Convention Discussion: On Materialism

BY: Roberta Wood| March 20, 2014

Submitted by Roberta Wood, Secretary Treasurer of the Communist Party USA.

“Justice!” Her face is radiant. “hearing the voices of those who have not been heard,” she adds with confidence and pride. My heart swells every time I watch the video of my co-worker and comrade explaining in a voice I wish I could summon, as I wish I could express, why she has joined the movement for social justice, for socialism, the Communist Party.

Tonight we are in a discussion group on Marxism. It’s only  6 pm in Chicago, but it’s already dark out, and it’s about 10 below outside with the wind howling. I am amazed that a dozen folks trudged through the snow (including one on a bike) to make it to this study group.

The topic tonight is “Materialism” and right off the bat someone makes the point that while the Communist Party welcomes religious believers, Karl Marx himself was an atheist. I look out the corner of my eye at my friend, a devoted church goer. Did she just drop her chin a bit? I wince. Are people who believe in God somehow lesser members? Less wise, less accomplished, less class conscious? Is their contribution to the struggle to change the world somehow limited?

I don’t think so, so I decided to take this issue on head on.

So let’s start with reminding ourselves what do we mean by “materialism”  and why do people like us who want to change the world need to learn about it to accomplish our goals?

Let me start out by making it clear I’m not talking about the common everyday meaning of “materialist,” not that Material Girl who Madonna was singing about – someone who thinks their possessions are more valuable than people. Nope, for us, “materialism” is a way of looking at the world that we’re trying to change. We have to know how we got to where we are to know how we can get to where we want to go.  

Materialism is the idea that human history has been driven by the constant progression in the ways that we humans create the material things we need to live – from  food, clothing, shelter to music, art and smart phones. The changes in the tools and organization humans use to make their living lay the basis for the changes in how human society is organized. And that’s what we’re interested in isn’t it – changing how human society is organized from a cruel capitalism to a humane society that puts people before profits.

A materialist way of looking at things says that  changes in social systems don’t just come about out of no where. And they aren’t the result of some individual’s  great idea. Changes  have a basis in the material conditions in which human live.

We can study those causes and take action to affect them. This is great news for us folks who are fighting for justice, for socialism.  It puts a lie to what the ideologues of the capitalist class would like us to believe, namely that :

  1. everything is destined to stay the same;

  2. There’s no rhyme or reason to the world so it’s useless to try and have an impact

As a materialist, Karl Marx studied in detail the conditions of the working class. He studied in libraries and he studied in the course of real life struggles. His co-worker Frederich Engels looked at all the studies of ancient civilizations available to them at that time. Marx also studied the struggles of the working class in detail: he looked at the first socialist revolution – the Paris commune – and studied the issues that moved the workers, down to the struggle of the Paris bakery workers to not have to go to work in the middle of the night. He did this at the same time he was organizing support for their cause.

Now let’s get back to religion. How do religious beliefs affect our ability to study social process and to use that knowledge to make change? My answer to that is “not much.”

I believe that the religious beliefs of those who join our movement is a strong point of reference for beliefs about justice, equality, fairness and brotherhood. After all, there couldn’t be a better statement of working class solidarity than “Do unto others as  you would have them do unto you.”

Many of our religious comrades come  with important experience in communities of mutual support and have deep insight into in how people organize and work together.  Their religion is no barrier to their study of the concretes of how to change the world, of how progress unfolds, of the science of building unity and solidarity.

Sure our religious comrades appeal to God for help in bettering the lot of humanity. In this they join a great American tradition of social justice ministry that has accompanied that prayer with courageous action from the civil rights movement to abolitionists, to anti Viet Nam war draft board protests. Our party’s history includes labor ministers who aided in the organization of unions and sharecroppers.

It takes more than facts to fortify human beings for a life time of struggle and we turn to music, hope and faith ,solidarity and deeply held beliefs as well as knowledge to inspire us.

I believe that Marx and Engels, who laid out a materialist approach in how to combine study and action to change the world would be frustrated with a use of their language and concepts that limits the participation of those members of the working class who share the same values but from a different source.

My comrade’s granddaughter and mine are good friends. While I’m hoping for a better world for both children and their generation, she’s praying  for the same.  Meanwhile we’re both reading, organizing talking and struggling while our hopes and prayers fortify us.

As we seek a better world, aren’t we both materialists?

The views and opinions expressed in the Convention Discussion are those of the author alone. The Communist Party is publishing these views as a service to encourage discussion and debate. Those views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Communist Party, its leading bodies or staff members. The CPUSA Constitution, Program, and all its existing policies remain in effect during the Convention discussion period and during the Convention.

For details about the convention, visit the Convention homepage
To contribute to the discussion, visit the Convention Discussion webpage

30th National Convention, Communist Party USA
Chicago | June 13-15, 2014


    Roberta Wood, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party, is a retired journeyman industrial instrument mechanic. A lifelong union activist, she was a founding co-chair of the United Steelworkers District 31 Women's Caucus. She writes on labor issues for A Chicagoan, Roberta is married to Steelworker retiree Scott Marshall. Scott and Roberta have four daughters and seven grandchildren.

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