November 12, 2012


We talk a great deal about "struggle." It is part of the legacy we have inherited from Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Americans who are unfamiliar with the word or the concept or the legacy are probably often put off by our use of the word because in the US struggling has an especially negative connotation. Here it implies a lack of success, hardship and seemingly never-ending effort.

In "Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?" (May, 1963)Mao said the following:

In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures. Countless phenomena of the objective external world are reflected in a man's brain through his five sense organs - the organs of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. At first, knowledge is perceptual. The leap to conceptual knowledge, i e., to ideas, occurs when sufficient perceptual knowledge is accumulated. This is one process in cognition. It is the first stage in the whole process of cognition, the stage leading from objective matter to subjective consciousness, from existence to ideas. 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. Then comes the second stage in the process of cognition, the stage leading from consciousness back to matter, from ideas back to existence, in which the knowledge gained in the first stage is applied in social practice to ascertain whether the theories, policies, plans or measures meet with the anticipated success. Generally speaking, those that succeed are correct and those that fail are incorrect...In social struggle, the forces representing the advanced class sometimes suffer defeat not because their ideas are 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; they are therefore temporarily defeated, but they are bound to triumph sooner or later. Man's knowledge makes another leap through the test of practice. This leap is more important than the previous one. For it is this leap alone that can prove the correctness or incorrectness of the first leap in cognition, i.e., of the ideas, theories, policies, plans or measures formulated in the course of reflecting the objective external world. There is no other way of testing truth.

For us on the left, then, struggle is something basic and liberating. Success in struggle depends on the correctness of our approach and the correctness of our ideas and practice.

There was a fascinating item on NPR today about struggle and knowledge. You can listen to and read the piece here.

The NPR piece contrasts how American and Asian children learn. American children are generally told that if they succeed they do so because they are individually smart. The Asian kids, on the other hand, are generally taught that they succeed through tireless effort. The Americans learn and reason as individuals while the Asian kids work individually and as a group to solve problems. The article shows how a student who "doesn't get it" at first in Japan learns with a group, struggles, succeeds and gets peer recognition from his group after mastering the problem.

The NPR article is full of stereotypes, of course, but there is an interesting dialogue in the piece about whether or not cultures can change. One of the "experts" interviewed says that, yes, our culture can change to admit more collective work and thinking with great effort.

We need such a change. Individualized competition, the emphasis here on individual intelligence and success and the absence of a workable concept of balanced individual and social struggle in the US is killing us.

The left is under great pressure these days to abandon some or most of our basic concepts. There is also pressure on the left to abandon our historic vocabulary and rhetoric, and not without some reason. Rhetoric can be a sign of dogmatism and intellectual laziness, after all. But when it comes to "struggle" I think that we cannot abandon this concept or the word. We must work and hope so that those workers who most want something better in life put aside what we have all been taught and approach the concept of struggle without prejudice. Perhaps this means in the US that the self-conscious or "hard" left will always be a minority, but a minority can lead and work democratically for change and it can succeed.

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