How Communists Think
by Dr. Bruce Arnold
There’s a lot of confusion in social media about what socialists should or shouldn’t do in the upcoming election. There are many who say “Don’t vote for Hillary Clinton because _____” You can fill in the blank, with anything from She’s a Corporate Shill to She’s a Liar to She’s Not Going to Support Single Payer Healthcare to whatever the concern of the day might be.
When these discussions occur between communists and other progressives, the progressive usually says something along the lines of “how could a communist support someone who will _____.”
Let’s clear something up here. Those statements are ideologically driven. If we unpack them fully, they really mean something very much like this: “If you’re a communist, then you must believe X, but Hillary believes Y, therefore you shouldn’t support her.” In other words, it’s an ideological litmus test.
The flaw in that argument is that communism is not an ideology. Dictionary.com defines ideology as “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” Doctrines, myths, beliefs, etc. are all philosophical constructs. Notions.
The basis for communist thought is not ideology. Marxism is not a philosophical construct. Philosophy is a tool of communist thought, not the foundation of it. “The point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”
What, then, is the basis of communist thought, if not beliefs or doctrines? It is a method. Specifically, that method is dialectical materialism.
“For Marx and Engels, materialism meant that the material world, perceptible to the senses, has objective reality independent of mind or spirit. They did not deny the reality of mental or spiritual processes but affirmed that ideas could arise, therefore, only as products and reflections of material conditions.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
Materialism deals with objective reality, and proposes ideas which communicate that reality in a useful way. This is the opposite of ideology, which places “doctrines and beliefs” first and seeks to understand the world through the lens of those beliefs.
The reason why so much of the left is consumed by sectarian squabbling is because they are ideologues, not dialectical materialists. They have ideas which are dear to their hearts and which they believe explain the world around them. This is similar to the fundamentalist forms of religion, which proclaim that in order to be saved, you have to assent to the creed that they promote. It is fidelity to the creed that determines purity.
Marx described communism as scientific socialism. Scientific, because it is grounded in an empirical model, just as the scientific method is. We observe what is going on around us, then formulate hypotheses that help to explain or predict what happens. This guides the actions we take. We assess the outcome of those actions, and formulate new hypotheses based on what we’ve learned. Theories that are useful are retained and used, until subsequent experience suggests improved hypotheses. We are not bound to the hypotheses, we are proponents of a process.
Dialectical materialism is a particular form of scientific process.
“In opposition to the ‘metaphysical’ mode of thought, which viewed things in abstraction, each by itself and as though endowed with fixed properties, Hegelian dialectics considers things in their movements and changes, interrelations and interactions. Everything is in continual process of becoming and ceasing to be, in which nothing is permanent but everything changes and is eventually superseded…Marx and Engels started from the materialist premise that all knowledge is derived from the senses. But against the mechanist view that derives knowledge exclusively from given sense impressions, they stressed the dialectical development of human knowledge, socially acquired in the course of practical activity. Individuals can gain knowledge of things only through their practical interaction with those things, framing their ideas corresponding to their practice; and social practice alone provides the test of the correspondence of idea with reality.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
Let’s use a practical example to bring this down to earth. We see that there is a pattern of violence against blacks by police. This is the thesis. Racist violence is being expressed in this form at this time. Blacks are not being hung from trees by angry white mobs as they were in the early 1900s. This overt racism has taken a modified form.
A movement called Black Lives Matter springs up in opposition to this violence. This is the antithesis.
Prior experience from the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s tells us that if blacks persist in their demands for racial justice, and enough whites reject their racist attitudes, then improvement will occur. That is the synthesis.
In response to this, we take part in the movement, blacks and whites each doing their part. We see what happens. If we’re right, then progress takes place. If we’ve misinterpreted, then there is a different result, a new set of conditions, and we start the process again.
We see that this approach is scientific because, like the scientific method, it proceeds from practical interaction with the world around us. This is the experimental method.
Paolo Freire understood this very well, and taught a method in Brazil functionally identical to what we’re talking about here. As described in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the method of praxis consists of reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. “It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality. They must act together upon their environment in order critically to reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection.”
This Freire quote is more than a little reminiscent of the Marx quote above, that our goal is to change the world and not merely to understand it.
Often, people read communist texts and like the ideas they find there. They believe that those ideas are the essence of communism. They’ve missed the point. It’s easy to understand how this happens.
Much of our educational system is devoted to convincing people to accept the conclusions of others, rather than teaching them how to apply the method by which those ideas were formed. People who have been trained this way will habitually assume that if they have grasped an idea, they have understood the situation.
They should be attending to the process by which those ideas came to light instead, and applying that process to current conditions in their own lives. Marx himself, using the framework of dialectical materialism, might come to different determinations under the conditions of today, then what he concluded in the 1800s.
So when someone says “how can a communist support someone who believes X,” they are displaying a lack of understanding of the nature of communism.
If it’s idealistic rather than practical, it’s not communism.