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Truth and Practice

Andrew [allier
of scientific enquiry and experiment, this is common
ground not only of all Marxist theories, but of
intelligent bourgeois theories as well.

Peter Binns’ paper ‘The Marxist Theory of Truth’

in Radical Philosophy 4 exemplifies what seems to have
become a new orthodoxy among Marxists, as well as many
bourgeois philosophers, and social scientists: that
truth is historically and socially relative, and that
the decision between contesting theories (and the
associated practices) must be made on grounds of
practical utility.

Of course it is certain that for Marxism there
is a close relation of theory to social ~ractice,
and not merely to the practice of scientit:c
enquiry – ‘theoretical practice’ – but to so~ial
production and the class strugg le. A Marxist theory
of knowledge must therefore articulate the r~lations
of theory to practice in all their complexity; it
will not suffice to notice that they are connected
in various ways and with no more ado stew them up in
the same pot until they are indiscriminable. The
defect of the pragmatist/relativist account is that
instead of effecting a fusion of theory and practice
it effects a confusion of them.

My aim in this paper is to defend an objectivist
view of truth and hence of Marxism as the science of
social formations, and to show the practical importance of this view. As the view which I describe as
objectivist is roughly that which Peter Binns (and
also Kolakowski, in a paper I shall be considering)
calls ‘positivistic’ Marxism, I shall start by pointing out that the latter term is misleading, and that
many of the ideas attributed to objectivist Marxists
on the basis of their alleged similarity to bourgeois
positivists are not in fact held by them.

Essential to Marxist materialism, as to any
non-idealist philosophy, is the primacy of being
over thought, the dependence of consciousness on
material reality. This dependence is twof~ld:· in
the dependence of man’s consciousness on his social
existence, and in the character of thought as a more
or less adequate reflection of reality.

The objectivist position is: (a) that a thought
is true if it corresponds to or adequately reflects
reality, (b) that thought is a product of and
dependent upon reality, but reality is independent
of thought, and not at all its product (though a given
reality may be the product of action which has
involved thought); (c) insofar as it is scientific,
theory is independent of its subject; one must ask
not Whose theory is it? but Is it adequate to its
object? (These points, I take it, are shared by
structuralists and so-called ‘positivist’ Marxists;
my own view differs from the structuralism of e.g.

Louis Althusser in stressing the importance of a
genetic account of knowledge in relation to its

The ‘interventionist’ concept of materialism
proposed by Peter Binns radically rejects this
relation of thought to reality:

An idea is material not because it is about
atoms and physicality, but because it becomes
a material force in a really existent society
… 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. (RP4, p.7)

Bourgeois positivism is by no means exhaustively defined by these beliefs; of greater significance are its views: (1) that theoretical knowledge
is a construction out of sensations, (2) that a
reality is only understood scientifically when it is
reduced to atomic components, related only mechanically and differing only quantitatively; (3) that
practical or evaluative conclusions cannot be
obtained from factual premises.

This would make Berkeley, Kant and Hegel into

A conception of the relation of thought to
reality which is more representative of pragmatist/
relativist Marxism is that of Karl Korsch. Peter
Binns, if I interpret him correctly, makes the
distinction between thought and reality and recognises a one-way relation of determiantion between
them – ideas determine reality through practice.

The origin and object of the ideas are left out of
account, and they are judged by their results.

Korsch on the other hand is already compelled to
reject the correspondence theory of truth by his
conception of the relation of consciousness and
reality, which is essentially that they are inseparable (a view criticised by Lenin in Materialism and

Korsch says: ‘ … the coincidence of consciousness and reality characterizes
every dialectic, including Marx’s dialectical
materialism’ (Marxism and Philosophy, pp.77-78).

So far as I know, no Marxist (except perhaps the
empirio-criticists) has held (1), and none has held
(2). (3) was held by Hilferding, but not by the
other objectivists – Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin etc.

Goldmann, who is by no means an objectivist, shares
this last positivist assumption, and criticises the
objectivists for their ‘fallacy’ in denying it (see
his paper ‘Is There a Marxist Sociology’, English
translation in Radical Philosophy 1)
Hence the accusation that the objectivist
Marxists must be purely contemplative and indivijualistic in their conception of science is simply ~alse.

They are in no way committed to methodological
individualism or to theory without practical
implications. As to the social and practical nature


If consciousness and reality already coincide
it cannot be asked whether or not they correspond;
moreover a change of consciousness will be a change

of reality. Knowledge and practice become

It is a commonplace that for Marxism obj ective
knowledge is closely connected to practice, in that
social practice is the source, the test and the aim
of objective knowledge. It is an easy – though
mistaken – step from this recognition to a pragmatist
view of truth, which defines truth in terms of
practical usefulness, and opens the possibility that
some theory may be true for me but false for you,
because useful to me and detrimental to you.

This is a view often encountered in Marxist
circles; it is defended as ‘dialectical’, while its
opponents criticise it as insufficiently materialistic.

But the truth is that it renders any dialectic
impossible, by making the notion of contradictions
‘in the very essence of objects’ incomprehensible.

Subject and object are merged in a ‘night in which
all cows are black’, and all contradictions resolved
by the bald assertion of the identity of opposites.

(cf. Lenin: ‘The identity of social being with
social consciousness is sheer nonsense and an
absolutely reactionary theory’, M&E-C, p.313).

I shall discuss this in relation to Leszek
Kolakowski’s paper ‘Karl Marx and the Classical
Definition of Truth’ (from his book Marxism and
Beyond) as this seems to me to be an unusually lucid
exposition of a version of the pragmatist/relativist
view. Kolakowski begins by distinguishing two
practice-orientated theories to truth, and goes on
to propose a compromise and attribufe it to Marx.

The first theory (the one I wish to defend) he
calls ‘Marxism of a positivist orientation’, the
theory of Engels and Lenin. This

The dualism of consciousness and reality,
subject and object, as represented by classical
bourgeois philosophy has of course to be overcome.

But this should be done by asserting that every
subject is also an object; there is no such thing
as the subject in the Kantian/Sartrean sense of ‘that
which can never be an object’. This solution retains
the possibilities of interaction between subject and
object, including their conflict, and of ‘false
consciousness’; it asserts the independence of the
object and hence the possibility of its recalcitrance.

If the subject’s cognition of the object could change
the object, the practical resolution of contradictions
would not be necessary.

invokes the effectiveness of human actions
as a criterion with whose help it is possible
and justifiaby to verify the knowledge we
need to undertake any sort of activity …

treats truth as a relation between a judgement
or a sentence and the reality to which it
refers; at the same time this relation is
independent of man’s knowledge of it. Man’s
practical activity does not create it but
merely ascertains its occurrence. (p.59)

Every subjectivization or relativization of
truth removes content from the theories it treats of;
it cuts away their objective reference. If Marxism
thus loses its objective reference and becomes
merely the systematic expression of the class
consciousness of the proletariat, it is no more a
science than is theology, which is the systematic
expression of the consciousness of a religious

The other theory is that of William James and the
pragmatists generally, for which
usefulness is seen not as a tool for establishing
the truth of man’s knowledge independent of him,
but as what creates this truth.

As an example, Kolakowski gives the sentence:

‘Rational beings are alive elsewhere than on earth’.

We do not know if this is true or false. But we
know the meaning, i.e. we know what it would, be for
it to be true. The view of Engels and Lenin recognises that at any time human knowledge is incomplete,
our best scientific theories are imperfect and will
be improved upon, though we cannot of course use any
other criteria of the truth of specific statements
than those currently at our disposal. In stating
that there is absolute truth this theory states only
that the above sentence, for example, must be either
true or false, that which it is does not depend on
our consciousness, and that the question can only
be resolved by an extension of our knowledge of
objective reality by scientific practice.

We cannot understand a belief or a theory unless
we understand it as laying claim to truth, and hence
as having the possibilities of truth or falsehood.

Every theory is also the expression of a certain
consciousness, class and individual. We can tell
something – not necessarily something admirable about the societies which gave rise to Newtonian
and Darwinian theories by examining their content.

But our prime concern with these theories in with
their truth (or falsity), and this is determined by
reference to their objects. If we ignored the fact
that a theory laid claim to truth we could not even
assess it as an expression of the consciousness of
its epqch.

The whole point about a theory, as opposed to
a fantasy, is that it is about reality, hence its
value depends on its truth, and can only be determined
by comparing it with reality, not be examining it
itself, or establishing its subjective or social
origins, although this latter may be of importance
both in assessing the prevalence of a belief as
evidence for its truth, and in studying the
individuals and societies holding the belief.

The pragmatist view would no doubt be that at
the present time it is neither true nor false that
there are rational beings elsewhere than on earth.

The extreme pragmatist might hold – and perhaps
we can pin this one on William James’s tail – that
we can decide the question on grounds of usefulness:

suppose belief in bug-eyed Martians would promote
world peace, it might be considered useful and
therefore true. This kind of pragmatism is, as
Kolakowski admits, an idealist theory, making being
dependent on consciousness.

Every correspondence theory of truth has the
essentially materialistic consequences that reality
precedes and is independent of thought, that thought
lays claim to reflect and correspond to reality,
that the truth or falsity of a thought is determined
by reference to the reality it claims to reflect, and
that the meaning and identity of a thought are
determined by the conditions which would make it

The only way in which reality is determined by
thought is insofar as it is altered by action which
is based on thought. This brings us to the crucial
question for a Marxist theory of truth: the relation
of objective knowledge to practice, as forms of the
relation between thought and reality.


Now we come to Kolakowski’s ‘Marxist’ synthesis.

Its marxian credentials depend on placing a weight
of theory on the epistemological passages in the
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844 which
they cannot take. I am of the opinion that there is
much that is of profound interest in these manuscripts, but it is not in the scattered epistemological passages, which are badly thought out and
contain some sheer howlers – for instance the response
to questions about the origin of the world and man.

On the other hand there is no doubt that Kolakowski
is correct in placing both Engels and Lenin on the
side of opposition to his own theory. See Engels:

to describe reality, and what we know as reality is
that set of concepts determined by our practical

It was decided mercilessly to sacrifice every
idealist crotchet which could not be brought
into harmony with the facts in their own and
not in a fantastic interconnection. And
materialism means nothing more than this.

No division, not even the most fantastic as
compared with what we are accustomed to, is
theoretically less justified or less ‘true’

than the one we accept in actuality.

And Lenin:

If truth is only an organising form of human
experience, then the teachings of, say,
Catholicism are also true …


and he tells us that
the surrealist world seems more ‘strange’ to
us than the usual one only because we do not

… (truth) exists independently of everybody.

(M&E-C, p.1l0)

have names for its components and do not use
it in technology.

(p. 69)

Note that Engels and Lenin are rejecting precisely
those moderate forms of the pragmatist/relativist
position that claim ~o be materialist on the grounds
that they do not deny the objectivity of facts but
only of their interconnection, or that they take
social and not individual practice as defining truth.

This is an unfortunate example, fo’~ he is
arguing that only language and practical needs make
us accept our world rather than the surrealist one.

Yet surrealist art is precisely the pictorial transcription of connections made by language and
fantasy – connections themselves.determined by
unconscious needs – and it is refuted as a picture
of reality by reference to the objective world as
contrasted with language and fantasy.

When a
surrealist artist paints a picture of a woman’s
stomach as an oven door which opens revealing a bun
cooking inside, this derives from a connection made
by language – the colloquial expression ‘a bun in
the oven’ for pregnancy – which is in turn no doubt
determined by unconscious connections. One falsifies this as a picture of reality by ‘social
practice’ .

According to Kolakowski’s theory, there is a
natural substratum of ‘reality’ which is independent
of us, and resistant to our activity. However this
remains an unknowable ‘thing in itself’: ‘Only “things
for us” and not “things as they are in themselves”,
can have conceptual counterparts.’ The objects of
our knowledge are supposed to be constituted as the
objects they are by human practical considerations.

Marx rejects the antithesis between the world
shaped into a human image and the world preexisting ‘in itself’ that one seeks to grasp
in a futile attempt to go beyond oneself as a

I shall now quote a passage from Kolakowski on
the relation of practical needs to cognition, and
I hope to show why his theory does not follow from
certain of his premisses.

Active contact with the resistance of nature
creates knowing man and nature as his object
at one and the same time.

(op.cit. pp.74-75)

The assimilation of the external world, which
is at first biological, subsequently social and
therefore human, occurs as an organisation of
the raw material of nature in an effort. to .

satisfy needs; cognition, which is a factor in
the assimilation, cannot evade this universal

To ask how the world would be
seen by an observer whose essence was pure
thinking and whose consciousness was defined
exclusively by a disinterested cognitive effort,
is to ask a barren question, for all consciousness is actually born of practical needs, and
the act of cognition itself is a tool designed
to satisfy these needs. (pp.64-6S)

Here again we see the merging of subject and object
into a primal soup, rather than a theory which would
allow self-critical cognition by making the subject
the object of scientific enquiry, discovering what
its objective needs and capacities are, and possibly
revising the conclusions of previous cognition. For
instance, Kolakowski’s question:

What justifies our belief that the visual world
of a fly, made up of light and dark spots of
neutral colours, is less ‘authentic’ or less
‘true’ than ours, except the fact that ours
is better adapted to our needs?

‘Cognition cannot evade this universal determinism’, that is to say, our beliefs, like all other
phenomena, have their causes, and these are to be
found in the interaction of human need and environment in practical human activity. But this does not
itself say anything about the truth or falsity of
these beliefs. True beliefs have their causes, and
so do false ones. I may believe that the sun is
shining’because I see that it is, and a causal
account can be given of that perception. Because
I am paranoid, I may believe I am being pursued by
the police; and I may just happen actually to be
pursued by the police; this would be a true belief,
but not knowledge. Lastly, I may believe that a
woman still loves me, when she does not, because it
would be too painful to admit the truth to myself.

seems to disregard the fact that we can study the
fly’s visual system and understand why it is what it
is; and we can do the same for our own visual system.

Again, take this passage from Kolakowski:

… what is lasting in human nature is also the
inviolable datum of all analysis and is the
only state that can possibly be the absolute
starting point. We cannot weigh the influence
of this ‘absolute’ on our vision of the world.

We can examine only what can undergo change;
otherwise we would have to be able to shed our
own skin and observe ourselves from outside.

This is possible for the individual thanks to
the existence of other individuals, but it is
not possible for the social subject as a whole.

The identity of a belief is determined by its
object, by what is believed, not by its causal
orIgIn. The truth of a belief is determined by
its relation to the relevant facts, i.e. the
reality of its object. The status of a true belief
as knowledge is something to do with the causal
relations of the holding Qf the belief with the
fact by virtue of which it is true.

This seems to forget that what is lasting in
human nature is the object of human biology and
related sciences; it is not an inviolable datum, i.e.

a fact which determines the nature of our knowledge
but is not itself a possible object of knowledge.

All data can be violated.

Kolakowski’s main anti-objectivist point is that
there are many possible sets of concepts with which


Hence (1) the fact that all cognitive processes
are governed by causal laws by no means obliterates
the distinction between truth and falsity; (2) the


fact that false beliefs are as much accounted for by
practical needs as are true ones, and indeed more
obviously and directly accounted for by them (for
where our interest is not involved we have less
motives for self-deception or repression), calls into
question the determination of truth by the~e ends.

Let me summarise my case against Kolakowski:

he claims that we cannot know whether the concepts
of reality which we have are true of ‘reality in
itself’, because:


Yet it can perfectly well be accepted that the
function of consciousness is to serve practical
needs. This is quite compatible with objectivism.

Take for example Freud’s account in ‘The Two Principles
of Mental Functioning’ (Collected Papers, Vol.IV).

According to this, mental processes are originally
under the sway of the pleasure-principle. ‘These
processes strive towards gaining pleasure; from any
operation which might arouse unpleasantness (‘pain’)
mental activity draws back (repression)’. The
pleasure-principle therefore at first takes the line
of least resistance and hallucinates satisfaction of
its wants.

This attempt at satisfaction by means of
hallucination was abandoned only in consequence
of the absence of the expected gratification,
because of the disappointment experienced.

Instead the mental apparatus had to decide to
form a conception of the real circumstances in
the outer world and exert itself to alter them.

A new principle of mental functioning was thus
introduced; what was conceived of was no longer
that which was pleasant, but that which was
real, even i f it should be unpleasant. This
institution of the reality-principle proved a
momentous step.


am claiming that (a), (b) and (c) are all
false. (c), because precisely in order to serve our
needs, cognition must attain a certain independence
of them; (b), because we can study human needs
objectively, and revise our account of ‘external’

reality insofar as it was in the first place distorted
by their influence; and (a), because if reality were
not in itself cognitively digestible, there could no
more have evolved rational beings than living beings
could have evolved in the absence of alimentarily
digestible reality. It is not a coincidence that we
need to divide the world into objects, classify
objects into kinds, and isolate causal laws governing
their behaviour; and that there really are discrete
objects, natural kinds, causal laws. It is no more
puzzling than that cats have slits in their skin at
just those points where their eyes are.

The controversy about truth, between the objectivist and the pragmatic/relativistic views, seems in
relation to Marxism to be a met a-theoretical controversy, a debate about the status of Marxist theory
which would leave the content of that theory untouched.

Yet it should be obvious that neither side believes
that the dispute is without implication for Marxist
theory and practice. I shall try to show its relevance for two issues: (1) the relation.of facts to
values, and (2) the relation of freedom to necessity.

In place of repression, which excluded from
cathexis as productive of ‘pain’ some of the
emerging ideas, there developed an impartial
passing of judgement, which had to decide
whether a particular idea was true or false,
that is, was in agreement with reality or not •..

A new function was now imported to motor discharge … it was now employed in the appropriate
alteration of reality. It was converted into

Freud here asserts the primacy of the pleasureprinciple – i.e. of human needs – explaining all
knowledge of the world in terms of it. Yet precisely
to serve those needs, consciousness of the world must
cease to be determined by them. Only on the basis of
this consciousness is their real satisfaction by
practice possible. (cf. Lenin: ‘If the sensations
of time. and space can give man a biologically purposive orientation, this can only be so on condition that
these sensations reflect an objective reality outside
man’ [M&E-C p.166] What Lenin says here of time and
space applies a fortiori to other aspects of reality.)

Like the ‘neutral science’ conception of Marxism
held by Hilferding, pragmatist Marxism inherits the
worn out dogma of bourgeois philosophy and social
science that one cannot reach conclusions in the
imperative from premisses in the indicative.

Whereas this dogma leads Hilferding to divide
Marxism into two distinct parts, a neutral science
and an ethics, it leads the pragmatist to insist that
Marxist science has premisses in the imperative.

Clearly this has the same tendency to deprive the
imperatives of their ground in science. The question
then arises, If you can’t get practical conclusions
from facts, where on earth can you get them from?

And if we examine the roots of this dogma in bourgeois
thought we can only conclude, Nowhere on earth.

It derives from Kant’s attempt to render morality
independent of anything in man’s empirical being, and
ground it in a transcendent ‘Reason’; it can be found
in Kierkegaard’s insistence that morality has ‘no
finite teleology’ (or in plain English, no earthly
use), and in Liberal Protestant theology’s claim to
base its speculative dogmas on its moral imperatives,
justifying this in terms of the ‘primacy of practical
reason’ .

Practice itself both requires a knowledge the
content of which is not determined by practical considerations, and provides access to such knowledge.

One knows the world, not in pure contemplation, but in
acting upon it; that is true. But it is the opposite
of pragmatism. It is not that what reality is is a
construction made by us for practical considerations;
it is that the practice of transforming reality shows
the resistance of that reality to our ends, and forces
us to acknowledge it as an independent reality, which
cannot be moulded by our consciousness, but only by
strenuous practical effort guided by painstakingly
objective knowledge.

Not that the pragmatist wants to substitute
fantasy for practice – far from it. The needs which
according to his theory determine what is reality
are practical needs, not the primary processes of
which Freud is speaking. But at this more developed
level of interaction of man and the world, the
pragmatist’s subjectivization of the concept of
reality serves the same function of robbing the
transformation of the world, including here the current modes of social practice, of its urgency.


we have no reason to suppose that the categories
imposed on reality by our needs have any basis
in reality considered aside from our needs;
we cannot ‘jump out of our skin’ to the extent
that we could see how the needs which we
actually have would affect our conception of
as all our beliefs are causally determined by
a process in which our needs are determinants,
we cannot judge their truth or falsity in abstraction from their function in relation to our needs.


It seems to me perfectly obvious that from
certain kinds of facts – facts about human needs and
wants and the practice necessary for their satisfaction, facts about the irrationalities and contradictions in existing modes of social practice practical conclusions follow. Goldmann (in his paper
referred to), which criticising the objectivists,
appears to admit that they can base a ‘social
technology’ which equals socialist politics on their

objective science of Marxism. But what more is
required? One can only assume that this practice of
‘social technology’ is rejected because it is not a
moral practice. But what place can a moral practice
have in Marxism? Vorlander – himself a fact/value
dichotomist – mentioned that he had been told by
someone who knew Marx personally that Marx burst out
laughing every time anyone spoke to him of morality
(quoted by Goldmann, op.cit.). Are we to take that
as merely a personal quirk of Marx’s? Is it not
rather to do with something about the form of every
moral theory, properly so called?

i.e. his adaptation to existing conditions,
which is beneficial neither from the standpoint
of his own possibilities of happiness nor from
that of the rational collective practice (the
struggle for socialism).


The formal characteristic of every moral theory
is that it issues imperatives which every individual
is responsible to carry out (in appropriate circumstances), and may be blamed for not doing so. This
can be summarized in three words – universal individual
responsibility. (The theories of ethics of Aristotle,
Spinoza and Nietzsche do not fit this model; but
then they are in an important sense not moral theories;
which is why they are of such value in developing a
socialist theory of practical reason).

Now the content of a morality may be rational i.e. it may aim at the maximum happiness or satisfaction of human needs, or it may be irrational i.e. it may enjoin the pursuit of aims not grounded
in these, and potentially antagonistic to them. The
history of moral philosophy has largely been the
history of the dispute between these two types of
morality. The latter type (e.g. Kant, Fichte,
Kierkegaard) claim that morality has nothing to do
with happiness or the satisfaction of human needs.

I shall not dispute this, as though there were already
some agreed content to morality, of which we could
determine the relation to happiness. I shall simply
say that if it is so, then morality is just another
obstacle to happiness which we must seek to abolish,
along with disease, ignorance, poverty, chastity
and obedience. (cf. Nietzsche: ‘Insofar as morality
condemns as morality, and not with regard to the aims
and objects of life, it is a specific error with
which we should show no sympathy.’ – Twilight of
the Idols, p.46).

This sort of morality can be traced, as Marx
has done, to the need of capitalist society at a
certain stage of its development to inculcate the
virtues of thrift, hard work and sobriety in all
classes. (See the 1844 Manuscripts, pp .110-113)
The naturalistic morality which escapes this
criticism (e.g. Utilitarianism, though this has the
addi tional defect of conceiving happiness on the
model of commodity-exchange) may be characterized as
rational in content, but to the extent that it is
so, the rational content comes into contradiction
with the moral form i.e. the fact that it addresses
itself to universal individual responsibility. The
contradiction consists in the fact that its
rational ends cannot be achieved by moral means,


because individual practice can only to a very
limited extent secure these ends. Individual
practice should therefore be directed towards
the collective effort to secure these ends.

This collective practice is, from the collective
point of view, self-interested and hence amoral;
and under conditions of class struggle it may be
highly immoral from the individual point of view.

(cf. Engels: ‘it is precisely the wicked passions
of man – greed and lust for power – which, since
the emergence of class antagonisms, serve as
levers of historical development’, op.cit.

Presumably the proletarian revolution is not
exempt from this motivation.)
The attempt to carry out a moral practice, on
the part of the individual (even of all
individuals) is actually antagonistic to the
rational ends. Its tendency is to lead the
individual to pursue that change which can be
pursued in isolation – the change of himself,


While class rule remains with us, the universalism of morality has no basis in reality and can
only be a mystification.

There may indeed be ‘moral virtues’ which have a
provisional rationality within an irrational society
– prudential virtues as long as there is material
insecurity, qualities which are of value in the
class struggle, even ‘disinterested altruism’, but
it is best not to make virtues out of these necessities (cf. Oscar Wilde: ‘the great advaijtage of socialism is that it relieves one of the sordid necessity
of living for others’ – The Soul of Man under Socialism)
Marxists should recognise – as did the great Soviet
philosopher of law, Pashukanis – that morality is
destined to wither away, along ~ith the state and
law. The sort of ‘virtues’ which one might hope would
flourish in a socialist society – sincerity and
generosity in personal realtions, devotion to the
pursuit of truth, creativity, as well as mere
abstention from anti-social acts – cannot be made the
object of effective moral imperatives anyway, they
can only be the product of a satisfying existence
(Cf, Nietzsche: ‘a well-constituted human being, a
“happy one”, must perform certain actions and
instinctively shrinks from other actions … In a
formula: his virtue is the consequence of his happiness’ – op.cit. p.48)
Though I believe there is generally a moralistic
conception of Marxism in the background of attempts
to make commitment prior to science and therefore
arbitrary, it is often defended without explicit
reference to morality, on grounds of class-relativism.

The point of Marxism, it is said, is to serve working
class interests, that of bourgeois science to serve
those of the bourgeoisie. This last statement of
course is true, but it does not settle the question
of the trut;, of “these theories, which is a separate
question from their social origin. Arguments have
been put forward by Marxists as to why it is no
accident that the proletarian theory should also be
the true one (e.g. by Bukharin in Historical
Materialism, by Goldmann in The Human Sciences and
Philosophy.) These arguments are a necessary part
of Marxism as a self-critical theory. An extreme
class-relativist would have no place for such
arguments, as he is wholly concerned with the class
nature and not at all with the truth of Marxism.

(There is also a moderate class-relativism which
concerns only the determination by class interest of
the selection of certain facts as important. This
is Goldmann’s view in The Human Sciences and
Philosophy, and that of E H Carr in What is History?

It is quite acceptable with these qualifications:

(a) the criteria for selecting certain facts as
important can also be objectively valid or invalid;
(b) Marxism can accommodate any fact unearthed by
the bourgeois social ‘sciences’, whereas the latter
are unable to accommodate many Marxian discoveries,
notably the existence of objective, internal, antagonistic contradictions in bourgeois society).

One might ask the class-relativist, Why should
certain individuals from other classes get involved
in the workers’ struggle? If there is to be a
rational ground, and morality is ruled out, it must
be conviction of the truth of the Marxist analysis.

However a more important problem of the classrelativist position is that it assumes an already
clearsightedly revolutionary proletariat; yet why
should the proletariat .be revolutionary? If bourgeois
theories were correct, it would be rational for the
workers to collaborate with the bourgeoisie to
increase the GNP. The Marxist analysis of classes
makes it clear why socialist revolution is really in
the workers’ interest; this is the case only given
that it is true. Of course there are also good


reasons why the workers should be receptive to
Marxist theory, especially in times of capitalist
crisis; they do not have the barriers that the
bourgeois do to the understanding of the contradictions of capitalism, because they bear the marks of
those contradictions in their own flesh.

The cluster of views (pragmatist, relativist,
subjectivist, interventionalist) which I have been
criticising also seems to involve a regression to a
pre-marxist conception of the relation of freedom to
necessity, both in the sense of the relation of
conscious human activity to the causal laws governing
the historical process, and of the relation of the
‘realm of freedom’ the the ‘realm of necessity’.

But rational as it may be for the workers to be
revolutionary, it is nevertheless the cas~that the
majority are not. If Marxism ·is to serve the objective interests of the workers, it must come into
conflict with their current beliefs about their
interests. The workers like any other class are
subject to false consciousness, and there have been
theories which have been systematic expressions of
proletarian consciousness, and yet highly reactionary.

Cf. Nietzsche’s account of Master and Slave morality
in The Genealogy of Morals. One can easily see how
the consciousness of an oppressed class could make it
receptive to ideologies of renunciation in this life
and punishment of the worldly and successful in the

Already in the writings of Plekhanov – whose
Marxism is infinitely more subtle and applicable to
complex historical realities than that of most of
those who dismiss him as a ‘vulgar Marxist’ – there
is a definitive reply to those who see a paradox in
the fact that Marxism stresses human activity and
the role of theory, and also sees the historical
process as governed by causal laws (see his
Fundamental Problems of Marxism and The Role of the
Individual in History. It is simply a vulgar mistake
to suppose that a Marxist will be any less of an
activist for the knowledge that his revolutionary
activity and the theory which guides it are themselves products of the historical process. The
conception of freedom as the knowledge and use of
causal laws, including reflective knowledge of the
laws governing one’s own knowledge and activity, is
in no way paradoxical unless one already presupposes
subject-object dualism; and it is integral to
Marxism (though not unique to it; it is shared by
the theories of Spinoza and Freud). Yet it continues
to be a stumbling block to many would-be Marxists,
and even to Marxist theoreticians. This can only be
put down to a mystique of the subject in the
prevalent ideology, a mystique which manifests
itself in Peter Binns’ paper:

Religion in its ascetic, other-worldly and
vindictive aspects can be just as much an expression
of the consciousness of an oppressed class as can a
revolutionary theory. Of course it is not in the
interest of the oppressed class to adhere to the
former, but an objective analysis is necessary to
show this.

Moreover recent history has shown that the
proletariat can often adopt fascist and sectarian
politics which are even more regressive than those
of the bourgeoisie. It is no use for the classrelativist to appeal to the concept of potential as
against actual class consciousness, for Marxist
theory is already needed in order to give an objective content to that concept; potential consciousness
is by definition not a given which Marxism could
‘express’ .

If knowledge of man is restricted to him qua
known object rather than knowing object, 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.

(op.cit. RP4 p.9)

There is not, as is so often assumed, anything
elitist about the view that I am putting forward.

The accusation that there is, is constantly
reiterated; but it itself is based on the elitist
belief that the ‘intelligentsia’ has the monopoly
of science and the proletariat the monopoly of ideology. The issue is not intellectuals versus proletarians but science versus ideology. Prescientific
consciousness is essentially ideological and if a
workers’ movement bases itself on this consciousness
and not on Marxist science, it will be nothing but
an instrument of mystification. Any attempt to
make science relative to its class subject must
inevitably lead to this. It involves a mistaken view
of the relation of science to ideology in that science
becomes’ expressive rather than destructive of
ideology. But ideology is error.

But insofar as man is known, he is by definition
known as ‘known object’; this in no way precludes
the identity of that known object with a knowing and
acting subject. One is reminded of Marx’s jibe
against the Young Hegelians:

Consciousness or self-consciousness is
considered to be the sole human quality.

Love, for instance, is rejected, because in it
the beloved is only an ‘object’. Down with

(Letter to Feuerbach, 11 August 1844)
In connection with this subject-object dualism
the term ‘interventionism’ is itself suspect. Intervention by whom into what? The human subject into
objective causal processes? It is already part of
them. The individual into history? He is already
part of it. The party into the struggles of the
class? Need I say more?

Establishment of Truth depends on destruction
of Falsehood continually, On Circumcision, not
on Virginity, 0 Reasoners of Albion!

(William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’, Complete Works,

Finally, one can see in practice how failure to
recognise th~ objectivity of theory has led to its
subordination to short term practical and propaganda
needs in the life of the workers’ movement; the
resultant errors have been far-reaching. Examples:

(i) the concept of ‘strict party discipline’, so
necessary to the period of revolution and civil war,
which became so fetishized that it prevented Stalin’s
opponents within the party from appealing to the
class over the heads of the party leadership until
it was too late to do so; (ii) the rejection of
Freudian theory by certain elements on the left as
allegedly politically inconvenient, with their consequent lapse into idealist psychology of consciousness on the one hand and Pavlovian crudities on the

This picture of someone originally outside of
the historical process stepping into it in order to
know and act on it may have a superficial biographical
justification in the case of us petty-bourgeois
intellectuals. But the more correct picture is of
someone who is already part and parcel of the
historical process, whose whole being and consciousness is a product of that process, stepping back in
order to obtain objective knowledge of that process,
including his own being and consciousness, in order
to demystify himself and act more effectively within
that process (of course this stepping back is also
part of the historical process).


The dualist mystique of the subject is more
consistently used in the attacks on Marxism of the
non-marxist left. I shall criticise this in relation
to the following passage from Paul Cardan:

those laws and that being, a belief which is in ‘bad
faith’. Hence the object of psychology is seen as
having fictional existence only: laws only govern
human behaviour because men, on the basis of a form
of false consciousness, act as if there were laws
governing human behaviour. Cardan has simply
extended this theory from psychology to economics.

It is easy to see the idealist implications of all
this; the practical message of idealism has always
been ‘Don’t bother changing the world, the source of
your problems is in your own mind; change your
attitude and all those nasty psychological and
economic laws will go away.’ The trouble with this
idea of freedom is that it not only leaves everything unchanged, it incapacitates one for changing
anything; for the freedom that can change things
involves knowing and operating with causal laws.

What appears to us as questionable in Capital
is its methodology. Marx’s theory of wages and
its corrollary, the theory of the increasing
rate of exploitation, begin from a postulate:

that the worker is completely ‘reified’

(reduced to an object) by capitalism. Marx’s
theory of crises starts from a basically
analogous postulate: that men and classes (in
this case the capitalist class) can do nothing
about the functioning of the economy.

Both these postulates are false.

But both have
Both are necessary for
political economy to become a ‘science’ governed
by ‘laws’ similar to those of genetics or
astronomy. But for this to be achieved, the
things to be studied must be objects.

It is as
objects that both workers and capitalists appear
in the pages of Capital. If political economy
is to study the mechanism of society, i t must
deal with phenomena ruled by objective laws, i.e.

laws not constantly modified by the actions of
men and classes.

(Modern Capitalism and Revolution,p.33)

a deeper significance.

No doubt Sartre and Cardan want to fill the
vacuum created by the dethronement of science with
a theory which will be an expression of the consciousness of the subject; but we have already seen what is
wrong with this: it takes what is a product and
symptom of the social reality of a given social
formation, as a true reflection of that social
reality. Hence it confirms everyday consciousness
in the mystifications from which science could have
liberated it. Yet the proletariat needs a theory,
not to satisfy a desire for a systematic expression
of its consciousness, but to understand and act
upon social reality.

Leaving aside verbal matters such as the misuse
of the term ‘reification’ (which should be reserved
for the appearance of social relations and human
activities as objects, not of people as objects,
which is a philistine clich6), it can be observed
that Cardan is conflating two possible criticisms
here: (1) that Marx, in formulating the laws governing the economy under capitalism, has abstracted
from the politics of capitalist society, i.e. the
class struggle. Insofar as this is true, however, it
is a necessary abstraction, as one must know how
classes are constituted by capitalist production
before one can understand their struggle. Because
political action is a relatively conscious activity
as compared with economic activity, this is confused
with (2) the methodological criticism that human
activities, including purelY economic ones, cannot be
studied scientifically. In order to be objects of
science, Cardan is claiming, men must be ‘reduced’

to objects. If ‘object’ here simply means object of
science, object as opposed to subject, it is unclear
where the ‘reduction’ comes in. More likely, what
is meant is ‘ruled by objective laws’. But unless
human activities are to be separated off from the
whole of material reality, in an idealist or dualist
fashion, it must be admitted that they are ruled by
objective laws; that fact does not make them passive,
as Cardan seems to think. Some of these laws cannot
be modified by the actions of men, but they govern
the actions of men, they do not preclude these
actions. Some of the laws governing the actions of
men are also subject to change by those actions.

But these changes themselves are governed by objective laws.

In this view of Sartre and Cardan we have an
admittedly non-marxist philosophy claiming that
consciousness is independent of causal laws, and its
description independent of science. It is clear how
an adherent of this philosophy could deny the
possibility of unbreakable laws in social science.

But it is worth pointing out that Marxism, in
rejecting the autonomy of consciousness, rejects also
the only. possible basis for the doctrine that there
are no immutable laws in social science. See for
instance Marx’s letter to Kugelmann about the concept
of value in Capital:

That this necessity of the distribution of
social labour in definite proportions cannot
possibly be done away with by a particular form
of social production but can only change the
mode of its appearance is self-evident. No
natural laws can be done away with.

(Selected Correspondence, p.209)

This brings me to my final point – the relation
between the realm of necessity and the realm of
freedom. In Capital (vol.III, pp.799-800), Marx
tells us:

The metaphysical assumption behind Cardan’s
theory seems to be that men as subjects cannot also
be objects; that as’subjects they are active and
this activity is not according to objective laws;
from this he infers that treating men as objects is
somehow ‘reducing’ and morally repugnant; that it is
nevertheless a necessary condition of studying them
scientifically, which is therefore also objectionable;
that the motivation of such study must be the desire
to make men the passive objects of bureaucratic
manipulation, and hence that objective science is
out of place in the workers’ movement.

• •• the realm of freedom actually begins where
labour which is determined by necessity and
mundane considerations ceases ••• With his
development this realm of physical necessity
expands as a result of his wants; but, at the
same time, the forces of production which
satisfy these wants also increase… Beyond
(the realm of necessity) begins that development
of human energy which is an end in itself, the
true realm of freedom, which, however, can
blossom forth only with this realm of necessity
as its basis. The shortening of the working day
is its basic prerequisite.

This subject-object dichotomy is probably
derived from Sartre’s earlier thought. Sartre did
not work out his theory in relation to economics, but
he did in relation to psychology. According to Sartre
subjectivity, human consciousness, can never be made
the object of knowledge or activity; subjectness and
abjectness are seen as mutually exclusive. This
leads to the granting of only a very precarious
existence to the science of psychology. The objective laws governing the psyche, indeed its objective
being, are said to be a product of the belief in

Marx, while recognising a degree of flexibility
and development in the concept of a need, clearly did
not see the expansion of human needs as limitless,
otherwise the conquest of the realm of necessity
could never take place. If human needs are capable
of indefinite expansion, and are thus totally
socially relative, the absolute abundance which is
the necessary condition of communism (i.e. of the
realisation of the principle: ‘from each according to
his ability, to each according to his needs’), and
of the withering away of the state, is in principle


unrealisable; scarcity and conflict about the distribution of material wealth must then be permanent
features of human life. Precisely the attempt to
treat everything as mutable leads to the conclusion
that these features of all hitherto existing (primitive or class-divided) societies, are ineliminable.

Marxist circles, absolving Marxists from scientific
investigation of just what needs, dispositions, laws
and structures are invariant elements of human social
existence, and under what conditions specific
modifications of human motivation, consciousness
and behaviour will occur.

Yet the constant concomitant of the pragmatist/
relativist view of Marxism, with its Faustian conception of the autonomy of the subject and the omnipotence of practice, is that man is characterised by
unlimited self-malleability as a species, and that the
needs of the individual are totally socially relative.

The ideological possibilities of this doctrine
of the limitless malleability of man should be
obvious: (i) liberal utilitarianism, of the most
inegalitarian variety. This is after all where the
doctrine originated. Here it is used to defend the
rejection of any concept of priorities of certain
social needs over others; wants arising out of fancy
or emulation are equated with those arising from the
stomach (a conclusion sometimes erroneously drawn
from the first page of Capital).’ For a criticism of
the use of this view by modern apologists of capitalism see MacPherson’s paper ‘Post-liberal-democracy?’

(in Ideology in Social Science, ed. Robin Blackburn).

(ii) The apologetics of bureaucratic manipulation.

If man is infinitely malleable, the road is open
for bureaucratic politicians and educationalists to
force people into whatever mould they consider
desirable. Where this manipulation has socialist
pretensions, it is often expressed as a reliance on
moral conditioning rather than material conditions
as the cement of socialist society (e.g. Che
Guevara’s essay on man and socialism in Cuba). But
this amounts to the complete abandonment of Marxism.

This view of man, though it would render
impossible communism and the disappearance of the
state, would I admit by no means remove workers’

power and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie from
the agenda (though no doubt it would remove some of
the subjective motivation for them). But the same
can be said of ethology, yet socialists have generally
felt obliged to marshall the arguments against this
ideology (and rightly so; though it goes without
saying that the case against ethology should be
argued on the strictly scientific level, not that of
utopian moralism).

Unfortunately the slogan – literally meaningless
outside the context of idealism – that ‘there is no
such thing as human nature’ has been repeated so
often that it has acquired the force of a truism in

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