Truth and Practice: The Marxist Theory of Knowledge


Marxism is a method of understanding and changing the world. These two tasks are inseparable for Marxists. Knowledge of the world which does not equip us to change it is not worthy of being called knowledge in the first place. Knowledge has to be oriented towards the material world around; it must account for its laws and provide us with the ability to interact with that material world in productive ways. A major difficulty of propagandizing Marxism is unpacking its philosophical underpinnings for readers not familiar with formal philosophy. Marxism has a rich philosophical component, and a central part of that component is its theory of knowledge and truth. 

In this essay I want to explore these philosophical underpinnings in a way that can be easily comprehended by those without a formal education in philosophy. In particular, I want to attempt to provide a relatively accessible explanation of Marxist epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, with special attention to how correct ideas are ascertained and distinguished from incorrect ideas. To say that Marxism has its own distinct epistemology is to say that it has its own theory for testing the validity of ideas and beliefs, and its own methods for deriving true ideas. 

You may have noticed that implicit in this understanding of epistemology is the assumption that true ideas exist and can be ascertained by humans. While this idea is tacitly believed by many, philosophers have spent much of the last century questioning it. This has taken the form of denying the existence of truth in the most concrete and absolute sense, or more frequently by questioning the power of human subjects to develop the methods and techniques necessary to ascertain truth. Contemporary epistemology is thus frequently interested not in asking how we ascertain true ideas but in exploring all the impediments that make ascertaining true beliefs impossible. This skeptical turn has been productive in undercutting a certain arrogance and ethnocentrism that underlied much modernist epistemology, but it has also had negative political impacts that must be accounted for. 

What I hope to demonstrate here is that a Marxist epistemology can restore our belief in the possibility of ascertaining correct and true ideas without a hasty and rash rejection of some of the more productive concerns of epistemological skeptics. In order to demonstrate this, I will try to explain the epistemological view developed in the writing of Mao Zedong as simply as possible, before explaining why this epistemology is preferable to approaches that overemphasize the subjectivity of truth and skeptical projects which have been adopted by the much of the radical left today. 

This essay will be broken up into several parts. You should feel free to read them one at a time, and not all consecutively.

Part 1: Mao’s Theory of Knowledge 

While there are moments of epistemological development in the works of Marx and Engels, neither thinker was particularly concerned with thematizing the relationship between their methods and the development of knowledge. Both thinkers obviously developed techniques of historical analysis which are explicitly tied to the question of developing correct historical interpretations, but this is never clearly developed into a comprehensive theory of truth. As such, I turn to the works of Mao Zedong to explain what Marxist epistemology entails. Mao provides and incredibly concise theory of truth and knowledge in several of his works, though it is perhaps most fleshed out in the fantastic On Practice. In order to get a holistic sense of Mao’s theory, however, we must look to multiple texts. 

We can find some of Mao’s most concise ideas about epistemology in the aptly titled Where Do Correct Ideas Come From? This passage was part of a larger document, but contains a brief summary of the Maoist theory of knowledge. In response to the question posed in the title, Mao first explains that correct ideas do not “drop from the sky” and argues that they are “not innate in the mind.” By rejecting these two ideas, Mao insists that ideas do not exist in isolation, as pure products of the mind or the heavens. Instead Mao tells us that correct ideas “come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment.” 

This claim that correct ideas are derived from social practice is central to the Marxist epistemology. When humans participate in production, class struggle, and experimentation, we engage with the world around us in various ways, and that engagement is the beginning of the development of knowledge. This engagement causes us to take in the things around us through our senses; we perceive the materials we are working with and the conditions we are working in. This is what Mao calls the perceptual stage of knowledge. During this stage, we are still engaged in basic perception of the world around us. 

Mao explains that once we have taken in enough information of the world around us through perception, we can jump to conceptual knowledge and the formation of ideas. It is in this stage that we take the perception of the objective and material world around us and begin to make abstract concepts and theorize in our own subjective consciousness. 

Let’s make this more concrete and assume for a moment that we don’t yet know of the law of gravity. I might, throughout my daily life, notice that when I drop objects on accident, they always fall to the ground; this is the basic perceptual stage of knowledge. After observing this over and over again, I might then move on to the conceptual stage and theorize that there is some force which acts on objects to pull them to the ground in every instance. At this moment, I have taken the perception of the world around me and created conceptions of it within my own mind. 

What we need to grasp from this example is that the Marxist epistemology does not understand knowledge as a purely rational process which occurs only in the minds of humans or as a purely empirical project which never moves beyond our senses. Mao shows us the ways in which knowledge is developed through both human reason and empirical sense perception. Both are central to the process of developing correct ideas. 

Returning briefly to our gravity example, we might wonder how we can know if this belief in a gravitational force is correct. Are the ideas we develop in conceptual stage necessarily  true? No. Mao tells us that, “Whether or not one’s consciousness or ideas (including theories, policies, plans or measures) do correctly reflect the laws of the objective external world is not yet proved at this stage, in which it is not yet possible to ascertain whether they are correct or not.” The ideas we develop during the conceptual stage are derived from our experiences of the objective world as well as our own reason, but this does not tell us if they are correct. 

In order to determine if an idea is correct, we must move beyond our own mind and return again to the objective and material world around us; we must move from “ideas back to existence.” In the case of our gravity example, we would then need to see if applying the belief in gravitational force leads us to success in social practice. For example, now that we have a theory of gravity, we can create machines which rely on some component or part being pulled toward the ground by gravity. If these machines work and our social practice results in success, we might then say that our idea of the force of gravity was correct. 

If on the other hand, we found instances in which objects were not pulled down by some force, and our application of our ideas led to a failure, we would have determined that our idea of gravity was not correct. Thus when describing how to distinguish correct and incorrect ideas, Mao explains, “Generally speaking, those that succeed are correct and those that fail are incorrect, and this is especially true of man’s struggle with nature.” 

Now the example we have used here is very rudimentary, but for Mao, this theory of knowledge applies to much more complex instances as well. Mao argues that this process is how we can come up with correct policies, strategies, and measures for revolutionary struggle and governance. When we think in terms of these more broad and political contexts, however, it becomes a bit more tricky to differentiate between correct and incorrect ideas. Mao explains that a particular revolutionary class might have the correct ideas, but be unable to enact them in practice (and thus might fail at their undertaking), not necessarily because their ideas were incorrect “but because, in the balance of forces engaged in struggle, they are not as powerful for the time being as the forces of reaction…” Therefore, in the context of revolutionary struggle, failure due to incorrect ideas and failure due to insufficient force must be carefully distinguished. 

Despite these complications, Mao argues that practice remains the only way of testing the truth of an idea. Conceptual knowledge is not sufficient if it cannot affect the world in desired ways. Knowledge is of no use if does not allow us to change the world. Mao here hearkens back to Marx’s own infamous eleventh Theses on Feuerbach, which states “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Likewise, Mao insists that “the one and only purpose of the proletariat in knowing the world is to change it.” 

Having demonstrated the political importance of developing correct ideas through practice, Mao goes on to note the necessity of repetition in this process. It is not enough for an idea to be proven correct a single time, rather an idea must be continually tested in practice, revised when it fails, and modified to take into account new information as a situation develops. For Mao, knowledge is not produced simply by taking in the world and theorizing in our own minds, but develops as a constant back and forth between our own conscious minds and the material world around us, with each constantly returning to the other in order to refine ideas. 

This theory of knowledge, which Mao calls the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge stands out from the various enlightenment epistemologies which would come to dominate capitalist Europe. European philosophy in the enlightenment period came to be dominated by two competing theories: rationalism and empiricism. To understand the genius of the Marxist epistemology, we must understand its relation to these two schools of thought. 

Rationalism is perhaps most clearly embodied in the writings of René Descartes. In his famous text, Meditation on First Philosophy, Descartes develops a theory of knowledge that is purely rational. In the text, Descartes attempts to find an undoubtable foundation upon which he can build his philosophy. In order to do this, he systematically considers which experiences, ideas, and beliefs he has that are capable of being doubted. This leads to a decision to doubt his own sense impressions of the material world, as perceptions can be incorrect as an effect of intoxication, deception, and many other factors. Descartes goes so far as to say he has no way of knowing with certainty that his perceptions are not all illusions being given to him by some evil demon. Thus, having doubted sense perceptions completely, Descartes decides that our senses and experiences of the external world cannot be the starting point for our ideas. Instead, Descartes argues that the one single undoubtable thing he knows is that he is thinking. This must be true, since he is in the process of thinking about it. He further argues that if he can be sure that he is thinking, then he can also be sure that he is a thing which is thinking, as thinking is an action and process undertaken by a person. This leads Descartes to formulate the now famous phrase: “I think, therefore I am.” This reliance on reason and cognition within our own minds is central to the rationalist approach to epistemology. Like Descartes, rationalists argue that we could not necessarily trust our senses, and that reason within the human mind was the foundation of all knowledge. 

In opposition to the rationalists, another group of European philosophers developed their own competing theory of knowledge: the empiricists. There are many variations of empiricism, though its most advanced iteration is (in my estimation) found in the writings of David Hume. Along with several important contemporaries, Hume developed the notion that sense impression is the basis of all knowledge. He argued that human imagination and cognition is bound by the sense impressions we have had, and that we cannot think of a hypothetical object which we have not in some way sensed. Imaginary creatures like Unicorns, for example, are composed of the parts of ordinary animals we have experienced through our senses. Given that sense impressions form the basis of all ideas, Hume argues that we are actually quite epistemologically constrained, and that what we can know with certainty is limited. For example, He argues that we cannot know cause and effect with certainty. We may have noted in the past that letting go of an object in the air causes it to fall, but we can only infer that this will happen again in the future; we do not have absolute certain knowledge that it will, because we only have our past perceptions to go on. While Hume presents a somewhat more grounded view of knowledge than the rationalists, he also gives us a highly subjective knowledge in which the certainty of a correctness of an idea is unattainable, and individual experiences of the world around us are the only concrete ground we have to stand on. 

These summaries represent a massive oversimplification of both empiricism and rationalism, but they ought to serve to provide non-philosophers with a basic working understanding of these schools of thought. 

Regardless of the necessary oversimplification, rationalism and empiricism both have extreme limitations, and ultimately both grant primacy to mental processes and experiences of an individual’s mind, though they bicker back and forth endlessly about which aspects of consciousness are primary (sense or reason). Mao interjects into this philosophical squabbling by presenting an epistemology which accounts for the insights of both rationalism and empiricism while moving beyond the limits of each. 

In On Practice, Mao explicitly addresses the limits of both these schools of thought while demonstrating how they relate to the Marxist theory of knowledge. He writes that “Rational knowledge depends upon perceptual knowledge and perceptual knowledge remains to be developed into rational knowledge– this is the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge.” Mao is here insisting that both rational and perceptual knowledge play a part in the development of correct ideas, but neither represents the whole story of how we know things. Both types of knowledge are necessary for us to develop correct ideas. Mao continues, “In philosophy, neither ‘rationalism’ nor ‘empiricism’ understands the historical or the dialectical nature of knowledge, and although each of these schools contains one aspect of the truth.” In this section, he does not reject either school out of hand, rather he notes that although they would seem to be contradictory views of knowledge, each contains an aspect of truth that can only be useful if we look beyond the limits of each. 

Let us be very careful here: Mao does not simply blend rationalism and empiricism together. His claim is not simply that a combination of perceptual knowledge and rational knowledge is sufficient for the development of correct ideas. That would still be an incomplete view of the world and of knowledge because it would never leave the realm of interpretation of the world. In contrast, Mao insists that, “Marxism emphasizes the importance of theory precisely and only because it can guide action. If we have a correct theory but merely prate about it, pigeonhole it and do not put it into practice, then that theory, however good, is of no significance.” He again asserts the need for our knowledge to play out in practice. Therefore, Mao does not simply mix rationalism and empiricism; he instead takes the correct aspects of both and synthesizes them not through a mixing and matching of pieces, but through and insistence on practice. Perceptual knowledge and rational knowledge come together to form a theory, but the Marxist view of knowledge holds that this theory must then be tested in practice. This concept did not exist in either rationalism or empiricism; it is a distinctly Marxist contribution to the philosophy of knowledge. Mao summarizes this view, writing: 

The active function of knowledge manifests itself not only in the active leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, but–and this is more important–it must manifest itself in the leap from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice. The knowledge which grasps the laws of the world, must be redirected to the practice of changing the world, must be applied anew in the practice of production, in the practice of revolutionary class struggle and revolutionary national struggle and in the practice of scientific experiment.

This is the profound insight of Marxist epistemology. This is the distinctive aspect of the Marxist theory of knowledge which sets it apart from the European philosophies which preceded it. For all their nuances and insights, empiricism and rationalism were incapable of providing us with the philosophical tools necessary for active and practical knowledge. 

All of this sounds relatively abstract, but this theory of knowledge has concrete implications for revolutionaries. The Marxist epistemology transforms knowledge from an abstract tool for reflection and introspection to a weapon to be wielded in the struggle to change the world. Marxism insists that our knowledge must play out in the process of production and in the process of class struggle. If we want to develop correct strategies, we now have a tool for determining the correctness of a strategy. We can investigate the situation we are operating in, taking in the world around us through our perception. We can then think rationally about what our investigation uncovered and formulate a theory for how to go about responding to the conditions we operate in. Then, we can go out into the world and try to implement the strategy we developed during our rational reflection. If our strategy works we can continue to use it in our organizing and our struggle, and if it does not we can repeat the process over again until we have developed a strategy which actually works in practice. The correctness of ideas is only determined in practice. 

This epistemology is not a relativist one. It does not hold that there is no truth in the world. It also does not hold that it is impossible to ascertain true ideas. The Marxist epistemology believes that there is an objective world governed by objective laws, and it believes that through practice, we can come to understand these laws. At the same time, Marxism does not hold that truth exists as a self evident reality in the world we can immediately understand. True ideas do not come from God, written in some ancient text. Similarly, true ideas are not uncovered through simple observation of the world around us. True ideas can only be uncovered through engagement with the world. We have to first attempt to change the world in order to develop a knowledge of it. Truth is struggled for, it is discovered through repeated failures and a stubborn refusal to give up. Truth is not a transcendent reality which underpins all of history waiting to be uncovered; it is instead discovered contextually through collective action. 

In conclusion, we can say that Marxism believes that true ideas exist, and that they can be ascertained by people engaged in practice. This represents a break from earlier epistemologies which understood some aspects of knowledge production, but which failed to understand the relationship between knowledge and practice. 

Part 2: Skepticism and Postmodernism

Now that we have established a basic understanding of the Marxist theory of knowledge, it is worth recognizing that there are certain features of this theory which stand in contrast to various critical developments within contemporary philosophy. The trend over the last 80 years among philosophers who study knowledge has been to embrace skepticism and move away from a belief in the ability for humans to determine correct ideas.

While postmodernism is a contested term that is often used to encompass mutually contradictory schools of thought, we should recognize that the general trend of postmodern theories of knowledge has been to move away from a belief in ascertainable truth and objective reality.

There have been many different motivations behind this turn towards skepiticism and relativism. Concerns with “totalitarianism” following the second world war led many philosophers to reject the idea that politics can be guided by scientific theories of truth. Thinkers like Hannah Arendt claimed that both the USSR and Nazi Germany were driven by an ideology of certainty and historical necessity which left no room for dissent or critical thought. In Arendt’s view, the Nazi belief in the truth of Aryan superiority and the Soviet belief in the truth of communism both became tools for silencing dissent and prohibiting critical questioning. In opposition to this, Arendt suggested an embrace of the public sphere as a site of political discourse and disagreement.

On the one hand, Arendt was responding to the real and immense horrors of Nazi Germany, and her skepticism towards scientific approaches to politics was motivated by a fear of the intense political violence that the Nazi worldview facilitated. On the other hand, Arendt conflated the Nazis with the Soviets, despite their near total theoretical disagreement, their history of military conflict (with the Soviets ultimately defeating the Nazis), and the fact that the soviets repressed the capitalist class, not ethnic minorities. Arendt’s skepticism thus served to appeal to those who were horrified by the evils of the Nazis, while simultaneously creating a theoretical basis for rejecting Marxism and scientific socialism.

Other thinkers such as Foucault would go on to focus on the way that knowledge relates to power, with an emphasis on the way in which theories of knowledge serve to justify certain arrangements of power. For Foucault, on of most important project is to uncover “subjugated knowledges” which have been obscured by dominant theories of knowledge. History for Foucault is not a matter of class struggle but of decentralized movements of power wherein new ideas combat old. The focus in Foucault’s work is on understanding ideas in relation to an abstract notion of power. This stands in stark contrast to the Marxist view which understands ideas in relation to the material conditions of the world in which we live, with primary emphasis given to the class arrangement of our society. Foucault denounced Marxism as an outdated mode of thought that was thoroughly trapped within older theories of knowledge and certainty. As such, he pushed against an emphasis on class struggle and instead promoted an abstract idea of resistance which could be enacted on a local and personal level. For Foucault, there is no objective truth that can be uncovered; instead there are competing discourses which can be understood in their specific historical moments.

There are countless other postmodern and proto-postmodern thinkers who embraced skepticism for various reasons. These thinkers mostly focused on the historically bound nature of knowledge, emphasizing the way that our own historical and social context limit our ability to understand the world around us. They facilitated a shift in politics from collective class struggle against our class enemies to local resistance to abstract and ill-defined notions of power. In this sense, they used skepticism to push back against the possibility of a revolutionary science.

I will not refute these theorists here, because I am attempting to write specifically to other Marxists who desire to better understand a the theory of knowledge which underpins scientific socialism. It is worth nothing however, that these theorists rejected the very epistemological core of Marxism and therefore served bourgeois interests. If truth cannot actually be attained, if knowledge is nothing more than competing discourses, then it is not possible for us to come up with a universal and unified theory of knowledge which could guide revolutionary struggle. As such, Marxists must insist on the possibility for true ideas to be ascertained. We must insist that practice in the form of revolutionary struggle can help us develop true ideas, and we must demonstrate that those ideas in turn further our struggle and help us achieve success.

We must be able to look to past struggles and determine which universal truths were derived from those struggles. We can look to the October revolution, for example, and see that Lenin’s theory of a revolutionary vanguard party showed itself to be correct in the Russian revolutionary struggle. We can further see that it continued to be proved correct in the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions. Therefore, we can insist that the Leninist theory of the revolutionary vanguard party is true. For Marxists, this isn’t a matter of opinion, its not a historical truth bound to the 20th century, and its not just one discourse of revolution competing with others. Marxism must stand at odds with skeptical and postmodern theories of knowledge in order for it to claim to be a scientific approach to socialism at all.

The problem is not simply that skepticism has been used by bourgeois liberals to reject Marxism. Although he is not a Marxist himself, philosopher Bruno Latour has demonstrated that postmodern skepticism of truth and the possibility of developing a scientific approach to politics has become a tool for explicitly reactionary and right wing political actors. In his text, Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam, Latour notes that right wing capitalists have weaponized the language of skepticism and the limits of scientific knowledge to deny the reality of climate change. Capitalists have begun to obscure their own destruction of the environment by insisting that scientific knowledge isn’t totally possible, and that science is just one more discourse among many. They insist that we cannot trust the scientific evidence of capitalist driven climate change because science is just one theory of knowledge which can’t be said to be universally true. He notes that the Foucault’s conflation of knowledge with power has not challenged imperialist institutions, evidenced by the fact that the US DARPA intelligence unit has adopted the motto “knowledge is power.” The idea that truth does not exist, or that it is not knowable, has not challenged capitalist and fascist social forces, it has only aided them by attempting to destroy the scientific basis of revolutionary resistance to capitalism.

Unfortunately, many on the left have embraced a sort of postmodern skepticism towards the possibility of truth. In doing so, they have abandoned the central epistemological core of Marxism. It is crucial for Marxists today to insist that truth exists, can be ascertained, and that only practice is capable of ascertaining it. If we abandon this view, we abandon the ability to wield knowledge as a weapon against the capitalist class. That is something that we cannot allow.

Part 3: Epistemic Self Criticism

While we cannot embrace postmodern forms of skepticism, it is worth noting that some critics of scientific truth have made better points than others. Decolonial critics have argued that European notions of science have been used to justify settler colonialism and genocide, and anti-colonial critics of Marxism have criticized certain eurocentric assumptions made by Marx and Engels.

It is true that Marx and Engels sometimes failed to interrogate their own eurocentric assumptions, but this does not mean that we must reject Marxism or the scientific aspect of Marxist epistemology. In his fantastic essay This Ruthless Criticism of All That Exists, J. Moufawad Paul explains that we can criticize specific mistakes made by Marx and Engels as individuals without rejecting Marxism. He writes:

“Accepting that Marxism is scientific does not, by the very condition of science, mean that we are unable to criticize the erroneous positions of Marx, Engels, and other theorists within this terrain. In fact, according to the very concept, the opposite is the case: a science stands above and beyond its theoretical contributors.”

In this quote, JMP explains that the scientific status of Marxism is actually central to being able to critique the mistakes of Marx and Engels as individuals. Because Marxism is a scientific paradigm, we can understand individual mistakes or deviations of its founders not as corrupting the Marxism, but as a failure to apply Marxism in all their views.

While this might sound like a bit of a cop-out to many, JMP explains that we apply this same analytic to other scientific discovers. He explains, “We know, for example, that Darwin was a racist just as we also know that this undeniable fact does not mean that the theory of natural selection is racist, let alone incorrect.” Likewise, all serious scientists take the ideas of Einstein seriously regardless of Einsteins other individual ideas. When not discussing Marxism, we are all used to separating a scientific discovery or method from the individual who produced it. Marxism ought not to be treated any differently.

Marxism as a scientific approach to socialism is the best tool we have for criticizing the mistakes of individual Marxists. In fact, the concept of self criticism is central to Marxism itself. In On Coalition Government, Mao writes,:

Conscientious practice of self-criticism is still another hallmark distinguishing our Party from all other political parties. As we say, dust will accumulate if a room is not cleaned regularly, our faces will get dirty if they are not washed regularly. Our comrades’ minds and our Party’s work may also collect dust, and also need sweeping and washing. 

Marxists insist on constantly reassessing our views and criticizing our mistakes. In doing so, we demonstrate the reflexive nature of Marxism, and show that Marxism remains the best tool for criticizing the failures of Marxists.

This reflexive self criticism is built into the Marxist epistemology that Mao develops throughout his writing. In the movement first from perceptual knowledge then to rational knowledge and then to practice, we see the beginning of the need for self criticism. If our theories fail when applied and tested in practice, we have to self criticize and determine where we erred in the development of our theories. We may have not properly investigated the conditions in which we were operating, which would mean that our error lied in the perceptual stage of knowledge. We may also have failed to rationally consider the results of our investigation, or we may have made fallacious jumps in logic while trying to formulate a theory, which would mean that our error lied in the rational stage of knowledge. Either way, when our ideas fail in practice, we are forced to reassess our previous thought process and criticize our failures. In this way, Marxism is constantly engaged in a criticism of itself. The process of developing correct ideas requires failure. More importantly, it requires active and honest reflection on the causes of that failure. Marxism’s scientific epistemology gives us the tools to correct the errors of Marxists.

Thus, we can understand that while Marx and Engels may have failed to interrogate their own eurocentrism, and while Marx famously incorrectly defended colonialism in India, we can best criticize Marx and Engels for failing to properly apply Marxism in those instances. JMP points out that some of the most scathing critiques of eurocentrism within Marxism have been written by Marxists. This should not surprise us. Furthermore, because of Marxism’s ability to self criticize, it can also incorporate the useful ideas that its critics might develop. JMP writes that, “Indeed, Marxism has a history of borrowing and transforming non-scientific notions from other theoretical tendencies. For instance, Marx borrowed from Smith and Ricardo just as Lenin would later borrow from Hobson and Hilferding.” Similarly, Marxism can integrate anti-colonial criticisms of enlightenment thought, while not abandoning the belief in truth and science.

This insistence on the scientific status of Marxism is crucial, and it shows just how revolutionary the Marxist epistemology is. JMP summarizes this incredibly concisely:

Most importantly, though, this science of Marxism is revolutionary science. If each science possesses a corresponding practice (i.e. the laboratories and theoretical methods of chemistry, for example, are particular to its field), then historical materialism’s practice is revolution. That is, Marxism is not simply an analytical framework used to examine historical and social phenomena ––though it is also this–– but only functions as such a framework inasmuch as it develops according to its fundamental axiom: class struggle is the motor of history.

Because Marxism has a corresponding practice (the practice of revolution), we can see its self critical nature played out not just on the theoretical level but on the practical level.

Despite the occasional eurocentrism of its founders, Marxism has become a massively important tool for anti-colonial and decolonial struggle around the world. Lenin’s insights into the capitalist function of colonialism, Stalin’s insights into the progressive role of national liberation struggle, and Fanon’s later analysis of the need for violent decolonization all demonstrate the evolution of Marxism as it developed a scientific response to the horrors of colonialism. In practice we can see that Marxism moved beyond any eurocentric ideology and became a powerful tool in the fight against European and western imperialism, regardless of Marx’s own ideological errors. This is because Marxism is more than just the sum total of Marx’s writings, it is a scientific method. Mao captures this reality perfectly in Oppose Book Worship when he writes:

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.

We can see this same attitude adopted by those struggling for decolonization in North America today. On September 6th, 2019, The Red Nation released a statement titled Revolutionary Socialism is the Primary Political Ideology of The Red Nation. In this statement, they insist that “Our traditions of Indigenous resistance wield Marxism, not to uphold European traditions, but to emancipate ourselves from the colonizers by destroying that which destroys us.” They hereby separate Marxism from the ideologies of Europe, and instead insist that Marxism is a tool to be wielded by the oppressed. They further assert that,

Marxism is founded on the expropriated knowledges of non-capitalist Indigenous societies. Although Marx himself was wrong about many things, Marxism, as a science, has a built-in self-correcting mechanism that has helped revolutionaries throughout the world build off the political theory Marx first formulated. If this were untrue, there would be no Russian Revolution, no African Revolution and decolonization movement, no Vietnamese liberation, no Bolivarian Revolution, no Cuban Revolution, no Chinese Revolution, etc. Each adopted Marxism and applied it to its specific and unique circumstances by building off the long struggles against exploitation and European imperialism

In this statement, The Red Nation recognizes the self critical movement at the core of Marxist epistemology, and recognizes that Marx’s own errors do not necessitate rejection of scientific socialism.

Decolonial and anti-colonial critics of Marxism were often correct to point out eurocentric assumptions built into Marx and Engels’ writing, but it is the self critical move at the center of the Marxist theory of knowledge that has allowed Marxism to integrate the productive aspects of these critiques and become a necessary tool in the struggle for decolonization. The epistemic self criticism built into Marxism, found throughout the writing of Mao, is what sets Marxism apart as truly revolutionary science.

Part 4: For Science, For Victory

So, why does all this matter? What is at stake in an attempt to outline the Marxist Epistemology?

The world we live in today is in a dire state. Climate destruction continues at a fast pace, and every with every passing day, capitalism proves itself to be incapable of addressing this. Capitalist production and its endless drive for resources to match artificial market demands has created a climate crisis that leaves us on the brink of potential extinction.

Governments around the world are turning to far right and fascist leaders to assuage their fears of an uncertain future, and the most marginalized and oppressed suffer because of it. Fascism is on the rise, and history tells us very clearly what that can result in without opposition.

The decaying US empire continues to lash out in violence across the globe in a desperate attempt to re-assert its power and hegemony. Whole countries are destroyed in its desperate bids for more fossil fuels. The world burns from America’s white phosphorus weaponry.

The need for a revolutionary movement capable of replacing capitalism with something better has never been so clear. The choice between socialism or barbarism has never been so stark. More and more people are starting to realize that reform cannot save us, that capitalism and imperialism themselves are the problem, and that we must unite and band together to fight for a better world.

The question then is: how will we know what strategies, what tactics, and what ideas to unite around? If the skeptics and postmodernists are correct that knowledge is always relative and localized, then we cannot built a global and universal strategy to unite around. If they are correct then we are doomed to small acts of localized or individual resistance in the face of apocalypse. To embrace such a vision of the world (with its accompanying epistemological skepticism) is to embrace defeat.

The masses do not want to embrace defeat, they want to know how to fight back. Marxism can provide the tools necessary to engage in that fight.

Marxism, with its self criticism and its insistence on incorporating the valuable ideas of its critics has created a means for unifying workers across the globe with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles. The Marxist belief in the possibility of true ideas, tested and verified in practice, creates the possibility for unity on a global scale. The scientific status of Marxism means that as our climate changes, as our world looks more and more grim, Marxism will adapt through struggle and practice; it will provide us with the ideas and tools we need to fight and win.

There will be no victory for the workers of the world without the ability to wield a revolutionary science. What is at stake in questions of Marxist epistemology is the very possibility of creating a philosophical and scientific basis for revolution. We must defend this possibility. We must defend the scientific status of Marxism, and must insist on the possibility of victory.

This text is by no means perfect; it has simplified many things for the sake of accessibility. It is my humble hope that comrades will find it useful despite its shortcomings.


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