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How we learn: Theory and Practice

By J. Sykes

Members of Black Panther Party with Mao's Red Book.

At this point in our series, it would serve us well to zoom in on the process by which practice becomes theory, and vice versa. Stalin said that “theory is the experience of the working-class movement in all countries taken in its general aspect.” This is a good summation, but what does that really mean?

We can learn a lot by reading books and articles or by watching videos that break down and explain things. But that’s only part of how we learn. First and foremost, we learn through experience – through observation and participation, especially through our participation in the production of the fulfillment of our material needs. In his lecture On Practice, the leader of the Chinese revolution, Mao Zedong, breaks this process down into stages: first there is basic sense perception. We observe the world around us. Then, based on these observations, we form conceptual knowledge. In other words, we start to understand things based on their relationships to one another, and we are able to make judgements and inferences. Based on these judgments and inferences regarding the things we perceive in relation to one another, we act upon the world so as to shape the material world according to our practical needs. We can then turn a critical eye towards our experience, adjust our theory accordingly, and proceed again.

According to Mao, “If you want to know a certain thing or a certain class of things directly, you must personally participate in the practical struggle to change reality, to change that thing or class of things, for only thus can you come into contact with them as phenomena; only through personal participation in the practical struggle to change reality can you uncover the essence of that thing or class of things and comprehend them.” This is true in the process of material production, class struggle and scientific experiment.

As we engage in this process, we make observations, judgments and inferences. We sum up our experiences, draw lessons from those experiences, and then apply those lessons as we move forward. We can imagine our knowledge advancing in a spiral fashion, moving upward from theory to practice and then to a more advanced theory, and then to a more advanced practice. Ever up and onward. This is, essentially, the Marxist-Leninist theory of knowledge. In philosophy, this is called epistemology, which basically means an account of knowledge. The Marxist epistemology is this process of practice-theory-practice. We formulate a theory and test it in practice. Then we draw conclusions from that practice to improve our theory, which we test again. This process is never complete. There is no limit to what we can learn.

Class struggle in particular has a huge influence on our thinking. Class consciousness, our knowledge of our place in society in relation to other social classes, is formed through class struggle. This is true of our class, the proletariat, and of the class of exploiters, the bourgeoisie. Through the class struggle, first against feudalism, and then against the rising working-class movement, the bourgeoisie has become ever more aware of their interests as a class and have developed theory and practice to achieve their class interests. Everyone who has participated in working-class struggles knows this firsthand. Our thinking is defined by our class, “stamped” as Mao says, “by the brand” of a class. It grounds our perspective and shapes our ideology.

Until working and oppressed people become class conscious, the ideology of the dominant class, the ruling class, is left alone to shape their thinking and place its own limits on what is possible. The ruling class achieves this through culture, movies, media, education, news organs, and many other means at their disposal. Through class struggle, and the fusion of Marxism with the movements of workers and oppressed nationalities, the hold of bourgeois ideology on the minds of the people is broken, and people begin to see the material reality of a world previously veiled by the fog of the false consciousness of bourgeois ideology.

Marxist-Leninists are materialists rather than idealists. The idealists would have us believe that idealism means we care about high-minded things while to be a materialist means we only care about material gain. But that’s not what these terms mean philosophically. We care deeply about ideals like justice, but we know that if our ideals aren’t made into a material reality through real material processes, then our ideals are worthless. So, we start with material reality as the basis of our understanding, and apply that understanding to changing material reality. For example, idealists say that a just society is impossible because of “human nature.” But so-called “human nature” is an idealist concept meant to hide and obscure the true nature of reality. “Human nature” they say is greedy and self-serving at its core. But this is the ideology of capitalism describing itself. “Human nature” thus described isn’t some fixed, unchangeable thing. This view of humanity is shaped by the material reality of capitalism, and it can and must be overcome as the society that shapes it is revolutionized.

This is what we mean when we say that revolutionary theory is “the experience of the working-class movement in all countries taken in its general aspect.” Marxist-Leninists the world over are continually gathering experience through practical struggle, using Marxist-Leninist theory to sum up those experiences, and drawing lessons from them. Conditions are different everywhere, but by sharing our experience and summation, we can still use our judgment and inference to draw general lessons from those particular experiences that will prove helpful as we work to apply Marxism-Leninism to our own conditions.

In our next article we’ll look more closely at how this plays out in terms of revolutionary organizing and revolutionary organization, by examining the process that the Chinese revolutionaries called the Mass Line.

See our full series on Marxist-Leninist theory here.

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