On the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, this excerpt from “The Material Basis and the Method for Making Revolution,” a talk given by Bob Avakian in 2014, speaks to the turning point and significance of Marx’s contributions—bringing into being a scientific, materialist understanding of capitalism and of the potential for revolution to emancipate humanity.
What Marx Brought to Light
This goes back to another fundamental point from Marx. I mean, when you say it, it seems so obvious, and yet Marx had to spend years and years digging through all kinds of political economy, and learning from what Darwin was bringing forward in the realm of biology, the theory of evolution—and studying political developments and history and philosophy—to sift through all the outward appearances to get to this inner core of the contradiction, as it’s been identified by him and by Marxism in general, between the forces of production and the relations of production. That this is the fundamental driving contradiction, which in turn gives rise to, and is dialectically interrelated with another contradiction between the mode of production—the economic base—and the superstructure, which arises on the basis of and works to reinforce that economic base.
Now, what do these terms mean? They mean that—if you boil it down to its essence—in order for anything to happen in society, the material requirements of life have to be produced and reproduced, and so do new generations of people. We live in a highly—as I’ve pointed out before, for example in Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, but Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon (and I’ll just say “Birds and Crocodiles” from now on so I don’t have to repeat that title)—but, you know, I have pointed out that in a highly parasitic country like this one, you have such a broad swath of people who are not involved directly in the production and reproduction of the material requirements of life—and, in fact, this parasitism of U.S. imperialism, with this heightened globalization, has been to transfer more and more of actual productivity (as they say, “outsource” it) to other countries, particularly Third World countries, but generally other countries around the world. And the actual people engaged in production of the material requirements of life has been shrinking relative to the total population. So, in a society like this, it’s very easy if you’re not part of that small part of the population—a small segment of the population that’s actually engaged in directly producing the material requirements of life—it’s very easy just to think those things somehow appear, or exist. As it’s been put by a number of others besides myself, if you’re at the end of the food chain, the high end of the food chain, and everybody else is doing all the things that lead up to that, it’s very easy not to see all that. Or I like to use this metaphor: You’re in a building that’s rotting underneath, the foundation is rotting, and as you go down—you’re at the top of the building, and as you go down the floors, it’s more and more rotting away, but you’re at the penthouse at the top, and you actually think this is the way the world is, the way it is in the penthouse. And, all of a sudden (as is sometimes done in those old communist drawings or whatever) there’s an eruption from down below and that’s one of the ways you get reminded, “Oh, there’s something else here besides this penthouse I’m residing in.”
Now, I’m not saying everybody in the U.S. lives in a penthouse—this is a metaphor, you know; and metaphors, like analogies, have their limitations. But when you’re living in a highly parasitic society like this, it’s easy not to see—not to perceive, and certainly not to understand in any kind of a sense, or a scientific way—what is the foundation of this society that’s functioning, that you are pursuing your dreams within, and where does even the wealth come from that’s in circulation that enables different people to pursue different things. All this is hidden from you. It’s all the more hidden when you’re in a highly parasitic society like this. But at the base of all this is the production and reproduction of the material requirements of life and of new generations on that basis, because new generations can’t be reproduced on any other basis either—they can be brought into the world, but if people are too sickly, they can’t even bring children into the world. Or, if they do, the infant mortality rate, as we see in much of the Third World, is very high. But you have to have basic material requirements of life in order even to reproduce new generations.
And this is the point that Marx brought out, he focused on this. Now, think of all the ways in which you run into people every day, and how they think about—to the degree they ever do think about—what it is that makes the world go round, what it is that actually makes society function, and all the completely erroneous ideas that people have about this, or just the lack of any thinking about it even, or some combination of a little bit of thinking and a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about what is it that enables you to get up in the morning and function. Is it your individual determination—or is there something that’s going on that enables that to happen, that’s much bigger than you, and is a whole social phenomenon, involves a whole society and ultimately a whole world of billions—billions and billions of people, right? (We are just getting ready to have the new version of Cosmos, so we have to say billions and billions of people in honor of Carl Sagan and the original Cosmos. But, anyway, billions and billions of people, to get to the point here.) And they are all engaged in these activities which are all being—and here’s Marx’s second point, the point that’s even more crucial, and yet at the same time more hidden: in order for this to happen, people have to enter into certain relations of production, which more or less, without being mechanical about it, correspond to whatever the productive forces are at hand; and, along with this, the fact that the productive forces are continually being developed. People are thinking beings, and in any society they think about new ways to do things, new ways to organize things, and because of the driving force of anarchy—as pointed out in the recent article by Raymond Lotta—capitalism is, in fact, a very dynamic system, which is driven to continually transform the productive forces, and even some of the relations of production within the overall framework of capitalist production relations.
So, these things are not static and unchanging, but continuously changing, and very dynamic, but always at the cost of great suffering for masses of people in the world, for the great mass of humanity, and ultimately to the detriment of humanity as a whole. And we can see this in the environment, we can see this in the conditions of masses of people, we can see it in the condition of women, we can see it in the oppression of whole nations, we can see it in the wars—and on and on, all the things that are all too familiar to anyone who’s paying attention.
Marx and Darwin
This basic understanding—these are the dynamics that Marx brought to light. And I’m always struck—I listen to a lot of these people in different fields, you know, who are basically pursuing the bourgeois outlook, even if they’re from the petite bourgeoisie, and even some of them are progressive. I listen when they have these discussions, or I read articles or books, where they’re grappling with all these questions, including questions about society: What’s wrong with society? Are there ways society could be changed? Does there have to be so much suffering in the world? And so on. Even the people who are trying to take up these questions from a somewhat better position, it’s just really striking how they’re just completely off base. And here Marx brought this to light, and they talk about everything and they engage everything but the basic Marxist understanding.
It’s not just that Marxism is a “better narrative.” It would be like a bunch of biologists got together and tried to debate about what’s happening in the natural world, but they ignored, or dismissed, Darwin. Biology after Darwin is completely, radically different than biology before Darwin, even though people have continued to develop what Darwin brought forward, it’s continually being developed, as is every field of knowledge where people are approaching it scientifically. But, by analogy, the understanding of society—and, yes, of philosophy, and politics, but the understanding of the fundamental question of why society functions the way it does, how it can change, how it does change, how it can undergo radical transformation, what is the fundamental basis for all that—that understanding was synthesized by Marx. And, yes, we’ve gone on, and people—you know, Lenin, Mao, Stalin in some ways, Engels definitely—have contributed to this, and I’ve continued to work on this and bring forward more understanding of it. But Marx made the initial and fundamental breakthrough, and the science of society and the interaction of human beings through society with the rest of nature, and everything that gives rise to, including all the thinking it gives rise to in human beings, that science is as different before Marx as biology before Darwin is compared to after Darwin. And you just listen to people talk, and they talk about everything but. They either ignore or dismiss, or distort and dismiss, this fundamental understanding.
And if you’re going to set out to transform the world in a radical direction, to get humanity to a whole different place where all the things that are the daily horrors, and assumed to be just the natural order of things, in fact are transformed and surpassed, then you’re going to have to base yourself on a scientific approach to this, rooted in an understanding of the actual contradictions and dynamics that are setting the stage continually, and re-setting it, and the changes that are constantly occurring, and what changes this makes possible—not inevitable but possible. And there is the fact that different class forces with more or less conscious understanding are going to be continually operating on that same stage and working on those same contradictions from their own perspective. It’s not something that’s like a laboratory—well, even in laboratories you’re dealing with live animals, for example—there are a lot of other things going on, it’s not like you’re dealing with passive entities, you know, just a bunch of unchanging things, that you move around to make revolution. You’re dealing with dynamics that are constantly changing and on which every other force in society—or at least its conscious representatives—are working to try to change in the direction favorable to how they think the world should be.
Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that it’s all a matter of one narrative versus another narrative, or one interest versus another interest in some sort of non-materialist sense. There is only one resolution of all these contradictions that’s in the fundamental interests of the masses of oppressed humanity and ultimately of humanity as a whole. But that doesn’t mean that other class forces…all the representatives of every class think—this is Marx’s point also in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that all the representatives of every class think that what they’re striving for on behalf of the class they represent is in the general interest of society and humanity. All of them think that. I mean, yes, there are some cynical, narrow opportunists and corrupt officials, and so on. But the more—however you want to put it—the more farseeing or broad-minded representatives of different classes, if you want to use that term—the ones who are more sincerely striving for these interests—actually think that they are in the general interests of society and humanity. They think this is the best way society could possibly be.
But there’s only one actual program and outlook for which that is actually true in this era of human history, and in terms of how the contradictions are posing themselves and where they need to go in order to emancipate the oppressed—the wretched of the earth, the oppressed of the world—and ultimately humanity as a whole, and move beyond the point where the contradictions characteristic of capitalism and how it organizes human beings to interact with the rest of nature, and the dynamics bound up with that, are surpassed, and we move to a whole different era, both in terms of the material relations and in terms of the thinking of the people. This is what Marx and Engels were emphasizing when they said that the communist revolution involves the most radical rupture with traditional property relations, no wonder then that it involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas. This has a material basis. It’s not just that these are better ideas, or a more just way that society could be organized in the abstract, or as a set of ideas. Yes, it is more just. But that has a material foundation.
And if we don’t root ourselves continually—you know, there’s the constant pull of spontaneity to be influenced by the outlook of other classes and their representatives and to start seeing the world through that prism, through those lenses. So it’s a constant struggle to go back to, and to grapple collectively, not just as individuals—yes, as individuals, but above all collectively among the ranks of the party, and what must be the growing ranks of the party, the growing ranks of the movement for revolution, the broader masses of people—to be continually struggling to go back to and deepen our grasp and our living application of the scientific understanding, which, again, was first broken through on and brought forward by Marx in a qualitative way (with Engels also, but Marx more than anyone else).
Again, to use that analogy and drive it home, this makes the understanding of the science of society and its interaction with the rest of nature as fundamentally different from how that was approached before Marx, as things are in the realm of biology—as things are fundamentally different after Darwin than before Darwin, even though people have continued to work on what Darwin brought forward, and there were many things that Darwin did not understand, or partially understood, or even understood incorrectly, while his fundamental understanding was qualitatively correct and a tremendous breakthrough. The same is true in the realm of what we’re doing. There were things that Marx didn’t understand. Engels, Lenin, certainly Stalin, even Mao—I say even Mao because he’s more recent, you know—but there are things that we’ve learned that they didn’t understand, or didn’t understand correctly. That’s the nature of being scientific. And yet there is that initial, fundamental qualitative breakthrough with Marx. And this basic understanding—yes, as it’s being continually grappled with and further developed, and it is all of our responsibility to continue to grapple with it and contribute to developing it—but this understanding in that sense is what we have to continually go back to, be regrounding ourselves in, grounding more deeply, and applying and carrying out the correct dialectical relation between grounding ourselves in it and applying it, learning from the experience of applying it as well as much broader experience in the world, in different realms. Deepening our understanding of it, back again with that deeper understanding, and on and on, in a forward moving dialectic, dealing with all the complexity without losing the core, without losing the fundamentals, without losing our grip on the fundamentals, even as we continue to subject the fundamentals to questioning. Because this is a science. This is a matter of being consistently, systematically, thoroughly and comprehensively scientific.
And that’s actually what Marxism, what communism, is. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t make mistakes—it doesn’t mean people who are trying to do this don’t get influenced by the limitations of their own understanding or the outlook of other classes, or their own prejudices and biases as individuals, or whatever. That’s true in any realm of science. But the scientific method is what enables you to learn from that as well, and to sum that up and to deepen and get your understanding to be more correct, in an ongoing process. So this is very important. We have to be scientific, and we have to specifically apply what is, in fact, the most comprehensive, systematic and consistent scientific method and approach, the approach of dialectical materialism and communism—communism which is grounded in dialectical materialism, just to be clear.
Bob Avakian (BA) is the architect of a whole new framework of human emancipation, the new synthesis of communism, which is popularly referred to as the “new communism.”