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Towards a Materialist Theory of Ideology



The IQ Debale as a Case Sludy
Les Levidow

In the Race-IQ debate which has resurfaced in
Britain and the USA since 1969, socialist critiques
of IQ science have centred upon some notion or
other of ‘ideology’. That term has been invoked
largely as an insult, intended to mean the opposite
of ‘truth’ – as if the questions for revolutionaries
were whether the claims made by IQ science are
true or false, whether the claims are founded on
reason or on mere rationalisation. If that were the
.question, then our task would be to show that IQ
science – by virtue of its technical defects, social
class bias, political origins, etc – violates the
supposed rules and norms of scientific measurement.

If so, then we could brand it ‘ideological’ and therefore ‘unscientific’ – concocted solely to justify the
existing society.

I want to argue, on the contrary, that revolution …

aries need to ask instead what kind of society IQ
science helped to create. This means asking what
kinds of new relations between people IQ science
helped to mediate, and therefore what kind of science
it is and what kind of truth it is. And, as for its
ideology, this means asking what kind of ‘ability’ it
defines and reproduces, what kind of social relations
it represents as somehow rooted in the nature of
things and therefore as natural and eternal.

My approach intends ultimately to suggest that IQ
testing, seen in historical perspective, was less a
matter of justifying an existing capitalist society
than of constructing a new stage of capitalism. It is
with a similar approach that we will need to confront
testing in Britain today, where – in the Great Debate
over schooling – particular notions of ‘basic skills’

are gaining increasing importance. Such rhetoric
is directed less at justifying the present allocation
(streaming) of pupils – be it ‘meritocratic’ or otherwise – than at representing so -called ‘basic skills’

as mere techni’ques for getting something done, as
neutral facilities appropriate to any social circumstances. Accordingly, these ‘thingified’ techniques,
as ‘needs of industry’, must presumably be more
widely acquired by the future labour force in their
(and society’s) own best interests. So these ‘basic
skills’, embodying the common or ‘national’

interest, are seen to be necessarily class -neutral
because they are possessed apart from any
particular social relations.

I want to argue, on the contrary, that we need to
understand any particular form of ‘ability’ not only
as socially constituted – rather than simply justifying ‘SOCiety’ from outside of it – but also as contradictory, just as any social relations entail conflicts.

We need such an understanding so that we can recognise and build upon existing revolts against the

social relations of capital’s practices. It is precisely
such revolts that provide occasions for seeing the
way that the social relations (such as ‘ability’ itself)
are normally mystified through science in the form
of things – their posseSSion, their properties, and
their relations. So, through the example of the IQ
debate, I will want to suggest that the belaboured
distinction between scientific and ideological practices is at most a proble.m for capital, not for
revolutionaries, because the project of overthrowing
capitalism cannot itself be ‘scientific’.

Marxism v.s. Science
.I will continue by explaining how I came to treat
the IQ debate in such an unusual way. My interest in
a critique of IQ, and of science as a whole, dates
from the period of 1972-73, a time of difficult
changes for the (American) New Left milieu of
which I had been a part for severalsears. The days
were over when the institutions, universities in
particular, would go out of their way to accommodate people of our ilk. No longer students with a
1960s-era licence (‘repressive tolerance’), we
were moving up in academia, or out of it entirely.

So we were faced with new sorts of settings in
which to challenge our given roles – while at the
same time needing to preserve them.

In other words, we we re coming to terms with the
problem of re-ordering our lives in a way that could
~xtend our past radicalism rather than submerge it.

For many of us , this meant quite ambivalent attempts
to plan careers, or at least to give them a try.

Despite our political corn mitment, we found ourselves falling into a normalization of our lives, at
least compared to the former fluidity. We were up
against what seemed to be an ‘objective necessity’

imposed by the nature of jobs themselves, with the
world threatening the bonds of comradeship on
which we’d constructed our political identities.

At the same ti me, the Marxis m that had been
developed and rediscovered by the New Left’s
struggles was now in danger of becoming the exclusive property of the left sects, on the one hand, or
of ac;tdemic careerists, on the other. Whether this
Marxism was an exhortation to party discipline, or
just another academic discipline, it claimed to
determine objective truths about the .material world
out there, so that our own practices could be seen
to be constrained by the very nature ot things. In
this historical shift, ‘truth’ was seen as a superior
knowledge discovered by specialists according to a
scientific method in which they were especially
trained and qualified. Even where Marxism was


coimected to a sense of struggle, as in the left
sects, its· content was defined by ways of working
together which reproduced much of the society that
we’d set out to overthrow. In this. degeneration, the
rhetoric of ‘scientific socialism’ played a key role
in disciplining ourselves. not so much to real historical possibilities for collective struggle, but to
‘objective laws of history’, supposedly imposing
their inescapable necessity upon us. The Marxism
that we’d looked to for getting a political hold upon
our lives was now helping to reSign us to the narrow
confines of the existing institutions.

My ‘Short March Through
the Institutions’

Fro m 1972 to 1974 I was one of many teaching
assistants for an introductory biology course, as
part of my work as a biology graduate student. In
a largely unconscious way, there was a constant
struggle over how I would relate to my students, as
both teacher and evaluator, and how I would present
the material. On one occasion I objected to the
lecturer’s use of particularly blatant capitalist
metaphors (e. g. ‘investment’), in the sense of
challenging whether that’s the way nature really is.

Her reply was, for example, that certain economic
concepts were simply the best pedagogical method
for teaching the Krebs sugar oxidation cycle,
especially for such urban students who had ‘so
little co~tact with nature’, as she put it. Could I
come up with a better method to teach the material,
she asked. Something was seriously lacking in my
Marxism if my challenge could be effectively
silenced by such a reply.

Only much later did I realize that she was actually
‘right’, in the sense J;hat Sir Hans Krebs discovered
the oxidation cycle in the 1930s through conceptual
categories drawn from John Maynard Keynes, just
as Darwin had drawn upon Malthus. So the problem
is not how we interpret or re-interpret the facts of
nature, but rather how a society constructs nature
historically. But that’s jumping ahead in our story.

My next institutional setting was a ‘special
education’ school designed for secondary school
students judged as ’emotionally disturbed’ and/or
‘socially maladjusted’, but at the same time as
cognitively ‘normal’. It was therefore deemed a
worthwhile task for society to invest in skilling and
disciplining them into responsible and productive

Given the school’s well-defined niche, the staterelated testing procedures not only bore upon
administrative judgements about new admissions,
students’ progress and transfers, but also held a
pervasive presence in the school’s everyday
affairs. That is, the testing was merely a more
formalized version of how we tended to treat the
students as repositories of individual responsibility
and skills to be developed for their individual seffinterest” as future empioyees and consumers. It was
our job constantly to counterpose that ‘interest’ to
their mischievous impulses – whose irreverence
often attracted me but usually left me unable to
respond other than by defending my own authority

While holding no naively grand illusions of being a
‘socialist’ teacher in a capitalist society, I certainly
had hoped to teach science as something other than
a collection of facts. I expected to teach science
differently, through a process of developing experi-


ments to answer questions about the world. Little
did I realize, though – and so learned the hard way that the testing paradigm actually defined what
counted as knowledge. As it turned out, the students
felt threatened by anything but the familiar ‘learning’ by rote, and they didn’t hesitate to show their
hostility to my attempts at doing otherwise.

At the same time, with my difficulty at coming
across to them personably – a difficulty compounded
by my anxieties over the need to maintain control the stUdents felt bored by almost anything conventional, often to the point of simply ignoring me.

They also took full advantage of the ambivalence
with which I demanded their attention and handed
them moralistic imperatives (much to my own
surprise! ).

As a modus vivendi, I somehow managed eventually to devise a formal teaching method where my
‘personal’ relation to them centred upon my commending them, in effect, for submitting to a
particular work discipline. By having them do
simple readings together as a group, I was able to
give all of them the chance to prove themselves
‘good students’ by diligently finding the right
answers to fairly mechanical questions. So, at
least on the surface, they were ‘learning’ – even
doing ‘real science’, as they put it – and I was
managing to ‘get results’ without having to shout
at them so much.

But any interest they displayed in the work – or in
me personally – was bound up with their desire
(however ambivalent) to be judged as worthwhile
people by me, as the official dispenser of commendation. So the personal rapport was itself a lie albeit a ‘necessary’ one for me, as a welcomed
relief from the previous chaos and (literal) nightmares. But with my nascent ‘profeSSional success’,
I came to be taken over by that lie as a deadning,
alienating routine which I came to resent at least
as much as the students did.

The Radical Science Movement
It was from such confines that I began to turn to.

the radical science movement, whose activists were
attempting to confront their own roles as scientific
workers. The great stumbling block that I came up
against from the very start was the movement’s
tendency to assume that there is an essence of
science exempt from capitalism, or at least potentially so. They saw capitalism as abusing science or
mis-representing reality through science. The
radical project, then, was to defend science from
penetration by capitalist ideology and from abuse by
capitalist applications. In other wordS, there was a
pure core or method of true science which we
needed to distinguish and salvage from all.else.

So they attacked the more blatantly objectionable
aspects of science by invoking a narrow rhetoric of
deviations from science, with insults such as
‘pseudo -science’, ‘abuse of science’, or even ‘bad
science’. Despite the epithets, Some imaginative
insights were developed, but as a whole this
approach proved most unhelpful for getting a hold
upon our intimidation by science, seen as a body
of ideas or methods. With such an approach, we
could claim only that capitalism was misinterpreting the facts, which were of course
neutral, value-free products of scientific experiments. Missing here was any critique of how the
facts themselves were produced by practices which
are capitalist.

In particular, the IQ debate intrigued me as a
symptom of how we remained entrapped by capitalist categories of practice and knowledge. IQ
presented an enigma to any model that saw facts as
simply having values and applications added onto
them, because with such a model we could go no
further than challenging the scientific rigour of
experimental facts and their interpretation. We
were stuck with an endless dispute over statistical
methods and results.

To get out of that morass, we would have to claim
that IQ scores were themselves ideology. But such
a claim tended to be put in terms of IQ testing as a
con, in that it’s not at all about ‘measuring’ abilities
(or anything at all) but merely a ruse to allocate
individuals in the capitalist hierarchy – for example,
by ‘testing’ for compliability or respectability.

This means that IQ would be distorting or ignoring
the true material reality of abilities, in favour of
justifying an entirely different material reality.

But if we deny, in effect, that IQ is real, then how
could we explain the successful trans mission of the
IQ ideology? To say that capitalis m needs so me
way of justifying its hierarchy is to reduce IQ
testing to a more or less arbitrary ruse. It is also
to explain the credibility of IQ in an idealist way, in
terms of the power of ideology – as mere ideas brought in from the outside of a situation. Clearly
we needed a better analysis to solve the enigma.

In the actual course of the experiment, the personality
of the operator was regulated to the background by
making our procedure as mechanical as could be,
using a written form of instructions to be recited
to each boy at the beginning of every-new test …

(pi 02)
– Cyril Burt, ‘Experimental Tests of General
Intelligence’, British Journal of Psychology!


IQ as Social Relations
Back then my intuition for a way out of this quandary
– an intuition which I’ve since worked out through
collective work – was to see IQ as a social relation
which is mystified by the way it is represented,. so
that it can be both real and ideological. But to work
out this problem, we hadto grasp science as practices which define entire forms of knowledge, by way
of constructing nature in particular ways. By this
method, we could see that facts contain both values
and applications, since they assume certain social
relations of production.

As I was in the process of studying the history of
IQ, one of my breakthroughs came from an incident
that occurred during my one year of science teaching at a secondary school whose pupils were all
black or Puerto Rican. I happened to be present
while the school psychologist was administering the
Wechsler test to one of the black pupilS. To the
question, ‘What is the thing to do if you find someone
else’s purse?’, the pupil grinned and replied, ‘Do
you want the whitey answer or the nigger answer?’

I couldn’t help but burst out laughing, and the pupil
as well. But the psychologist remained unmoved.

So the pupil broke the awkward silence by capitulating; he asked the psychologist to repeat the question,
so as to re -establish the formal test situation. The
psychologist complied, so that the ‘measurement of
intelligence’. resumed -according to the rules.

For experiments upon young and untrained subjects
such as ours, there is a further advantage in using
none but the simplest apparatus. To boys, strange
apparatus is distracting. Clock -work mechanis m
arouses irrelevant interests. Electric wires and
keys inspire needless apprehensions. Consequently,
in dispensing with elaborate instruments, the
. sacrifice of the mechanical regulation of objective
conditions is often more than compensated by the
exclusion of subjective irregularities and unstable
attitudes of mind. (p98)
There are many such examples of recalcitrance by
testees, such as Indian children who refuse to
answer a test question to which other children
present may not know the answer, so as not to
shame them; or children refUSing to indicate that
they’ve found the answer until all the other children
present are ready to do so. In the incident .I’ve
described, the pupil was isolated, apart from my
laughter, and so had to draw upon his cultural
identity in a more explicitly verbal way to defend
himself from a question that probably struck him
as an assault upon his being.

Now, these examples of recalcitrance tend to be
seen at most as evidence of test bias, in the sense
that such test questions cannot accurately’ measure
the intelligence of any but white middle class
children. Some critics have gone a bit further by
locating the problem in the test situation itself as
one alien to other cultures. However, even the most
subtle critiques tend to reduce cultural considerations to ‘social factors’ that impinge upon the test
from the outside and thereby distort the test score
from its otherwise true, fair value.

It is rarely suggested that the test situation indeed, the power relation between tester and
testee – is integral to the alleged ‘me~ure ment of
intelligence’. I want to argue precisely that; i. e. ,
t4at IQ testing is no matter of a subject determining
facts about an object, but is rather aparticular


social form of mental labour. To the incident I
described, the pupil subverted his role as producer
of answers to alien hypothetical questions, and tried
instead to make human contact with the tester, the
intended recipient of answers. But the tester, as a
personification of capital, couldn’t take the joke,
except at the price of surrendering control over the
test situation. My telling of the incident is intended
to suggest that ‘intelligence’ is a social relation,
and that it’s precisely the revolt against that relation
which helps us to reveal the mystifying processes
underlying the normal test situation, which we
might otherwise take for granted.

To understand IQ testing as ideological, in any
meaningful sense of the word, I found it necessary
to draw upon the critical concepts that Marx developed for understanding how corn modity exchange
could be both ideological and ‘objectively’ real.

As it turns out, the act of commodity exchange
abstracts not from the material to the ideal but
within material reality, so that material reality
itself could be ideological, by virtue of the way it is
socially reproduced. So it is within the act of
commodity exchange itself that Marx could locate
the material basis for both political economy and
his critique of it as ideological. Let us briefly
sketch his critical method:

Corn modities can be exchanged at all only on the
basis of their having different use values, and
therefore containing different types of labour.

However, the act of corn modity exchange entails
abstracting from those different qualities their
corn mon quality of embodying human labour in the
abstract. This ‘exchange abstraction’ is not done
intentionally or consciously, but simply by virtue
of exchanging corn modities in definite proportions
according to the respective amount of average
socially necessary labour they contain.

In this way, the equivalent ‘exchange values’,
derived from equal quantities of dead labour, can
take the mystified form of a physical property of
the commodities themselves. Exchange value itself
appears to derive from the physical nature of things,
because the social relations between corn modity
producers take the form of a relation between
things. In this way, historically specific social
relations take a social form – exchange value which represents those relations as natural.

Equality in the full sense between different kinds
of labour can be arrived at only if we abstract
from their real inequality, if we reduce them to
the characteristic they have in common, that of
being the expenditure of human labour in the
abstract. – Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p166
Through generalized commodity production, and
then wage -labour, labour power itself becomes a
commodity. Unlike other commodities, this labour
power (capacity to work) must be exploited by the
capitalist by setting it to work. Nevertheless, like
other corn modities, labour power is exchanged at
its value, determined by the average socially
necessary labour time required to reproduce it.

However, wage -labour, and therefore political
economy, mystifies this exchange by representing
wages as the ‘value of labour’. This is an ideological term because it assigns an inherent value to
a particular sort of labour, the magnitude of its
value ariSing from its physiological properties.

Tbe ‘value of labour’ mystifies the selling of one’s
labour power, as if it were fundamentally similar
to an individual corn modity producer selling the


finished product of his / her labour ..

The material basis for this mystification lies in
capitalism’s historical tendency to treat labo~r
power as indifferent to any particular sort of labour.

In other words, capitalist wage -labour abstracts
from the particular qualities of labour its universal
quality as labour power in the abstract. As with
commodity exchange, people do not consciously set
out from different types of labour power (or use
values) and then ideally abstract out equivalent
exchange values; on the contrary, by selling their
labour for a wage, people daily engage in an
‘exchange abstraction’ without necessarily realizing
it. This is because capitalism regulates labour not
directly, according to the particular ‘use values’

produced, but rather indirectly, according to the
comparative exchange values produced by different

… a social relation, a definite relation between
individuals, here appears as a metal, a stone, as
a purely physical, external thing.-Grundrisse, p239
~ wage -labour, the sale of and setting to work of
labour power, is a relation of class struggle which
takes the form of a thing, the ‘value of labour’.

This is as if what’s being exchanged were a fixed
quantity of labour, aSSigned a value by virtue of its
physiological properties. Hence, the ‘rate for the
job’ and ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’.

So here, as with commodity exchange, a social
relation takes the form of a thing or a natural
property of a thing. In this example, an exchange
abstraction within material reality permits us to
locate ideology withjn that reality,

The IQ Debate Proper
If we now return to IQ testing, then we can employ
a similar method to analyze ‘things’ ifl terms of the
social relations which both produce them and
mystify them – in this case, to analyze ‘intelligence’

as mental labour in the abstract. When I speak here
of a ‘similar method’, I do not at all intend to equate
IQ scores with corn modities, as if the reproduction
of labour power for capital – in schooling, family,
etc – had to be modelled exactly upqn corn modity
exchange itself. But neither do I intend a merely
formal analogy between IQ testing and corn modity
exchange (or between IQ scores and exchange value),
since my purpose certainly is to grasp IQ – and the
entire IQ debate – as a mediation of capital.

To do that, I will examine three of the issues
which have arisen in the IQ debate, concerning the
measurement of IQ, its causes, and its effects.

These issues actually tend to arise in a much
cruder form; I have tried here to formulate them
in the most sophisticated way possible so as to lend
my critique the broadest application.

(1) ‘How well does the IQ test measure intelligence?

This question assumes that ‘intelligence’ is a preexisting property of individuals already residing in
the testee, and then asks how well a ‘test’ – as a
thing – can determine the amount of that property.

Furthermore, in this question the power relation
between tester and testee takes the form of the
power of the ‘test’ to determine something about the

This mystification is not merely a distortion of
material reality, but has its material basis in the
testing process itself. Namely, the social context
of the test situation does not call up test answers

for any im manent concrete purpose, nor certainly
for any immanent interest of the testee. (Nor does
the wage-labourer’s sale of labour power require
the seller or buyer to have any interest in the
concrete use -values produced. ) Rather, the sole
purpose of the test answers is for them to be judged
against a pre-defined standard for comparison with
other individuals’ answers. By this process, the
mental labour by which answers are socially constructed abstracts from all particular qualities the
universal quality of mental labour in the abstract.

It is by comparing testees’ scores that their
qualitatively different mental labours are equated
as abstract mental labour.

This is not simply an ideal abstraction from
material reality, but an abstraction within material
reality. In other words, mental labour of different
individuals is not first compared directly and then
subjected to an ideal abstracting out of a universal
quality. Rather, the mental labour is compared indirectly, by relating different individuals according
to their respective quantity of abstract mental

In this way, an ordinal scale of intelligence can
assign positions to individuals according to the
respective amounts of ‘intelligence’ that each
possesses. (Likewise the ‘value of labour’ mystifies the exchange value of labour power as the
physiological property of a thing. ) In IQ testing
the social relations of the production of answers,
or the expenditure of mental labour power, takes
the form of a quantifiable property of the testee, a
quantity of a thing to be ‘measured’ by the test. So
to ask how well the IQ test ‘measures’ intelligence
is to accept the ideology of IQ testing, which
represents ‘intelligence’ as a natural, quantifiable
quality of individuals; it thereby represents mental
labour as naturally a separate thing from manual
labour on the one hand and from social relations on
the other. We might just as well ask how well
wages ‘measure’ the ‘value of labour’ .

Next, let us move on to a question as to the
possible causes of IQ, taken as a particular
quantity of intelligence.

What does a solely quantitative difference between
things presuppose? The identity of their qualities.

Hence, the quantitative measure of labours presupposes the equivalence, the identity of their
quality. – Grundrisse, p173
(2) ‘How much of individual variation in IQ is due
to heredity and how much to environment?’

As in the previous question about the measurement
of intelligence, the question also takes intelligence
as a natural quality of individuals differing in the
quantity thereof. The question then proceeds to ask
what determines those differing quantities, as
products of two causal factors. With the category of
‘environment’, the social relations through which
individuals construct their future selves take the
form of a thing impinging upon them from the outside, beyond their im mediate control. With
heredity, genes are taken as naturally empowered
to contribute quantitatively to the quality of
‘intelligence’. Then, quantities of these two causal
factors are seen to add together – or interact – to
produce a quantity of yet another thing, IQ.

In this way, heredity and environment are separated
out into the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’, as two
separate things which then meet in the individual’s
development. The quality of intelligence, in reality


From the response to stimuli by amlZba to the
transmission of thought by radio.

a social construct, is projected onto nature – not as
the social construction of nature by a particular
society, but as an inherent property of genes, as a
purely a-social thing, which then interacts with
social things to produce a technical thing, a quantity
of intelligence. Just as it is ideological for the
political economists to ask what parts are played by
nature (and society, respectively) in the determination of exchange value, so it is ideological to ask
how much of the variation in IQs is due to heredity,
even if the empirically ‘discovered’ answer is zero.

The degree to which some economists are misled
by the fetishism attached to the world of commodities, or by the objective appearance of the social
characteristics of labour, is shown, among other
things, by the dull and tedious dispute ove r the
part played by nature in the formation of exchangevalue. Since exchange -value is a definite social
manner of expressing the labour bestowed upon a
thing, it can have no more natural content than has,
for example, the rate of exchange. Capital, I, p176
Next, let us move on to a question about the
possible effects of IQ.


(3) ‘How much of the inter-generational transmission of economic success is due to the
trans mission of cognitive ability?’

This question warrants some elaboration before
demolishing it. Given that socio -economic status is
somehow ‘transmitted’ from parents to their
children, how much of that transmission across
generations is due to a trans mission of cognitive
abilities? To its credit, this question intentionally
begs the question as to how much those abilities are
‘acquired’ by heredity or environment. Because, if
it could be shown that the inter-generational transmission of economic success is independent of
cognitive ability, then raising IQs would not necessarily raise economic success, so that the entire
nature / nurture controversy over IQ would be
rendered utterly irrelevant to any question of social
policy aimed at economic equality.

However, the problem is that this question is concerned with the allocation of individuals to pOSitions
in a socio-economic hierarchy, and asks, in effect,
whether such allocation is done according to
cognitive abilities or instead according to personal
(‘social ,) traits. In so asking, the question separates out cognitive abilities from ‘social’ ones, as if
technical abilities were not social as well. By
defining such abilities as a property of individuals,
the question must satisfy its own empirical requirements by taking IQ scores as a quantitative ‘measure’

of cognitive abilities.

As for economic success, also defined as a
p:foperty of individuals (literally), this must likewise
have its empirical requirements met by quantifying
it as ‘socio-economic status’. Instead of looking at
the social relations by which labour power is reproduced, the question accepts the way that those relations take the form of ‘status’ (or distribution), as a
quantifiable thing. In. this question the only possible
Significance of cognitive ability is as a particular
quantity of individual property, which mayor may
not be the cause of each individual’s having a particular quantity of yet another property, status. The
question doesn’t ask whether cognitive abilities and
socio-economic status might be related by virtue of
their both being relations of the reproduction of
labour power, social relations which take a similarly mystified form. Instead, the question simply
takes for granted their social form, and asks to
what extent the quantity of one thing (IQ) causes a
quantity of another thing (socio-economic status).

The human essence is no abstraction inherent in
each individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of
social relations.

– Karl Marx, 6th Thesis on Feuerbach

The Historical ‘truth’ of IQ
I have cited these three examples from the IQ
debate to suggest that, in class society, material
reality (including nature) tends to be ideological, by
virtue of the way that the reality is socially constructed and reproduced. That reality gives meaning
to particular forms of knowledge, rendering them
‘true’, since they ‘work’, yet at the same time
historically limited, since their truth depends upon
and reinforces the particular power relations that
constitute them.


In capitalis m in particular, the forces of production
(humans’ relation to nature) take the form of merely
technical things – technology, labour power, even
‘ability’. The relations of production (humans’


relation to each other) are thereby seen to follow
inexorably from the inherent properties of those
‘thingified’ forces. For example, commodity
exchange follows on from the exchange value of the
products of labour; wage -labour follows from the
‘value of labour’; and divisions of mental/manual
labour follow from the hierarchical ranking of IQ
scores the ordinal scale of ‘intelligence’.

With the new science of IQ testing, historically
new divisions of mental/manual labour could be
attributed to the very nature of mental labour. Of
course this ‘nature’ was not being si mply ‘discovered’ but actively constructed, as a more interchangeable, technically -defined abstract labour.

power. In more subtle ways, the rise of IQ testing
could be connected to Edwardian liberalism in
Britain and Progressivism in the USA, especially
the way that each recast the individual as citizen/
producer contributing efficiently to !he nati.ona~ ?ood,
and as consumer needing to be servIced SCIentifIcally. Indeed, in that same historical period there
was crystallized a new middle class whose model
for practice was the professional-client relationship taking the form of an exchange of technically
defined consumption needs (including information
itself), in principle independent of t~e particular
people involved. In this way, IQ testing could provide a material/ideological basis for the 20thcentury meritocracy, the occupational hierarchy of
abstract ‘mental ability’ possessed by individuals.

To the extent that the left protests at the ‘inequalities’ of that meritocracy – or its ‘unscientific’

basis – such protest unwittingly claims the legacy
of IQ testiI}g as its own. By demanding the full and
free development of all individuals to their fullest
potential – even if in the name of socialis m – the
left attempts somehow to extract the ‘virtues’ of
bourgeois society from its nasty distorting defects.

And more broadly, by speaking of objective
conditions and forces, historical imperatives, and
technical requirements – all abstractly ‘thingified’

apart from our own social existence in the capitalist
order – the left reproduces capital’s science, the
knowledge that informs the extension of capitalist
social relations.

This example of labour shows strikingly how even
the most abstract categories – despite their
validity for all epochs (precisely because of their
abstractness) – are nevertheless, in the specific
character of this abstraction, themselves likewise
a product of historic relations, and possess their
full validity only for and within these relations.

– Karl Marx, Grundrisse, ppl04-05

For revolutionaries the task is to create practices
which attempt to make our own constituent power
relations historically self-conscious and transparent.

Such a project develops methods of collective work
which avoid reproducing profeSSional or scientific
‘expertise’ in the social form of competitive private
property. If it doesn’t, then our allegedly revolutionary theory becomes just another academic
discipline or a ‘correct line’ about the objective
world ‘out there’~ divorced from any struggle
against our own material relation to capital.

Revolutionary theory cannot imitate the virtues of
capital’s science but must inform our struggle
against the power relations that make that science


for the status of mysterious exceptions – to whom
history is pleased not to apply.

My’ claim that knowledge is ‘entirely active’ was
very poorly expressed and deservedly misconstrued.

Rashly, I left unspoken my assumptions, that a
thorough analysis of the notion of activity reveals
its logical interdependence with a notion of objective and independent reality, and that the ‘pure
action’ of classical idealism was an incoherent
concept. This is not a question of absolute alternatives (passi~e or active), but a question 9f what to
emphasise so as to understand what knowledge is
and so as to combat the forces which obstruct it in
our time. Nothing can be active which does not also
have its passive aspects. The power to affect other
processes can only be present in a process which
in turn ‘pays the price’ of being itself liable to the
causal influences of other processes. All of which
is to say no more than that the processes we are
considering are always natural, never supernatural

I am puzzled when Norman first quotes my sketch
of what Marx saw as a central problem for ‘the old
materialis m’, and then serves up as the answer to
it the very one given by the materialist Enlightenment, which Marx claimed to show was inadequate,
namely that a causal and objectivist science is after
. all our best tool for changing and improving the
world. Of course this is true, though we also need
things not so easily listed under that heading, such
as loyalty, discipline, solidarity and revolutionary
skills. But Marx started out from the apparent
inconsistency between the natural-scientific world-

view of the Enlightenment and its radical politics.

He may have been wrong in thinking there was-any
such inconsistency. Or he may have failed to produce any answer to the problem. I am- very interested in serious discussion of either hypothesis,
which contributes to the critique of perhaps the
upraising (Aufhebung) of Marxism. But I am not
very interested in what-appears to be a line of
thought which simply opts for the certainties of
pre-Marxist materialism and disregards the problems which Marx and others thought they gave rise
to. Much more is needed to give a materialist
answer to those problems (Le. one which does not
cheat by driving ontological wedges in between
human beings and the rest of the universe) than an
invocation of the efficacy of natural science along
the lines so well worn by the empiricist philosophy
of capitalis m. For, unlike the capitalists, we are
seeking to change the whole which includes ourselves, and are not merely trying to use our
powers to change some parts of reality in order to
preserve other parts against change ..

So much, then, in response to some of the most
basic issues raised by Norman’s comments. I
hope I may have satisfied him in some respects,
or at least clarified our points of disagreement.

But I realise there are important issues I have not
touched on yet, such as that which he raises about
the presence of ideology in the thought or knowledge of different social classes, and the related
question about the special access to knowledge and
philosophical insights which Marxism attributes to
the historical development of the working class·

Pluto 4~ Press





This article is a more formal version of a talk (by the same title) that I gave
in a workshop at the January 1978 Radical Philosophy conference, convened on
the general theme ‘Philosophy and the Critique of Ideology’. The talk was, in
turn, based upon the more detailed argument that I make in my RSJ article.

Abridged bibliography
Norman Geras, ‘Marx and the Critique of Political Economy’, in Robin
Blackburn (ed.), Ideology in Social SCience, Fontana pb, 1972, pp284-305
Les Levidow, ‘A Marxist Critique of the IQ Debate’, Radical SCience Journal
6/7 (1978), 13-72
Karl Marx, Grundrisse (1857-58), Penguin pb, 1973 (especially the
Introduction, elsewhere known as the ‘Introduction to a Critique of Political
Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (1867), Penguin pb, 1976 (esP.Elcially ‘The
Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret’)
I. I. Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value (1928), Detroit, Black & Red
pb, 1972
Alfred Sohn-Rethel, ‘Intellectual and Manual Labour’, Radical Philosophy 6
(1973), 30-37
Bob Young, ‘Science i§. Social Relations’, Radical Science Journal 5 (1977)


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John Irvine, lan Miles and Jeff Evans (eds)
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