The German poet Bertolt Brecht described the foundation of good thinking in his poem Praise of Learning":
Study from bottom up,
for you who will take the
it is not too late!
Study the ABC; it is not enough.
but study it! Do not become
begin! You must know everything!
You must prepare to take command,
Study, man in exile!
Study. man in the prison!
Study, wife in your kitchen!
Study, old-age pensioner!
You must prepare to take command now!
Locate yourself a school, homeless folk!
Go search some knowledge, you who freeze!
You who starve, reach for a book:
it will be a weapon.
You must prepare to take command now.
Don’t be afraid to question, comrades!
Never believe on faith.
see for yourself!
What you yourself don’t learn
you don’t know.
Question the reckoning
you yourself must pay it
Set down your finger on each small item. asking:
where do you get this?
You must prepare to take command now!
If you get what Brecht is saying here, and especially where he is telling us to put our hands on things and ask how they got here, and if you can carry this out in your daily life with others, then you have advanced beyond critical thinking. For most of us, however, these are new and very radical concepts and the US left has yet to love and serve the people enough to transmit these concepts in positive ways.
We use critical thinking skills so often that we overlook these skills, don't sharpen them and then give in too easily to others who don't have our best interests at heart. For instance, if you have ever had the opportunity to consider whether or not you would go on strike you are familiar with the calculations that workers make about the forces in play and their relative strengths and weaknesses, how solid each side is and how the opposing sides stand in relation to one another, who will hold out and who won't and who has credibility and who doesn't. Many workers correctly take this thinking into politics as well.
A less dramatic example might be a person deciding whether to take on a bully or not. The decision is based on an estimate of forces at work, risks, suffering and possible outcomes. In both cases a certain weighing of interests and options takes place based on available information and an understanding of the real differences between people and their relative strengths and weaknesses.
There is something almost scientific in both of these situations. Good critical thinking will carry people through these situations most of the time, and over time most people will develop self-confidence and the capacity to think and do much better, but there are tremendous pressures in society working to convince you that you can't do this. And critical thinking, by itself, is not wholly sufficient for us. We say this because our critical thinking often misses the mark of understanding and defining naturally opposing interests and the possible outcomes of the struggles which occur between diametrically opposing social forces, and because our critical thinking often can't withstand the pressures which work against it in irrational capitalist society.
We start at the radical point of saying that workers and employers have nothing in common and that this basic difference echoes through all social relationships---between men and women, between people of color and white people, between people who experience oppression and people who don't. The opposition or contradiction between workers and employers is fundamental to capitalism, even when relations appear to be harmonious, and is based on capitalism being a system of legalized and anarchic theft in the workplace and at the point of consumption: workers do not get the full return and benefit from what we produce, we sell our ability to work just as any other commodity is sold, our wages and benefits only signal the costs of maintaining and reproducing our ability to keep working, every new "labor-saving" method and increases in productivity also increases the rates and depths of our exploitation, and we pay doubly for this system as workers and when we purchase needed and desired commodities. Conflicting interests are built into the system and there is no escaping this. People who see a commonality of interests between workers (labor) and bosses (capital) have a tremendous burden when called on to explain themselves.
Critical thinking may start at the point of grasping these fundamentally opposing interests and values, but it usually doesn't. And when we say that the only logical conclusion to the struggles that occur as a result of the opposing interests set into motion under capitalism is socialism many critical thinkers will object and take refuge in time-worn arguments that put critical thinking aside. A consistent critical thinker will not turn to arguments about human nature or the USSR and will not misquote socialist thinkers when confronted with a modern argument for socialism, but many people do.
We see critical thinking as a tool and as a necessary step which enriches human beings, helps move people forward through daily struggles and more complex social conflicts and challenges stale and oppressive orthodoxies. We go further, however, and say that what is needed is a constantly occurring and dynamic thought-action-reflection-action process which puts human experience at the center and focuses on interpreting the world and changing it. We laid out in our previous post what we think are the building blocks to this approach---dialectical materialism.
I can hear criticism coming as I write these words: we are mechanistic and old-school in our thinking, God will take care of everything, this is whitesplaining or mansplaining, we are saying that everything is reducible to class and capitalism, that workers and employers have much in common.
About God we can say little. A dialectical materialist understanding of false religion says that religion serves a purpose in comforting and deluding the oppressed and upholds the social order as an ideology and that "real" religion recognizes "salvation" as dependent upon a god acting with human beings in the context of an unfolding and liberating process. We admit and make the self-criticism that we engage in whitesplaining and mansplaining and that we often don't pay heed to this because of capitalist logic and privilege. We try to take this on in our daily work and we try to compensate for our errors by being open to correct ideas and impulses arising from other oppressed people.
The criticism that we are mechanistic in our thinking has a certain historical basis. Our communist movement spoke for several generations about the "inevitability" of communism and took for granted the existence of large socialist blocs which no longer exist. Our line and (mis)understandings were not correctly applied and then criticized and reoriented. We wrongly believed that quantity and quality necessarily contradict one another. We wrongly asserted that there are not antagonistic contradictions under socialism. We have not resolved the question of whether or not a new thing divides into two opposing forces or incorporates two contradictory forces or trends into it. These are not arcane philosophical questions---they are matters that, in one form or another, every socialist force has to grapple with.
The criticism that we blame all problems on capitalism and believe that socialism will settle all accounts and claims is incorrect. Contradictions will continue under socialism, will take new forms and may rise to the points of being antagonistic contradictions. And we do not say that the abolition of capitalism will settle contradictions between people of color and white people or between women and men. Rather, we look to those points where identities meet or cross today and we depend on the people at those crossings to eventually lead all oppressed people forward. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, speciesism and ableism all have destructive lives of their own as well as specific contents under modern capitalism. Taking them apart depends on the directions and leadership provided by core social forces at the intersecting points of oppression, our ability to take responsibility for our own learning and action and the reconstruction of society on the basis of social, productive and reproductive relations which build collective work and ownership.
The matter of opposing class interests is especially hard to take up in the US. A separation exists in our perceptions which does not admit a direct and determining connection between the base operations of capitalist society and what is built on that base. We say that there are no poor people here, just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. We think that citizenship dissolves all other identities into a democratic whole and we let citizenship eclipse these identities, effectively disappearing ourselves; our exploitation and oppression become political causes to be worked out, not the roots and branches of capitalism to be overthrown. We see alienation as a psychological problem, and not as a basic aspect of capitalism brought into existence with the mass production of commodities made for a market economy. We talk about precariousness as a by-product of capitalism and not as something essential to the system. All of this is mistaken. All of the bosses, most of the politicians and most labor "leaders" and the mass culture industries collude in order to diminish our class consciousness and bind us to the system.
We ask our readers to review and consider the brief lists given in our first posting on thinking in light of this second post. We also suggest that readers consult these sources for on-going study:
1. Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, edited by Otto Kuusinen and Clemens Dutt and published in the USSR.
2. The Theses on Feuerbach by Karl Marx
3. Foundations of Leninism by Stalin
4. Four Essays on Philosophy by Mao
5. What is Dialectical Materialism? by V. Krapivin
6. On Historical Materialism by Franz Mehring
7. On The Correct Handling Of Contradictions Among The People by Mao
8. Woman and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation by Angela Davis
9. The Weapon of Theory by Amilcar Cabral
10. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
11. Dialectical Materialism by Alexander Spirkin
You can also go here to view an expanded reading list.
And if you still don't think that you're getting it, put your hand on the Brecht poem and ask: how did this get here?