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Dear RAIM, The term revisionism has always been confusing to me, not just because re-visioning something sounds like a pleasant experience of creative imagination. But more seriously, I understand revisionism as watering-down or modifying theory to gain more popularity, basically abandoning aspects of the theoretically correct analysis for one purpose or another. However, I also understand the idea of scientific Marxism as evaluating evidence and using that evidence to inform your theory – assumedly changing it if the evidence points that the old theory is wrong. So, where revisionism says the problem is changing the theory, and scientific Marxism/communism says the problem is not changing the theory to fit the facts, how do you reconcile this contradiction? It seems to me that it must be that revisionism is only changing the theory for illegitimate reasons? If so, how do you define which reasons are legitimate and which are not? I assume you would adopt some scientific method, which of course is problematic because the scientific process is still hotly debated and there is little agreement in how it works within the philosophy of science. It works, to be sure, whether we understand it or not. But an entire scientific apparatus exists to do so. Yet those scientists don’t do Marxist theory usually. How exactly do you define scientific Marxism? How does it work? How is it scientific? What is the equivalent of empirical experiments that can be repeated for all to perceive and then to agree upon? Am I missing something? Thanks! – Shaunsky 

Dear Shaunsky,

Ideally, Marxism is the science of understanding the world so as to change it. Marxism has also taken on titles such as, ‘the science of revolution.’

In the case of Marxism, what does science mean or allude to?

Generally, it is difficult for any ‘social science’ to create tests and experiments which delve into every aspect of social life. You could similarly ask, what is ‘scientific’ about military science, psychology, advertising, etc. However, they do often rely on empirical data, asking the simple question of what ‘works’ at producing desired results.

Ideally, Marxism should approach revolution in the same way. ‘Correct’ is what organizes people to overthrow the existing power structure and what destroys obstructions before the revolutionary movement.

While it is fairly hard to conduct experiments to test hypotheses regarding revolutions, comparisons can be made between different past revolutionary movements to see what works. In John Foran’s recommendable book, “Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions,” this is done remarkably well. By looking at the history of the revolutions of the 20th century, Foran teases out five ‘causal factors of revolution.’

These are:

1. exclusionary states or societies

2. dependent development, i.e. a Third World economy (esp. after a TW country experiences a moderate economic boom followed by a bust)

3. a political culture of opposition and resistance, and increasing disaffection from the ruling class

4. a world-systemic opening

5. a cross-class alliance of various sectors of a society.

After a revolution, additional problems arise: broadly democratic and inclusive political structures are hard to construct and vulnerable to reactionary internal and external opposition; and the material basis and psychological effects of dependent development do not go away over night.

Foran’s book is fairly non-ideological, but a basic argument made is that revolutions occur in Third World countries. With the obvious exception of Russia itself (which existed under far different material and subjective conditions than the US or First World today), this is what the historical record indicates.

In the same token that there has never been a revolution in a First World country, there has never been Anarchist or Trotskyist revolutions either. Anarchists typically disavow the revolutionary state, i.e. the one thing preventing quick and total reversal of revolutionary gains in the wake of reactionary counter-offensives. ‘Workers’ are the sacred cow of Trotskyists, which leads them to ignore whole sections of society and while making themselves becoming negligible forces in the history of revolutions.

Revisionism, broadly speaking, is eviscerating Marxism of its revolutionary content. Just as one can look through history to see what common factors have led to revolutions, we can look through history to see what has not worked. The term ‘revisionist,’ therefore, is generally reserved for reoccurring political lines which have not lent themselves to revolutions. Common revisionisms include: the notion that revolutions spontaneously break out and maintain themselves, therefore there is no need for professional revolutionary organizations (Anarchism; Menshevism); that socialism is a peaceful transition away from capitalism, or that socialism (as a transition toward communism) can ‘peacefully’ co-exist with capitalism (Kautskyism, Khrushchevism; Social Democracy); and that the central front of world revolution lies in ‘advanced capitalist countries’ (Trotskyism; First Worldism).

Contextually speaking, Marxism informed or influenced nearly every revolution of the 20th century. In that regard, it is understandable why Marxism carries with it such a high esteem, or why Marx, Lenin, and Mao are (correctly) looked to for inspiration and revolutionary foundations.

Unfortunately, the more recent history of Marxism has been, for lack of a better word, a disaster. Especially in the United States today, Marxism has failed to live up to its own standard. If Marxism is the act of successfully organizing for revolution (and not simply a subjective political alignment or social identity), then most of what is thought of as Marxism is actually revisionism.

In imperialist centers, large majorities are materially bought into the imperialist system. They are rewarded greatly for their loyalty in supporting the imperialist machine. Without a larger world-systemic crisis, no amount of organizing is going to lead to conditions in which the seizure of power by proletarian forces is feasible. Our strategy, therefore, becomes one of most efficiently working to create such crises and organizing for their revolutionary resolution.

At a certain point, reading Marx, Lenin, Mao and other successfully revolutionary leaders can become rote. And let’s face it: a generation of folks in the ‘New Communist Movement’ read plenty of this stuff and it didn’t get them very close to revolution. These past leaders can certainly provide some background and basic outline, but this does not translate into imparting revolutionary science. One does not learn to do anything, whether playing piano or organizing revolutions, from only reading about it.

However, if we want to talk about the constituent elements of organizing for revolution, at a certain point it makes sense to read and practice ‘beyond’ Marxism.

Notably, we should ask ourselves who is successful at what we want to accomplish. Ironically, corporations have invested heavily into ‘organizational sciences,’ ‘social psychology,’ as well as marketing and other activities. Those committed to revolution, especially those within the extra-normal circumstances of the First World, might be suited to studying this bourgeois “science” to the degree it effectively aids their revolutionary-oriented work. To a certain extent this is self-evident. For example, one is not likely to learn to create good agitational posters only from reading old books by dead revolutionaries. Rather, one must also delve into the art and science (i.e., the theoretical and technical aspects) of graphic design, which are most frequently taught at bourgeois institutions. Great visual posters, in turn, are those which actually do engage people while promoting revolutionary consciousness and action.

People like Lenin and Mao were revolutionaries par excellence, not in the sense that everything they wrote is timeless. Instead, they adapted Marxism to their conditions toward the successful end of the revolutionary seizure of power. This was not simply the product of idle theories, but of determination and willingness to adapt in strategic ways in accordance to reality.

I hope these answers provide some understanding.

Thanks, and keep the questions coming,

-Nikolai Brown

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  1. […] Dear RAIM, What is Revisionism and How is Marxism a Science? […]

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