On definition mongering
“Whatever is written in a book is right — such is still the mentality of culturally backward Chinese peasants. Strangely enough, within the Communist Party there are also people who always say in a discussion, ‘Show me where it’s written in the book.’ When we say that a directive of a higher organ of leadership is correct, that is not just because it comes from ‘a higher organ of leadership’ but because its contents conform with both the objective and subjective circumstances of the struggle and meet its requirements. It is quite wrong to take a formalistic attitude and blindly carry out directives without discussing and examining them in the light of actual conditions simply because they come from a higher organ. It is the mischief done by this formalism which explains why the line and tactics of the Party do not take deeper root among the masses. To carry out a directive of a higher organ blindly, and seemingly without any disagreement, is not really to carry it out but is the most artful way of opposing or sabotaging it.
The method of studying the social sciences exclusively from the book is likewise extremely dangerous and may even lead one onto the road of counter-revolution. Clear proof of this is provided by the fact that whole batches of Chinese Communists who confined themselves to books in their study of the social sciences have turned into counter-revolutionaries. When we say Marxism is correct, it is certainly not because Marx was a ‘prophet’ but because his theory has been proved correct in our practice and in our struggle. We need Marxism in our struggle. In our acceptance of his theory no such formalisation of mystical notion as that of ‘prophecy’ ever enters our minds. Many who have read Marxist books have become renegades from the revolution, whereas illiterate workers often grasp Marxism very well. Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship, which is divorced from the actual situation.
How can we overcome book worship? The only way is to investigate the actual situation.” — Mao Zedong, Oppose Book Worship
The following quotes from a recent discussion. We have not quoted everything that was said. And we have corrected a few typos and slightly edited the text in a couple places for clarification. Those who want to read the original can go here:
The discussion went in various directions, and we did not bother answering everything that was raised because much of it is available online and has been discussed a dozen times in our literature. The main point of contention was that we were not using words exactly as Marx did. We run into this kind of ‘definition mongering’ a lot. So here are some of our responses:
“Science is not some metaphysics derived from eternal definitions.”
“Just because someone earns a wage or salary does not make them proletarian as a revolutionary agent. Marx identified the concept of proletarian as a revolutionary agent with workers because it looked like society was polarizing into ‘two great camps.’ Well, it didn’t work out that way. Not all workers are the same. Some workers in the First World have more access to capital than Third World capitalists. To look at revolution in 2014 with analytic categories from 1848 is really out of touch. The world is a lot more complicated.”
“I am more interested in truth and revolution, not what Marx said. Lots of people can quote the Bible too, so what? As I said, Marx’s class analysis, which looked good in his day, is not good enough to explain the contemporary world. Who says being white renders them not proletarian? We don’t. As I already said, blacks and chicanos aren’t, generally speaking, proletarian either.”
“I find your approach silly. You are willing to admit that these First World workers are ‘net-exploiters’ (we just say exploiters), yet you want to call them ‘proletarians.’ Well, if they are exploiters, then they appropriate ill-gotten value just as the bourgeoisie do. The fact that they appropriate in a way that superficially looks like they themselves suffer exploitation is besides the point. They are getting more than their share of the pie. At that point, what good does it do to retain an archaic definition of ‘proletarian’ as though there is a common interest shared by exploiter workers in the First World and exploited workers (and peoples) in the Third World?”
“LLCO is not Marxist first. We are revolutionary scientists first and foremost. We apply the best scientific methods to reach communism, ending all oppression. Marx happened to be the best revolutionary scientist in his day. The most advanced physicists today abandon the literal letter of Newton, but they still stand on his shoulders. To be a Marxist in any other sense is just religion.”
“It’s all about the question of power. ‘Philosophers have heretofore interpreted the world, the point is TO CHANGE IT.’ Marx’s theories were not to be taken as ‘just so’ stories, neat stories about how stuff gets made. They were to provide tools of analysis to make revolution, a guide to action. Marx’s genius was that he saw economic misery in front of him and came up with mathematical models to quantify exploitation in order to better understand how to make revolution. A theory of exploitation is not just some abstract thing, it should help us answer Mao’s first question: ‘Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?’ It should identify the revolutionary agent, what we call ‘the proletariat,’ which is not simply wage earners. In fact, simple standard of living charts can better predict where socialist revolutions will occur than whether such and such country has x amount of wage earners.”
“[Sarcasm intended] Marx defined ‘exploitation’ in such a such a way. Nobody else can use the word except as he did. Newton defined ‘space’ in such and such a way, who is this Einstein upstart? How dare he use the word incorrectly, even if it advances the science!”
“We are concerned with giving a better revolutionary science to the masses, not quibbling over words with ‘the rest of the left.’”
“If you want to show why your framework predicts and explains alignment of social groups better than mine, fine. That is a discussion worth having. I really could care less about arguing about definitions. Scientific terms evolve all the time. If you don’t know this, you simply are unfamiliar with the history of science. Revolutionary science is the same way.”
“Marx was the best thing in his day. I don’t think it is very good now for understanding social alignments or interests. I don’t know why you are so fixated on this issue. It would seem kind of obvious to most people that knowledge in every field has advanced in the past 200 years. It would be odd if that were not the case with political economy. Although if you are applying a political economy from 150-200 years ago to today, well, you probably aren’t really doing real political economy, but something like those guys who interpret current events into Bible prophecies.”
“I really think this discussion is not worth having. I am being totally honest when I say this kind of definition mongering doesn’t interest me. As far as why Marx shows up at all in our work, well that should be obvious. When advances are made in science, these advances are not born in one fell swoop. The new ideas often cast themselves in language of previous ones. Plus, not everything about Marx is outdated. Marx was a genius. You should be able to answer this stuff yourself. Newton’s concept of space was not curved. Thus he had a concept of gravity that was not as connected to space, and certainly not its curvature. Space is now seen as curved by objects, which allows a theory of space to account for the ‘gravitational effect’ without gravity as a force. Newton was still a genius nonetheless. And current physics stands on his shoulders. As for Marx, I did not say he never made any logical arguments, but it would be silly to think Marx’s whole work was some kind of giant valid syllogism. Even Marx himself would admit this. Dialectics, right? Marx came up with a collection of interrelated theories that were the best thing going at the time for predicting and explaining the socio-economic life. However, not only has revolutionary science advanced, socio-economic life has changed in many ways today. We use what is good and toss the bad.”
“As I already said, Marxism is not about some ‘just so’ story for the sake of it. It is a set of descriptions to better understand socioeconomic relations to better predict and explain the world for making revolution. It is a set of categories to predict and explain social alignments in order to better change the world. Sorry if this offends people, but I really do think that only very stupid people and very dogmatic people at this point believe there is some kind of underlying unity and interests between workers making 500$/year and others making 60,000$/year. It just isn’t the case. You can think anything you want, but nobody really believes this outside a few dogmatic sects that have driven the left into irrelevance and intellectuals who, although literate, have little connection to reality. You can say ‘well, Marx said there is an underlying interest and it is called proletarian!’ And I will respond as I have, with a big ‘who cares?’ Marx thought the world was polarizing into two great camps of exploited and exploiters, he identified these groups as capitalists and workers, bourgeoisie and proletarians. Marx thought workers everywhere were being pushed down to a point where they would become revolutionary. The world has not divided this way, although it looked as much at the time. The world has not evolved in a way that pushed down all workers to the point of rebellion. In fact, work in the First World is one way the system distributes global surpluses. Work has become one way in which exploitation occurs because some First World workers receive super-wages well above what they should receive at the expense of the Third World. Work in some contexts is a way by which some workers appropriate the value of others in the Third World, much the same as capitalists siphon off surpluses. Even later in life, Engels noticed the way things were heading and began to question this way of looking at things, which is why he speaking of ‘bourgeois proletarians.’ Later, others, began speaking of ‘labor aristocracies.’ Today, we count First World workers as part of the global bourgeoisie, generally speaking. If the way you are talking about the world doesn’t line up with reality, you are free to go on talking that way. Plenty of people talk nonsense all the time. But, as I said, so what?”*
* We nowadays don’t define First World populations as part of a global bourgeoisie anymore, but as a labor aristocracy that is being bribed with imperialist plunder and indoctrinated by imperialist propaganda.