Knowledge: what it is and how to acquire it

Given the urgency of the day-to-day tasks of the struggle, a deep study of Marxist philosophy and epistemology tends to be put on the back-burner in favor of focusing on the political and (to a lesser extent) economic aspects of the Marxist worldview. But without a Theory of Knowledge, how can we hope to synthesize what we learn in order to apply it to our concrete situation?

The purpose of this article is to provide an accessible introduction to the Marxist Theory of Knowledge for revolutionary socialists in the streets who may be new to Marxist theory or lack the free time to closely study Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism or Louis Althusser’s extensive bibliography. While both Stalin’s and Mao’s offerings are relatively short and accessible, I would like to provide a more succinct resource than any of theirs.

What is the Marxist worldview?

Before we jump into a Marxist understanding of knowledge, we first need to step back and define what Marxism exactly is. Marxism is a lot of different things: a worldview, a philosophy, a methodology, an economic theory, a politics, and most importantly, a scientific weapon to understand and subsequently transform society for the benefit of the working class and oppressed.

Marx and Engels synthesized several different intellectual traditions into what we call scientific socialism. Philosophically, they drew from Hegel’s dialectics and Feuerbach’s materialism. Economically, they built off of Adam Smith and Ricardo. Politically, they drew inspiration from the early French Utopian socialists such as Saint-Simon and Fourier.

With this synthesis of ideas, Marx and Engels were able to produce a scientific method for understanding history and society. We call this method historical materialism. The basic idea of historical materialism is that the development of human societies is driven first and foremost by the social relationships, methods, and technology that comprise economic production. In class societies (slavery, feudalism, capitalism), the majority of the population is exploited because they produce wealth for the benefit of a small elite (the “ruling class”).

Armed with this methodology of analyzing society through class conflict, Marx and Engels were able to produce their world-historic, incisive critique of capitalism, a system based on wage-labor for the majority and the accumulation of capital for the minority.

However, Marx and Engels did not only produce a method for analyzing history; their theory is rooted in a Marxist philosophical worldview that we call dialectical materialism.

What the heck is dialectical materialism and what does it have to do with making revolution?

The Marxist philosophical worldview is two things: dialectical and materialistDialectics has roots in ancient philosophy. As J.V. Stalin articulated:

In ancient times dialectics was the art of arriving at the truth by disclosing the contradictions in the argument of an opponent and overcoming these contradictions. There were philosophers in ancient times who believed that the disclosure of contradictions in thought and the clash of opposite opinions was the best method of arriving at the truth. This dialectical method of thought, later extended to the phenomena of nature, developed into the dialectical method of apprehending nature, which regards the phenomena of nature as being in constant movement and undergoing constant change, and the development of nature as the result of the development of the contradictions in nature, as the result of the interaction of opposed forces in nature.

At its core, dialectics is simply the study of processes of change. Change can come quickly or slowly, qualitatively or quantitatively. Water heats up, and then it starts to boil; pressure builds inside a volcano, until it erupts. According to Lenin, “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.

Materialism, on the other hand, is a philosophical principle that states that an objective, material reality made up of matter exists independent of consciousness, and that it is the foundation and determinant of thinking. In other words, the universe really exists independently of thoughts and ideas. First there is a tree that actually exists and then I perceive that the tree is there with my eyes.

Synthesizing these two ideas, dialectical materialism is a philosophical worldview that sees the world as actually existing matter in motion that undergoes processes of change due to its internal contradictions. Marxist dialectics is the philosophy of change.

An illustrative example of the dialectics of change is Darwinian evolution. Darwin’s theory of evolution allows us to understand the complex, material processes that take place over millions of years that created the species that exist today. In a similar way, Marx and Engels analyzed the dialectics of society: they built a deep understanding of the complex processes involved in the evolution of societies and production (and with it politics, culture, and technology).

We must understand the system that we are trying to fight if we want to be effective as revolutionaries. Dialectical materialism helps us do this. We can more deeply understand our concrete situation when we have a grasp of the class forces at play and the development of the struggle. This appraisal of our situation allows us to intervene in more effective ways. Dialectical materialism is the main building block of our understanding of all social phenomena, including capitalism, the State, and national oppression. We must grasp the processes, relations, and structures that govern the development of society if we ourselves seek to transform it.

Why do we need Marxism to understand knowledge?

As a philosophical worldview, dialectical materialism comes with an epistemology, or Theory of Knowledge. To understand the Marxist epistemology, it helps to first get a handle on previously existing epistemological frameworks and their limitations.

One of the most common theories of knowledge that people use in everyday arguments without realizing it is empiricism. Empiricism is an epistemological theory that asserts that knowledge is directly acquired from sensory input. Empiricists claim that all knowledge is simply a reflection of data that you acquire. In other words, what is considered “true knowledge” follows directly from what you perceive. Empiricism dates back to early scientists like Francis Bacon.

The problem with empiricism is that it ignores the important role that cognition plays in acquiring knowledge. In reality, we cannot understand the world with our sensory perception alone. We need to organize and systematize the data that we gather through abstractions and concepts. The truth is, when we acquire new knowledge, we already have a preconceived framework with which we understand new sensory experiences. Empiricists deny this.

If we want to perform a task as simple as counting the number of trees in a forest, we need to already have a working understanding of the concept of ‘tree’, which is an abstraction that we’ve created to better organize our understanding of nature. By denying the role of cognition and synthesis in the production of knowledge, empiricists also deny the active role that the mind plays in forming knowledge, with all of its biases and imperfections.

A common example of empiricism today is the idea that “lived experiences” are the basis of truth. While we should certainly take very seriously the experiences of oppressed people, the idea that these experiences are a source of knowledge denies the necessity to systematize our knowledge to understand the structures and processes that underlie oppression. In essence, it even denies the necessity for Marxism or for the vanguard party; if everyone’s lived experiences give them access to ‘truth’, then an advanced detachment of the working class with higher consciousness is no longer necessary. This “lived experiences” empiricism provides no safeguard against this principle being taken up for reactionary purposes, which I’ve discussed in a previous article.

The evil twin of empiricism is rationalism. Rationalism is the belief that we can arrive at truth through reason alone, without any data or sensory input. If we can just think logically enough about something, then we can understand it, says the rationalist; empirical data be damned. While empiricism ignores the role of cognition, rationalism ignores the role of sensory perception. A rationalist epistemology allows us to produce “knowledge” completely disconnected from the real world, which is simultaneously useless and not really “knowledge” in any meaningful sense.

Rationalism is only concerned with internal logical consistency of a system of knowledge; it has nothing to say about its applicability to or basis in reality and really existing objects. But we cannot expect to understand the world if it has no impact on the knowledge process. Rationalism effectively severs the process of acquiring knowledge from the actual objects we want to learn about, which exist in the real world.

Rationalism is a common trend in liberalism and Enlightenment thought, popularized by thinkers like Descartes and Leibniz. Liberalism tends to uphold abstract concepts like “free speech” and “the free market” based on their internal logical coherence and abstract ‘correctness’ rather than based on their actual manifestation in the real world and their impact on real people in real societies. Ironically, liberalism only works on paper (or in our heads).

While empiricism dismisses the role of cognition, and rationalism dismisses the role of sensory data, both systems muddle the role of the real world. Kant attempted to synthesize empiricism and rationalism, but he waffled on this crucial question of objective reality by invoking agnosticism. Kant was not enough; we needed Marx.

Empiricism, taken to its extreme, suggests that sensory perception is the only thing that meaningfully exists or that it determines material reality, rather than the other way around. Rationalism, on the other hand, suggests either that ideas are supreme over reality, or that ideas are innate in reality. None of these conclusions are consistent with a materialist worldview, because they all either deny the objective existence of reality and its determination of ideas and thought.

What is knowledge? How do we produce it?

Marxist epistemology accounts for the role of sensory perception, cognition, and the actual world we seek to study, unlike empiricism or rationalism. It is counterposed to empiricism in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia entry on empiricism:

While recognizing sensory experience as the source of our knowledge, dialectical materialism does not reduce the entire content of knowledge to such experience, and it emphasizes the active function of thought. In Marxist philosophy, sensory experience is regarded not as the effect of passive imprints of the external world but as a socially and culturally mediated cognitive process effected by an active subject. The dialectical interrelatedness of sensory and rational cognition is a basic principle of Marxist epistemology.

And in the entry on rationalism:

The narrow, one-sided character of rationalism was overcome in Marxism. It was possible to resolve the contradiction between empiricism and rationalism on the basis of fundamentally new principles developed in the theory of cognition of dialectical materialism. The basic condition for resolving the contradiction between empiricism and rationalism was an analysis of the process of cognition, in integral association with practical activity for transforming reality. V. I. Lenin wrote: “From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice— such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth and the cognition of objective reality”

As dialecticians, Marxists are concerned with processes of change. As such, we view knowledge not as a static idea, but as a living, evolving process. This process starts with sensory perception; without some connection to the real world, we cannot even determine exactly what it is we want to study (what we call our “object of knowledge”). From here, we can collect data and synthesize it into abstractions (for example, a scientific hypothesis or concept). In this sense, knowledge moves from concrete reality to abstract concepts and theories.

How do we know that what we produced is really knowledge? Short answer: Practice. Long answer: Practice→ theory→ practice → theory→ practice→ …

Longer answer: knowledge also moves from the abstract to the concrete. Once we have formulated a hypothesis, or a system of knowledge, we must apply it in practice, whether that be in a research lab or out on the streets protesting against the police. When we apply our abstractions to concrete situations, we are able to give our theoretical framework a more concrete character. In order to understand reality, we must first accept its objective existence, and that our scientific concepts and abstractions must accurately reflect reality in order to be considered correct. This can only be measured through actually practicing our ideas. Once we have made our knowledge more concrete by applying it, we are now left with a more complete theoretical framework. With this framework, we synthesize new data, which in turn strengthens our framework (or forces us to revise it).

When we acquire new perceptual experiences, we understand them through an already-existing framework. Despite what empiricists may believe, there is no “pure perception” independent of a pre-existing framework of knowledge. This is necessary in order to form complex theories, but it also makes science a messy process: it opens the door to bias and human error. While we must do everything possible to correct for bias (especially oppressive views that we are taught in class society), we must recognize that knowledge is never “absolute” or “perfect”. It is relative and impure. That’s not to say, however, that we cannot understand the world, or that “everybody is right”. As Lenin said:

…we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely. This criterion also is sufficiently “indefinite” not to allow human knowledge to become “absolute,” but at the same time it is sufficiently definite to wage a ruthless fight on all varieties of idealism and agnosticism. If what our practice confirms is the sole, ultimate and objective truth, then from this must follow the recognition that the only path to this truth is the path of science, which holds the materialist point of view.

According to Lenin, although we cannot build a magical oracle to access “absolute truth”, through the criterion of practice, we are able to produce sufficiently accurate relative truths so that all objectivity does not fly out the door. Through the constant process of acquiring new sensory perceptions, building and systematizing a theoretical framework, and applying our science in practice, Marxists create an endless chain of theory and practice, with the ultimate goal of transforming society completely.

Epistemology and Ontology

While epistemology is concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge, ontology is concerned with understanding existence and reality. As previously stated, the Marxist, materialist ontology states that the world actually exists independently of our perception (i.e. independently of a subject or observer) and that this world is made up of matter in constant motion, i.e. states of change.

What is the significance of Marxist ontology in Marxist epistemology? Marxist materialism can help us understand more concretely what we mean by ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ and in what sense ‘knowledge’ has an ‘objective existence’.

Marxist materialism states that objective reality exists independently of consciousness or thought. Whether or not I believe that there’s a tree in front of me, there actually is a tree there in the real world. But what about the concept of “tree”? Does that really “exist”? According to rationalists, ideas are inherent in reality; the abstraction of “tree” is a real thing with a real existence. This is metaphysical thinking, which dates back to Plato. On the other hand, empiricists see no need for abstractions, which also in practice leads to the belief that the concept “tree” follows immediately from our perception of what we call a “tree”.

Marxists, however, are able to distinguish material reality from abstraction because we understand the knowledge process. Take, for example, economics and politics. Both of these concepts involve actual processes that really happen in the world: production, exchange, distribution, and sales; elections, policies, and revolutions. However, economics and politics are deeply intertwined; each category inevitably bleeds into the other. Thus, it would be metaphysical thinking to say that economics and politics are totally distinct, cleanly separable phenomena. There is overlap and interconnectedness (as our dialectical materialist worldview would suggest), and we ourselves must draw the line of demarcation between economics and politics. We create these abstractions because they accurately reflect our reality, as proven in practice.

Thus, while the actual objects we study (societies, chemical bonds, biological processes) and their laws of behavior actually exist in the real world, the concepts and abstractions we use to understand them are something that we have to create; they are not an inherent property of our objects of study.

“Gravity” is a concept that describes real relations and motions between real material objects in the real universe. Newton’s theory of gravity was an abstraction created to understand the motion of these phenomena; it was imperfect and approximate. While Newton’s theory was “knowledge” in that it accurately reflected the real world as proven by practice (i.e. scientific experiments), it was eventually replaced with Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which is more accurate.

Marxists understand that the universe has objective properties that we can study, and that these properties are the same no matter who the observer is. However, unlike both empiricists and rationalists, we understand that the actual process of producing knowledge is contingent upon a subject situated in a historical context. Our theories are not direct access to “absolute truth”, nor do they inherently exist in the fabric of the universe, but they are true knowledge to the extent that they are internally consistent, reflect the real world, and are verified by practice.

Consider the color blue. What is “blue”? Is there a difference between the abstraction “blue” and the phenomena that we characterize as “blue”?

Above is the color spectrum. Obviously, there is a general region on the spectrum that we may call “blue” because of its unique qualities. But is there a precise line where “blue” becomes “violet” or “green”? Blue bleeds into both of these colors. It is up to us to decide where to draw the line. These colors, like all phenomena, have an objective existence in reality. However, without the process of cognition and creating theory to systematize, organize, and categorize our sensory experience, our understanding of the color spectrum remains a blur. Without concepts and patterns we create to understand the objective laws of the universe, reality appears to be an indiscriminate haze of phenomena.

It is worth noting here that even the distinction between reality and ideas is itself an abstraction; ideas are born out of and exist as a part of the material world, through a complex process of mental cognition along with sensory experience, which itself is only possible with really existing faculties like sight and hearing.

How do we acquire collective knowledge, as a class?

We may have the tools to understand society as individuals, or as an organization, but how do we acquire this knowledge as a class? How do we attain class consciousness?

As Karl Marx famously said,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

Ultimately, what will win the masses over to revolutionary science is the objective development of the class struggle. Where the struggle is historically most intense, especially in colonized regions like Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe, the Marxist movements tend to be strongest. People tend to acquire knowledge of society more readily when it is in their class interest to do so; the ruling class has no reason to accept Marxism as true, because it exposes their project as an exploitative, violent, and ultimately futile endeavor.

However, this revolutionary working class consciousness will not drop from the sky, nor will it spontaneously develop through struggle. Revolutionary consciousness must be injected into the working class movement by the most advanced, class-conscious detachment of our class: the Leninist vanguard party. It is the masses, led by the vanguard party, who ultimately make history. As revolutionary, conscious elements of our class, it is our duty to arm the masses with the weapon of a theory of knowledge in order to be able to understand and ultimately transform all of society.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Further reading


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