beings and their society are something other than particular forms of matter in motion), then why wouldn’t you understand that this sphere of matter in motion would be amenable, or susceptible (whatever word you want to use), to scientific analysis and synthesis, just as much as any other particular form of matter in motion?

[13] The talk by Bob Avakian, Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, and What It’s All About, begins with “They’re Selling Postcards of the Hanging,” vividly describing lynching and other horrendous ways in which Black people have been oppressed and terrorized throughout the history of the U.S.

For exposure of some of the horrors of modern-day slavery—including the enslavement of children—see “21st Century Slavery Under Global Capitalism,” in Revolution #102, September 23, 2007, which also provides references for further reading on this subject.

[14] The Set the Record Straight project provides an analysis of important aspects of the actual experience of socialism in the Soviet Union and in China—including very real mistakes and shortcomings as well as historically unprecedented achievements—and answers slanders and distortions of this experience. This can be accessed, and more information about this provided, online at The main presentation of this project, referred to here, is a speech by Raymond Lotta, “Socialism is Much Better Than Capitalism, and Communism Will Be a Far Better World.”

[15] Bob Avakian introduced this metaphor of leaders in the communist movement and socialist society facing the prospect of being “drawn and quartered” if they did not correctly handle difficult contradictions, in “Bob Avakian in a Discussion with Comrades on Epistemology: On Knowing and Changing the World,” which is found in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy (Chicago: Insight Press, 2005). The article referred to here by Bob Avakian (letter from a reader and reply by the editors of Revolution concerning elections in capitalist and in socialist society and larger questions bound up with this) appeared in Revolution #96, July 22, 2007.

Send us your comments.