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The Marxist Theory of Truth

Peter Binns
One of the main problems facing marxist theory is
that of its own status. On the one hand the theory of
the formation of ideology seems to suggest that all
beliefs are relative to the believer’s society; while
on the other hand there is the assumption that marxism
has a form of scientific validity which renders it
independent from any socially relativistic considerations. In this paper we shall look at four types of
answer to the questions “What sort of thing is ‘truth’

for marxist theory?”, and “In what way is marxist
theory true?” It should be noted at the outset that
this four-fold taxonomy is not exhaustive of all
possible versions of marxism, and that it is somewhat
arbitrary – for instance the final category, totalistic
marxism, has no independent significance from the point
of view of the factars considered in the second part
of the paper. It is included in the first part so
that its relationship with the others can be clarified
and not for any fundamental novelty that it introduces.

The first line, i.e. the materialist line, is
adopted by Engels …

Such an interpretation of marxist theory solves
the problem by uniquely exempting scl~nce from relativisation to social conditions, and then by including
marxism in science on a par with physics and biology.

The criterion for truth is then the same for all the
sciences including marxism: correspondence with an as
yet uncategorised ‘nature’ through the usual experimental testing procedures. Not all beliefs in society
therefore, are a simple product of that society. Those
determined by empirical experiments have an independent
and relatively objective side endowing them with a
supra-social significance. This distinguishes marxism
from all other social theories.

2 – Structuralist marxism and its solution

Again the origins of this view are to be found in
Engels, where some specialist scientists are chided for
being insufficiently interdisciplinary in their
approach. But in its dominant contemporary form,
academic French marxology, it takes on methodological
features derived from the scientific work of such
thinkers as Levi-Strauss.

1 – Positivistic marxism and its solution

The origins of this view are to be found in Engels,
and it was expounded at length by Plekhanov and
Bukharin. It appears to have been the explicit
position of Lenin at certain pessimistic periods of
his life, but above all else it characterised the
marxism of the Second International. Harxism was
viewed as positive science, as the means for acquiring
objective knowledge whose relationship with the revolutionary development of the working class was entirely
contingent. As Hilferding put it in ‘Finance Capital’:

While for the positivists, the validity of a
belief followed from its derivability from a world
experienced but not yet conceptualised, usually by
means of such carriers of knowledge-by-acquaintance
as sense-experience; such a procedure is quite out of
place for the structuralists. For they deny that such
experiences are possible prior to the creation of a
complete and consistent structure-in-thought in which
such experiences could be embedded. In their view
marxism shows its superiority to other alternatives
by its unique (or greater) success in this task.

fuile for the positivists marxism is the true science
of society, and is thus on a par ,,,i th other supposed ly
true scientific theories such as Darwin’s theory of
evolution; for the structuralists it forms the uniquely
preferred framework determining and dominating the
appearance of these theories. Thus it is not on a par
with them, but is logically connected to, and theoretically more general than these theories.

To rec~nise the validity of Marxism does not at
all mean to make value judgments, much less to
point out a line of practical action. It is one
thing to recognise a necessity, and quite another
to put oneself at the service of that necessity.

The positivistic view thus contrasts two kinds of
belief, those which occur as an undistorted reflection
of reality, (usually mediated by sense impressions)
and which are therefore the proper objects of genuine
science; and on the other hand those beliefs which are
adventitious or highly distorted reflections of
reality which go to make up nonsense and ideology.

Thus Engels (‘Anti-Duhring’ Moscow 1962 p54) writes:

Contradictions in thought are, for the structuralists, to be removed by replacing the thought-structure
wi th the superior marxist alternat ive, which is
supposedly free from such debilitating consequences.

But whence does thought obtain all these
principles? From itself? No … these forms can
never be created and derived by thought out of
itself, but only from the external world … the
principles are not the starting point of ~n
investigation, .. , but its final result; they are
not applied to nature and history, but abstracted
from them; it is not nature and the realm of
humanity which conform to these principles, but
the principles are only valid in so far as they
are in conformity with nature and history. That
is the only materialistic conception of the

There are occasions where even those who claim
to have no connection with structuralism as such,
clearly share their conclusions in this respect. For
instance Lucien Goldmann in later works such as The
Human Sciences and Philosophy, writes:

At the root of the distinction between good and
bad schemata, as at the root of any scientific
conception, there is thus one criterion of truth:

the adequacy of the conception to objective

(Op Cit p117)

Commenting favourably on this section, Lenin in
Materialism and Empirio-Criticism p33/4, claims that:

… it is obvious that these mental images arise
exclusively from sensations … Are we to proceed
from things to sensation and thought? Or are we
to proceed from thought and sensation to things?


As it stands, this could well be positivistic
marxism; but in the same book (p96) , it is made clear
that a marxist understanding of society must fulfil
… urgent need for synthesis between individual

facts and explicative sociology, a synthesis
which alone can bring us nearer a real comprehension of the human facts.

knowledge: see the Theses on Feuerbach.

(Ibid p2ll-2)
Lenin sees the rational kernel in Hegel as follows:

And therefore the adequacy of marxism is to be judged
in terms of its second-order ability to synthesise the
various specific ‘knowledges’, rather than in terms of
any single specific contribution or addition to them.

The activity of man, who had constructed an
objective picture of the world for himself,
changes external actuality, abolishes its determinateness (= alters some sides or other,
qualities, of it), and thus removes from it the
features of Semblance, externality and nulJity,
and makes it as being in and for itself (=
objectively true).

We shall briefly mention Goldmann’ s ambiguities
later on. However it is Althusser who provides us with
perhaps the clearest case of structuralist marxism,
in his essay ‘On the Materialistic Dialectic’. His
structured whole remains completely within thought, and
asa consequence marxism is thought of as being true
in virtue simply of its comprehensiveness and lack of
contradictions, in respect of its thought-structure
alone. In this essay knowledge is presented as
consisting of three levels of thought. Thus
‘GeneralitYI’is defined as ‘constituted either of still
ideological concepts, or of scientific ‘facts’. And
‘GeneralitY2’ is defined as ‘ … the corpus of concepts
constituting the ‘theory’ of science’. Finally we are
left with ‘Generality 3’ (Historical Haterialism), which
alone is unqualifiedly identified with ‘Knowledge’.

(Ibid p218)

This does not merely se~ boundaries to the theory
of knowledge, but makes obj ective truth! an intrinsically different sort of thing:

The unity of the theoretical idea (of knowledge)
and of practice – this NB – and this unity
precisely in the theory of knowledge, for the
resulting sum is the ‘absolute idea’ (and the
idea = the objectively true).

(Ibid p219)

Not only does marxism provide the correct thoughtstructure for creating the unique synthesis of the
special sciences, but it does so entirely intellectually,
without needing to change the world in any other but
intellectual ways:

The lesson Lenin draws from this for dialectical
materialism is quite unambiguous:

Practice is higher than (theoretical) knowledge,
for it has not only the dignity of universality,
but also of immediate actuality •

The work whereby GeneralitYl becomes GeneralitY2
… only involves the process of theoretical
practice, that is, it all takes place within

(Ibid p213)

(‘For Marx’ pI84-S)

Kolakowski, in Marxism and Beyond, pp59-87, seems
to think that nothing more novel than practice as
verification (with historical hindsight) is involved
in Lenin’s views. The last two quotations show that
this is incorrect, that practice is of necessity present
in the very foundations of objective truth. How could
this be so? The answer lies in one of the distinctions
fundamental to revolutionary marxist practice (but
seldom found in the rarified atmosphere of contemporary
academic marxology): that between propaganda and agita-

3 – The solution of practical or interventionist marxism

One principle implicitly accepted by the positivists and structuralists, is of the desirability and
possibility of a neutral scientific explanation of
external reality. Lenin, in his Philosophical Notebooks
(Collected Works, Moscow 1963 pI35-6) derides this claim
basing himself on a quotation from Hegel:


“The customary tenderness for things, whose only
care is that they shall not contradict one another,
forgets here as elsewhere that this is no -solution
of the contradiction, which is merely planted
elsewhere, namely, into subjective or external
reflection; and that the latter does in fact
contain the two moments – which this removal and
transplantation proclaim to be a mere positedness
– in one unity as transcended and related to each

(This irony is exquisite! “Tenderness”
for nature and history (among the philistines) the endeavour to cleanse them from contradictions
and struggle … )

A crucial part of Lenin’s case, explicitly in the
Philosophical Notebooks and implicitly in his revolutionary activity in the first twenty years of this
century, is the view that’ questions of truth and falsity
about the objective world cannot be raised independently
of the interplay and opposition of forces which govern
our life and action. The philistine’s “tenderness”
toward objective reality is for Lenin a product of his
one-sided, contemplative conception of reality, which
leaves out all creativity, activity and revolutionary

Theoretical cognition ought to give the object in
all its necessity, in its all-sided relations, in
its contradictory movement, in and for itself.

But the human notion ‘definitively’ catches this
objective truth of cognition, seizes and masters
it, only when the notion becomes ‘being-foritself’ in the sense of practice …. Marx, consequently, clearly sides with Hegel in introducing
the criterion of practice into the theory of


On the face of it propaganda is just “many ideas
among few people”, and agitation “few ideas among many
people”, but the l!-se of these in revolutionary politics
manifests a qualitative difference between them. In
itself spreading propaganda does not change the social
reality, though it may (and ought to) change some
people’s conceptions of that reality. Its limita~ions
when detached from participation in the current stage
of the workers’ struggles, are made obvious by the
failure of the Socialist Party of Great Britain to
attract more than a few hundred followers in over 70
years of existence. For serious revolutionaries,
therefore, it is necessary but ancillary to participation in the class-struggle itself – and this is where
agitation comes in. For agitation is interven~ion
by means of agitational programmes by a revolutionary organisation in the inchoate and spontaneous reaction of
the proletariat to its conditions of existence. It is
intended as a limited campaign around which the most
advanced sections of the class can rally, through which
in struggle they can educate themselves and the rest
of the class. The use of ideas in intervention through
agitation thus presupposes some knowledge of the level
of consciousness of the proletariat, and also some
idea of what it has to be to seize power. For instance
if the workers are only peripherally concerned by
Stalinism and the Vietnam war, but centrally concerned
by the Industrial Relations Act, unemployment and the
wage-freeze, then it is obvious that agitation can only
begin with the latter. Equally, if relying uncritically
upon ‘left’ trade union leaders, rather than building
the forces of the rank-and-file, must lead to
‘schizophrenic class-collaboration’ (Scanlon’s selfdescription BBC TV 12/12/72); then this too ,,,ill hardly
lead to the self-development of the class either.

Agitation then, when at all successful, changes
the reality which gave rise to the need for this precise
agitational programme. The agitational use of ideas
therefore could not in principle statically describe a
frozen social reality·, for that reality is not definable
independently of the agitation. It follows that in
these circumstances, objective truth is underdetermined
by forces which are purely external to human selfactivity (which is, of course, not to say that it is
underdetermined by conscious practice). In capitalism
this underdetermination is a function of a contradictory
overdetermination of reality.

(For instance capitalism both needs an increased organic composition of
capital [to exploit living labour power more completely]
and a decreased organic composition of capital [to
prevent a declining rate of profit.]). Revolutionary
practice is possible because it occupies the nodal
points of reality’s contradictory overdeterminations or (perhaps more illuminatingly) because it occupies
the interstices between the external underdeterminations.

validity was sufficient which excluded the process
whereby the class could seize upon these ideas and
make them relevant to their immediate problems, and in
doing so advance the development of the class itself.

For interventionist marxism therefore, objective truths are not uncovered so much as created. It is
in the act of us making them that they become
revealed. To attempt to reveal them first and only
later to act is to remove practice from where it belongs
– within the theory of knowledge.

But practice can
only be introduced inside the theory of knowledge by
making corresponding corrections to our concept of the
external world. The clue is provided by Lenin’s earlier
quotation of Hegel – the philistine’s tenderness toward
nature and history, the endeavour to cleanse them from
contradictions and strugg.le… The,problem (or one
aspect of it) seems to be due to a superficial or
unscientific view of the external world, which is
taken to be a given rather than a complex determination
of many underlying elements. For Hegel the complex
determination was always a contradictory one – the
forces maintaining and expanding the given reality
inevitably giving rise to even more powerful selfdestructive forces; and Marx demonstrates the correctness of this thesis concretely in the specific case of
capitalism. Now such a view shows the distorting onesidedness of analysing reality as a simple summation of
all the existent things. Reality is infinitely richer
than this. Among the existents there are those with
a fantastic capacity for growth and development and
others which for all their massiveness are obsolete
relics on their last legs. And reality contains alongside the existents, coexisting in time, the world of
potentials as well. Practice, in the first instance,
does nothing but alter the boundaries between things
which are already with us in existence or potential.

However a change in the boundary between the existent
and the potential subsequently dominates the change in
the forces underlying each.

Successful agitation leads to the supersession of
one agitational programme by another. Hence at one
time it can be the demand for bread, at another the
slogal “All power to the soviets”, and at another the
programme of the first congress of the Communist International. Clearly the only kind of structure which
could be of use to practical or revolutionary marxism
in its task of transforming reality, is not one in
which practice has been divorced from theory, in which
the uncovering of truth ‘all takes place within knowledge’. On the contrary, this would be to turn marxism
into the new scholasticism rather than a living science.

The physical scientist’s ability to utilise experiment,
to interact with the physical world, is of the same
order of importance as the revolutionary marxist’s
ability to do likewise in society. What distinguishes
a revolutionary party from a sect or mere grouping of
individuals, is thus precisely its ability to intervene
in social reality. Only this can bring marxism to
life, and without it marxism must remain a dead,
scholastic and academic fossil.

Returning to Lenin, we can now see the hopelessness of trying the usual academic game of distilling
some doctrinally-pure essence from the 40 or 50 volumes
of the Collected Works. It can’t be done, and this is
part of the reason why Lenin was such a great revolutionary. Agitation which successfully altered a political
situation, brought into being the necessity for
altered agitational work. Any attempt to find common
ground between the agitational programmes at distinctly
different stages of the struggle can thus at best find
accidental identities. Hence Lenin’s own metaphor for
this phenomenon – ‘bending the stick’. We can see it
in action in the changes in line on the limitations of
trade unionism from 1895/6 to 1899 (‘On Strikes’),
1902 (‘What Is To Be Done?’), 1905 (‘The St Petersburg
Strike’), and 1917 (‘Lecture on the 1905 Strike’); where
if we were to try to find anyone line persisting
throughout these times we would necessarily fail, but
where each possessed (in varying degrees) a validity
with respect to the different situations involved.

Underlying the practical revolutionary’s stance
is an entirely different view of what process validates
ideas in general, from the positivist and structuralist interpretations. These latter ?ee the criteria
of validity as qeing located extrinsic to the social
life of those holding the ideas, in an autonomous
a-social realm of experience (positivists), or an
equally a-social autonomous realm of reason (structuralists). But for the practical revolutionary marxist,
the only significant criterion of validity is life,
action and struggle. You can devise the most elegant
and rigorous proofs for any supposed truth, but so
long as the social group to which you are appealing
lacks the social conditions in which they can take root
and flourish, in which the new ideas can clarify and
help understand already existent problems, then they
are doomed to social insignificance when Lenin
asserted that the unity of theory and practice occurred
within the theory of knowledge, that practice is h~gher
than theoretical knowledge, he meant that no notion of


The richness and complexity of the real, and its
non-identity with the merely existent, provides the
ontology for a world in which practice dgminates and
determines reality. The future will be what it will be
because men in specific historical circumstances will
have brought it about. The present is the sum of
infinitely many determinations, and is not to be identified with a list of those things merely existent at
a given point in time. We clearly need a guide to
the crucial features of this infinite morass if we
are not to get lost, and it is this which is uniquely
provided by practice – not just any notion of practice,
but the specifically marxist notion of the class
practice of the proletariat. This is a point we shall
return to in greater detail later (in the section on
the scientific nature of marxism), but here we shall
mention briefly what it is and what role it plays.

That the proletariat is exploited, degraded and made
the instrument for the impersonal dictates of capitalism, follows as a matter of logic from the existence
of the wage-labour/capital distinction and the
existence of competition. The proletariat can only
begin to act as a class for itself when it has thrown
off the shackles of a system which subordinates everything to the impersonal needs of profit. The conscious
practice of the class as a class can thus be none other
than that of the abolition of capitalism. It cannot do
less than this without failing to act as a class for
itself, and it cannot do more than this – for the
abolition of capitalism abolishes the class as a class.

If the practice of the class for itself can be none
other than the abolition of capitalism, then we have a
means for sorting through the infinite complexity of the
determinations of reality according to whether they can
be utilised to this end or not. Thus for the proletariat there are some determinations which stand out
uniquely as being essential for the science of the
class qua class, and others which are irrelevant. Here
indeed we have a set of ideas (revolutionary theory)
which is to be uniquely preferred, but it is in this
privileged position only as a result of its being
viewed from the standpoint of a certain class and as
ancillary to the practice of that class.

It is sometimes thought that marxists of the
interventionist variety, like Lenin or Gramsci, treat
theory too peremptorily. Exactly the opposite is the
case – theory is used to show not only what is, but the
whole complexity of reality. Theory ceases to be
adequate to the task of uncovering objective truth
alone not because we use it less, but because we use
it more – to show the all-sidedness of reality,
potential and existent. Only such an all-sidedness
makes intervention possible at all. Conversely, only
the discipline of class practice can provide a principle
giving logical coherence to the complexity of the allsided determinations.

with that of


earlier work, his book on Kant:

My own position here can be briefly set out as

(a) The only possible criterion of truth is action,

(b) In a society where it is not the community,
the ‘we’, but the individual, the ‘I’, which
constitutes the subject of action, the criterion
of truth can only be individual and cannot have a
universal validity. In so far as limited groups
(classes, nations etc) constitute the subject of
action, there arise class ideologies and national
ideologies which may be true or false according
to whether or not they have the who1:e of
humanity as an end.

Understanding bourgeois society thus consists in
locating its strengths and weaknesses guided by such
works as ‘Capital’, which explain the actual workings
and outline the limits of the potential workings of the’

system as a whole. It does not consist in looking for
a deterministic plan of the cosmos in the manner of
Laplace. But unlike revolutionary voluntarism it
recognises the necessity of theory as the creator of
our knowledge of the potential ‘space’ we occupy as
revolutionaries – it shows us what degrees of freedom
we possess, and in what areas we possess them. Without
it we should flounder directionlessly. The more theory
we have and the better it is, the greater is our
freedom to act; and it is this fact which distinguishes
the practical revolutionary’s viewpoint from the
purely contemplative marxism of the positivist and
structuralist. These latter two, simply beeause they
are compelled to see knowledge of actions as purely
external to them, are forced to look upon explanation
of these actions in purely coercive terms. Freedom
and det’ermination of action become opposed polari ties.

For the revolutionary on the other hand, it is only
through the very existence of the determination of
action in certain specific ways that freedom, rational
freedom of action becomes possible. The proletariat
is only potentially free, but a prerequisite for its
actual freedom is precisely knowledge of the specific
forces which currently prevent it being so.

(Op Cit plS8)

This illuminating footnote puts the Lukacsian case
very clearly and concisely. The category of the totality
serves two separate functions therefore. Firstly as
potential rendering practice necessary, and secondly as
actual, as that which guides the intellectual work of
its proponents (such as Goldmann) here and now.


How do these versions of the marxist,theory of
truth square with those characteristics which Marx and
subsequent marxists took as being central and specific
to the marxist system? Let us now look at how each
satisfies the requirements of being materialistic,
communist, scientific and finally revolutionary and

1 – Materialism

4 – Totalistic marxism and its solution

The positivistic interpretation accepts .themind/
matter distinction, and asserts both the ontological
and epistemological primacy of matter. Thus in our
earlier quotations from Lenin and Engels we were enjoined
to assert both that matter came before mind, and also
that in our investigation of the world we must begin
with concrete materiality.

Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness has a
concept of the totality which stands half way between
the structuralists’ notion of structure and the interventionists’ notion of practice. Its differences with
Althusser’s ‘structure’ are considerable. For a start
one of its most important premises is that contradictions or antinomies of thought are the most crucial
instances necessary reflections of a contradictory life
being lived by the thinker of these contradictions,
rather than his contingent inability to find the ‘right’

way of thinking. Hence the need for action, for to
eliminate the unsatisfactory thoughts, one must first
change the unsatisfactory life in which they are
embedded. Furthermore, and as a corollary to this,
so long as capitalism exists, so too will the unsatisfactory lives. Therefore the totality-in-thought
can now exist in potential only, to be realised in and
by the proletariat only after world revolution.

But what status do these methodological and philosophical assertions of materialism themselves h~ve?

They are themselves prima facie underivable from
concrete materiality and thus appear to be self-denying.

And even if this objection looks too easy and sophistic
to carry much weight, we can pursue it at a deeper
level. For what is it about matter that makes it
matter-for-us? Is it just that we cannot avoid positing
a pure externality? That it is an undeniable fact
that our will and subsequent reality do not ~oincide?

That pure externality presents itself to us unavoidably
as the element of resistance to our will? For if so
we have no proof of metaphysical materialism, only a
proof of metaphysical idealism. It only ,contributes
to metaphysical materialism if these two exhaust all
the possibilities, and no one after Hegel could imagine us to be tyrannised by concepts to that extent.

But in spite of the fact that it exists in
potential only, Lukacs clearly believes that we can
here and now proclaim in an absolute sense the superiority of the potential consciousness of the working
class, due to its unique ability to abolish the class
antagonisms which themselves have given rise to alienation and reification, and thus to the distortions
apparent in the antinomies of bourgeois thought. To
put it more crudely, the objective interests of the
proletariat are those of the totality of mankind, and
it is ‘totality’ in this sense that makes Lukacs
think of the marxist articulation of this fact as the
only absolute or unqualified truth to be found.

Goldmann, as we mentioned above, is rather equivocal. Contrast his quotation above with its talk of
the only satisfactory criterion of truth being ” …

the adequacy of the conception to objective reality”,

So the positivists are forced to concede the
epistemological point that a conceptual matrix is a
logical prerequisite before ‘matter’, even if it is to
function for us as the ultimate parameter of explanation, can become matter-for-us in thought or experience.

Since the ontological primacy of matter for the
positivists followed on the other hand a-posteriori
from 19th-century scientific atomism; that too can be
safely assumed obsolete after the demise of those
theories themselves in the 20th century.


In these respects structuralist marxism is much
less crude, for the above objections are quite in-

applicable to it. There is also no doubt that on this
question it is much closer to Marx’s own views. We
can see this in many places from Marx’s doctoral
dissertation to ‘Capital’ itself; but it is perhaps
clearest in his general introduction to the ‘Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy’, where he

of marxist intellectuals it has to adopt the structuralist view. For it accepts the possibility of proving
the intellectual superiority of marxism not due to the
specific cultural conditions around us here and now, but
to an intrinsic superiority which is discovered by
purely abstract ratiocinative means.

It seems to be the correct procedure to commence
with the real and the concrete, the actual prerequisites •••• Yet on closer consideration it
proves to be wrong •.•• (Instead) we proceed from
the imaginary concrete to less and less concrete
abstractions, until we arrive at the simplest
deterrninations. This once obtained, we might
start on our return journey, until we finally
come back to (the concrete), but as a rich
aggregate of many determinations and relations.

The concrete is concrete because it is a combinations of many determinations, i.e. a unity
of diverse elements. In our thought therefore
it appears as a process of synthesis, as a
result and not a starting point.

2 – Communism

Of course, as with materialism, any version of
marxism can come up with the platitudinous belief in
the truly communist society in which the individual
and society become a harmonious unity. At this level
there is approximate equality between the different
versions. But in this section we are looking at the
question more methodologically. Does communism come
about through a giant accident making the individuals
act cooperatively (perhaps due to a fatalistic belief.

in a millenarian preestablished harmony)? Or is there
something about marxism which makes it more logical
than that?

On the positivist view it does indeed seem purely
accidental, for it presents us with man-the-knower
essentially in the role of an individual, learning the
truth through his contemplation of reality. Such a
view methodologically excludes the community or society
from the primitive concepts of its system, and they
can therefore only appear at all ,as the contingent endproduct of surnrnations of indivaduals.

(D. McLellan , Marx’s Grundrisse p34)
Thus the structuralist interpretation makes the
material the concrete product of the many deterrninations,
and has no other use for the concept of the material
except this. Now while this certainly does not deny
the category of matter, it hardly makes it play the
kind of dominant role that perhaps it ought, if it is
to call itself ‘materialism’; for it makes the concrete
a product, a determination rather than a parameter or
determinant of the system. Thus while it is not
necessarily false, its notion of the material is quite
gratuitous: doing no work at all in the system. And
thus it does not preserve a version of marxism which is
properly speaking materialistic.

The structuralist alternative, on the other hand,
presents us with an inconsistent mixture of extreme
communality and extreme individualism in its method
for obtaining truths. Since society is a complexly
structured whole, the structuralists would seem
committed to looking at the community rather than the
individual as the source of knowledge. But if we
probe a little further, we shall see that this act of
looking at the world is purely contemplative and
purely individual. For Althusser for instance, the
individual knower must be both within the structured
whole for it to be a structure at all rather than a
mere aggregation, and at the same time outside it to
render his own creation of the structure-in-thought
objective and scientific. But it is as outsider to the
social structure that man-the-knower appears essentially: to use his terminology the creation of
Generality-3s all takes place within knowledge. As
such we find the same criticisms applying here as with
positivism, and the same methodological ‘commitment
against the community when the question of the
disc’overy of truth arises.

The notion of the material as it appears in interventionist marxism, is defined quite differently from
those considered hitherto. It is not what the idea
refers to that makes it material, but rather the
relation between this idea and the real social and
cultural life in which this idea is to be embedded.

An idea is material not because it is about atoms and
phY~icality, but because it becomes a material force in
a really existent society; and to do this it may just
as eas~y be about spiritual chimeras (e.g. witchcraft
in 17th century Europe) as about more solid objects.

The materiality of an idea is thus its actual power to
influence, change and control social behaviour absolutely
irrespective of the content of that idea. By making
materiality a,relation between ideas (theory) and the
real social world, interventionist marxism makes the
unity of theory and practice a necessary consequence of
its materialism rather than a contingent extra. It is
thus the only version of marxism so far considered with
its own theoretical defences against degeneration into
yet another schema for merely interpreting the world
rather than changing it. Gramsci too was well aware
of the necessity for the relational as opposed to the
referential definition of materiality. Only the former
correctly identifies the element making the ideas
‘historical fact’ rather than ‘ … abstractions whose
or1g1ns are purely and abstractly ratiocinative’ .

(Prison Notebooks p346)

The same is true for Goldmann’s The Human Sciences
On the one hand he recognises the need
for a synthesis of the facts of our experience with
explicative sociology, a synthesis which could not
fail to be communal if expressed in action. But unlike
his younger self, in his later work he makes it clear
that the synthesis is a purely individual and intellectual process. The confusing ambivalence arises out of
a genuine attempt to get away from the methodological
individualism of positivism, but one which fails
precisely because it does, not go far enough. One cannot
go beyond methodological individualism without transcending the narrowly intellectualistic approach that
goes with it.

and Philosophy.

Ideas become material forces not through some
crystallisation in ‘matter’, but solely due to their
cultural or social significance. Thus even (and
perhaps especially) conceptions of the most solid and
inpenetrable ‘matter’ can be immaterial and ideal,
according to interventionist marxism, if they fail to
express themselves in the events of social life.

Totalistic marxism stands ambivalently between
the interventionist and structuralist interpretation,
due to its ambivalence on the actual or potential nature
of the totality itself. As potential to which the
proletariat must strive through action, it can easily
adopt the interventionist relational view; but as
actual, as that which currently guides the activities


Interventionist marxism is of course necessarily
committed methodologically to the community on the
question of truth and knowledge, for it views thought
in terms of its social or communal embodiment, and
never in terms of its supposed intrinsic properties.

Because it ties thought more firmly to social reality
than other interpretations of marxism, it can more
reasonably assert that the intellectual problems associated with communist society which are themselves
nurtured by certain conditions specific to capitalism,
will disappear along with those conditions. But more
importantly, not only is thought tied to the real
social conditions, but it can only be the property of
social groups rather than individuals, and hence the

specific problem posed of how individuals can exist
both freely and harmoniously in communist society
contraposes the real order of things. The thinking
‘individual’ is but an abstracted microcosm of the
groups of which he forms an element. Therefore to
show that two individuals are in irreconcilable conflict
one needs to show that they are members of necessarily
opposed and hostile groups within their society.

anyone without qualification, it certainly is for the
working class as a class. As such, marxism is (as a
matter of fact) not only necessary, but also a
unique science for the proletariat qua proletariat.

For the working class only marxist theory has this
ability. to enable it to act as a class for itself.

Therefore from the point of view of the class, marxism
is its only science.

Much of what is the case for interventionist
marxism applies for totalistic marxism too. For there
too solutions for problems in thought are to be found
in the social, communal embodiments of this thought
rather·than through abstract ratiocination. But there
still remains the intellectualistic residue for the
totalists, which effectively has them on both sides of
the fence: they believe enough in the properties of
pure ratiocination to believe that with it alone the
superiority of the proletarian world-view is provable.

Again the totalistic interpretation provides us
with no novel position compared with those considered
so far: it again exists between the structuralist and
interventionist position on the question of science.

But what is of interest now is that in spite of these
very fundamental differences, there is pretty common
agreement amongst our interpreters as to the area of
Marx’s work which contains his fundamental scientific
discovery: it is his discovery in 1857 ‘hf the notion
of surplus value, of the distinction between labour and
I ab our power.

3 – Scientific nature of marxism

Positivistic marxism uses the two-fold appearance
of labour, and cites such evidence as the accumulation
and growth of capital (seemingly ex nihilo), as the
description of external reality verifying the truths of
marxism. This, it is believed, is what makes marxist
materialism scientific. But in doing so it has to
cite methodological procedures such as verification or
falsification according to which marxism is scientific.

But that involves forcing external reality into a
conceptual mouid of some kind or another – for what is
verified or falsified is a sentence expressing a
putative scientific law, and the only thing that can be
logically related to it is another sentence. Hence the
necessity for the conceptualisation of reality prior
to the possibility of science, and a denial of the
pr~mise that we must begin with the material world
rather than our own conceptualisations of it. In its
attempt to become scientific, positivistic marxism
thus degenerated into self-contradiction.

None of our four interpretations has much difficulty in distinguishing science from non-science according to their own criteria for doing so; and each is
able to show itself as scientific according to these

The positivistic view thus sees Marx’s contribution to historical science as essentially on a par with
Newton’s in physical science and Darwin’S in biological
science. On the other hand the structuralist view
sees science in terms of its abstracting and generalising power to reproduce the concrete-in-thought accurately in all its variety of aspects. Thus for Althusser,
marxism is scientific not because it is on a par with
Darwinism, but because it is the science of all the
sciences, and thus in a sense more scientific than any
one of them.

By contrast with both these views, the interventionist marxist has a more operationalist view of what
science is. A scientific theory is scientific due to
its capacity to enable us to interact with the world in
ways hitherto unknown to us. And this is a property
which remains even after the scientific community has
rejected this theory as ‘false’. For instance, although
Newton’s theories of refraction are based on a premise
now believed false (that light travels faster in a
denser medium), some of them can still be regarded as
scientific in the above sense nonetheless. Because the
interventionist marxist divorces the question of
absolute veracity and falsity from that of scientificity, he is able to ignore the spurious claims of the
former, while using the latter as an essential element
in his system. In doing so he of course puts science
in a completely different mould from verificationists
or falsificationists, who both see the connection
between truth and falsity and sCientificity as indubitable. For them it is this connection which is
necessary, while th~t between science and technology
is only contingent; whereas for interventionist
marxism the only necessary connection to be found is
precisely the one ~etween science and technology.

In what way then is marxist theory scientific?

What does it enable us to do in the world? ‘Us’ is
too general here, for marxist science is of use only
to the proletariat and its allies. (It is of use to
the bourgeoisie too, but only in the secondary sense,
for the containment of a proletariat using it in a
primary sense). According to marxism, the self emancipation of the proletariat is the act of the proletariat
itself, acting for itself, and doing so fully selfconsciously. To act for itself, it has to come to
understand the relationship between itself and capital.

It has to come to understand that capital is both
created by ,labour and at the same time stands above
and dominates labour. It has to be able to see the
dynamics of the development of capitalism, for only
this demonstrates where the contradictions and crises
can be found and exploited. In other words, although
marxist theory is not a scientific prerequisite for


The structuralist view certainly avoids these
problems, but in doing so gets itself into cognate
difficulties. Unlike the positivist, it cannot.take
on trust the validity of a purely external empirical
criterion of scientificity, for to be scientific is
precisely to i~pose a meaningful structure of conceptualisation on empirical data themselves; and therefore
such data cannot be used to ‘correct’ the structure
without contradiction. The only alternative is to
construct a viable structure-in-thought containing
historical materialism as its base, and then to prove,
that this marxist synthesis is in fact uniquely .

available. Such a uniqueness proof is of course not
possible so long as elements can only modify and be
modified by their own structure, for then all conflict
takes place at the level of the structure alone, and
unfortunately these structures are by definition too
total to do so. For not only are the parameters in
terms of which the world is to be explained structurespecific, but so too are the very conceptualisations
of the world they are used to explain. The very.

incommensurability of these world-syntheses effectively
prevents any demonstration of the superiority of any
one of them. To accord anyone of these the honourific description of being scientific in these circumstances, as does structuralist marxism, seems quite
gratuitously and pompously misleading.

Just because interventionist marxism denies the
significance of ‘science’ in any absolute sense
independent of practice, but asserts only the existence
of a class science of the proletariat for itself; it is
unencumbered by these problems. Marxist theory is the
science of the proletariat acting for itself, and this
can b e demonstrated as a matter of logic. If there
exists a proletariat, then so too must wage-labour and
capital and thereby surplus value and profit. With
the market comes competition and accumulation and thence
crisis and the centralisation of capital. All these
follow as necessarily implied by the structure of
relations which render the proletariat possible. But
the system they describe, capitalism, is not one in
which the proletariat acts for itself. On the contrary

it is one in which it is compelled to act against
itself. Capital inverts the order of the artisan to
the tools which form an extension of himself. Capitalism’s impersonal laws dominate the new machinery, and
thereby its operators too. As a result instead of the
artisan’s tools and artifacts becoming nature humanised,
the wage-labourer becomes humanity depersonalised. Yet
capital grows only out of wage labour itself: the
proletariat creates its own chains by its own natural
efforts under capitalism. Again it follows as a matter
of logic that the proletariat can only act for itself
when it has triumphed over capitalism. The class
science of marxism is there to show the working class
the nature of its oppression and the clues to its
transcendence – to give coherence to its spontaneous
reaction against its condition of life. Thus because
interventionist marxism recognises only class truths,
it avoids the spurious notions of scientificity that
are employed by positivists and structuralists.

4 – Truth as revolutionary and dialectical

Of the dialectic Marx said:

In its rational form it is a scandal and an
abomination to bourgeoisdom and all its doctrinaire
professors, b.ecause it includes in its comprehension and affirmation recognition of the existing
state of things, at the same time also the
recognition of the negation of that state, of its
inevitable breaking-up; because it regards every
developed social form as in fluid movement, and
therefore takes into account its transient nature
not less than its momentary existence; because it
lets nothing impose on it, and is in its essence
critical and revolutionary.

(Afterword to the second German edition of

At the heart of the problem for marxists, who
believe after all that it is the working class itself
which must liberate itself, but that this cannot
occur without marxist theory; is whether it is possible
to generate a notion of truth such that it complements
freedom rather than substituting for it. Knowledge as
it is conceived by all contemplative epistemologies,
and this includes both the structuralist and positivist
versions of marxism, are quite incapable of doing this.

The reasons for this derive from aspects of Hegel’s
work, but it was really only Lukacs who made it fully
explicit in his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”. If knowledge of man is
restricted to him qua known object rather than knowing
subject, then to the extent that we can obtain such
truths about him, he is that much less able to subject
himself to conscious self-modification. Knowledge and
the freedom for self-emancipation thus become opposed
polarities, making the marxist case that self-emancipation presupposes knowledge of the relationship between
self and capitalism, impossible in principle. Such a
view would only leave open two possibilities: fatalistic
mechanism in which the self-activity of the masses has
no meaning, or voluntaristic philistinism in which
knowledge or theory has no part to play
Why then are positivists and structuralists guilty
of this? The answer lies in the extent to which they
are still embedded in the kind of pre-dialectical
problematic to be found jointly in the classical schools
of Rationalism and Empiricism. The categories of
description, explanation and action were taken to be
separable according to this problematic. Empiricists
believed that explanation might be incomplete description, and Rationalists vice-versa, but they agreed that
at least one of these two categories must have its own
independent criteria, and also that both must at least
be separately identifiable so that the reduction (or
partial reduction) of one to the other might proceed.

And it certainly never occurred to them that there
might be a real unity not only between the descriptive
and explanatory, but also between these and action.

The complete separation between thought and action was
axiomatic for them. Positivist marxism steps into this
problematic and sees no reason for changing any part of
it. Structuralist marxism is unhappy about one part
of it: the separability of description and explanation,
and indeed makes great play about this; but this only
serves to hide the fact that the major point is being
left untouched, for thought is still seen as separate
in principle from action. Hence Althusser’s point that
truth is created entirely within knOWledge. Since
knowledge and action are seen as separate, in the same
way that action cannot modify knowledge, knowledge
cannot modify action either except in purely negative
ways. It can tell us of the ways capitalism forces
us to behave, but not of the ways that action itself
can abolish and change the given social reality.

Knowledge of truths i~ thus see~ as independent
of action for the structuralists, and when these truths
are about ourselves, just because our act~on can’t
change them they are paradigm cases of knowledge of the
self as object only, and hence are subject to our above
objections. It is said that in May ’68 Althusser was
seized by a diplomatic illness and was thus ‘unable’

to commit himself. Meanwhile back at the drawing-board,
with the riots outside, he was back at work trying to
locate the dominant contradiction … If true, it
would certainly fit.

For the interventionist marxist, a notion of truth
in which proletarian self-activity was not implicit
would be an infinite, amorphous and undifferentiated
aggregation of mutually contradictory conceptions of
reality, totally useless for the real business of smashing capitalistm, and actually harmful in wasting the time
of the potentially useful cadres. Such a view is also
held, in the main, by totalistic marxism. The quotation
from Goldmann’s Kant above makes this very clear.

According to this view the process whereby the positivists and the structuralists propose gaining knowledge
is purely individual, and is thereby incapable of
having a universal validity. By a curious paradox it
is precisely those who start off with pretentions of
universal validity rather than the more limited end of
giving coherence to the struggle of the proletariat
against their conditions of existence, who are the very
people incapable of achieving such a universal validity.

If the basis for our thought is the spontaneous
and continuous struggle against the conditions that
capitalism forces on to the proletariat, and if our
intention as revolutionaries is to give this coherence,
to show the way forward into revolutionary politics,
then marxist theory takes on a different form. It
gives the spontaneous struggle the capacity to be more
effective, for it to go from strength to strength until
it annuls the conditions giving rise to the struggle in
the first place. In short, if marxist theory is
nothing other than a tool for the self-emancipation
of the class, and if revolutionary parties become
repositories for the use of this tool; then marxism
can complement the freedom and self-activity of the
class, instead of standing above it as a rather fearsome and reproachful ogre.

This is the sense in which marxist theory is
revolutionary for interventionists. The truths that
it contains are no stultifying rigid reified ‘facts’

but guides to the self-development of the class.

The class cont.ent of truth and knowledge is indeed
irreducible, but it 1s precisely this which enables
the marxist theory to function as class-science, as
the promoter of the freedom of the proletariat. It is
because historical changes are, in the main, classbased that thought and truth are also. And only such
a view renders possible the task which Lenin correctly
saw as necessary for an intelligible epistemology: to
introduce the unity of theory and practice inside the
theory of knowledge. Logically following through the
consequences of this view must change many aspects of
philosophy, but none so disruptive as the realisation
that the performance of real revolutionary practice is
the· precondition for being a marxist philosopher.

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