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Common Sense

Common sen’se

State power conceal what it doesn’t want to know a ‘theoretical’ laboratory which has ‘been found
to be well-equipped for this universal function
of non-thought, the effects of which can be spotted
as much in the discourse of Marxist scholars as in
that of professional revolutionaries.

——————————————————–(Note added February 1973)
Correct ideas, says Mao Tse-tung, do not fall from
22b To go into this in any depth, it would be necessary the sky: they are formed by social practice. What is
true of correct ideas holds also for ideas in general.

to demonstrate the interrelation between this
theory of ideology and the police-revisionist con- No ideas fall from the sky. They are all rooted in
spiracy theory. The theory states that workers do given historical situations. They all represent, or
reflect, certain forms of past or present practice.

~ot have the capacity to produce an anti-capitalist
But the relationship is often a complex or confused
ldeology, and hence as autonomous anti-capitalist
one, and rarely as simple as the case pin-pointed by
practice. So if this worker claims to speak and
Mao Tse-tung as the ideal: correct ideas in a correct
act for himself, he immediately reveals himself to
social practice.

be a false worker, and thus a real police-agent.

Marxists have often seen the ideological struggle
(Note added February 1973)
in terms of a wrestling match. On the left, in the
red corner, dialectical materialism; and on the right
23 Let us specifically state, should it still be
This is a fallacious and dangerous image. The
necessary, that what is in question here is not
enemy of a theory or a doctrine is never a rival or
Althusser’s personal position in a particular
competing theory but is the world of social practice
set of circumstances, but the political line
in which that theory is rooted. The battle of ideas
iMplied by his theory of ideology. Rarely has a
theory been more rapidly appropriated by those who can be engaged at a refined level, one theory against
another. But this is only a minute aspect of the
have an interest in it. In the name of science,
struggle. For in general the enemy camp is composed
the workers’ struggles against wage-scales are
resisted – don’t they misunderstand the scientific not of one theory but of several. Furthermore these
are not so much theories as such but ways of thought
law which says that each is paid according to the
formed from a mixture of different elements which
value of his labour-power? In the same way, the
anti-hierarchical struggles in the university fail serve to connect these theories to a day-to-day
practice.

to understand t~at ‘the ultimate nature of the
Marx himself was well aware of the complexity of
staff-student relation corresponds to the advance
the situation. His critique of religion in a case in
of human knowledge, of which it is the very
point. Marx saw religion not as an arbitrary, metafoundation’. (J. Pesenti: ‘Problemes de methode
physic dreamed up by some armchair philosopher, nor
et questions theoriques liees a la refonte des
as an ingenious deception exercised by the ruling
carrieres’, July 1969). One could not admit in a
class on the masses, but as a form of thought which
more ingenuous manner what constitutes the
had deep roots in the spontaneous experience of the
‘foundation’ of the theory of science to which one
mass of the people. The combination of elements
lays claim.

which go to make up religious thought has its origins
The impasse in which Althusser finds himself
ultimately in the real world. Religion is one of the
i~ demonstrated in a recent article in La Pensee
ways in which people live in an illusory relationship
‘A propos de l’article de Michel Verret sur Mai
with reality, the illusory ‘spiritual aroma’ of a
etudiant’ (June 1969). In it, Althusser affirms
contradictory world.

the basically progressive character of the May
The religious aroma has for the most part
student movement, and denounces the reactionary
(Festival of Light notwithstanding) been deodorised
interpretation of this movement by an over-zealous
by advanced industrial capitalism. The struggle
defender of ‘Science’. But he cannot.-or will not
against religion is no longer the necessary starting
– see it in the simple justification of a reacpoint of cultural revolution. Platitude, not mystery,
tionary politics. He only sees the mark of an
is the present enemy of critical and scientific
inadequacy: the Party ‘has not been able to’

thinking, and of a revolutionary practice. Religion
analyse the student movement, to keep in touch
has been replaced by common sense.

with student youth, to explain the forms of
But the lesson of Marx’s critique of religion
working class struggle to it, etc. The conclusion
should not be overlooked. Nor should the connection
of the article shows that he is thus still limited
between religion and common sense as it was implied
to the twin recourse to science and the Party
by Marx and more explicitly developed by the Italian
apparatus. It is on the latter that he relies
marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Common sense is so often
‘to furnish all the scientific explanations which
invoked as being the ultimate no-nonsense conception
will allow everyone, including the young, to
of things, alien to all forms of religious and
understand the events they have lived through,
metaphysical speculation, that the association may
and, if they wish, to grasp on a correct basis
at first sight appear surprising. But in fact not
where they stand in the class struggle, by
only does religious thinking have its origins in the
revealing the correct perspectives to them, by
common sense of a particular world, but it has in turn
~iving them the political and ideological ‘means
acted on common sense, so that our present everyday
for correct action. ‘

conceptions contain all sorts of elements which are
in fact speculative and mystical rather than realistic
and scientific.

G Nowell Smith

Common sense is fundamentally reactionary.

The key to common sense is that the ideas that
it embodies are not so much incorrect as
uncorrected and taken for granted. Common
sense consists of all those ideas which can
be tagged onto existing knowledge without
challenging it. It offers no criterion £or
determining how things are in capitalist
society, but only a criterion of how things
fit with the ways of looking at the world
that the present phase of class society has
inherited from the preceding one.

Reprinted from 7 Days, 3 November 1971, with permission

15

This may seem a brutal way of stating the
question. After all common sense does consist, at
least in part, of the popular thinking of the oppressed
in opposition to the ideologies of their oppressors.

A philosophy of common sense has also served a
positive function historically in the battle against
the worst forms of reaction, notably at the time of
French Revolution and in early radical thought in
Britain.

But was it common sense, as we understand the
term today, that had this positive role? And is this
so-called ‘common sense’ really to be identified with
the thinking of the people in rebellion against
oppression? In a historical perspective, the answer
,Ijlust, be no.

We tend to think of common sense as a permanent
feature of our thinking about the world. But this is
true only to the extent that there have always been
forms of popular thinking and these forms have rarely
been revolutionised but have gradually evolved into
each other, shedding some beliefs and adding some new
ones.

But the content of these beliefs has changed,
and will continue to do so.

In the seventeenth century it was common to believe in witchcraft and to
believe that the sun went round the earth.

Both
beliefs were reasonable ones. They provided a more
plausibl~ explanation of the world than did th~
available alternatives. But neither belief was
abandoned without a struggle on the part of the
defenders of the old conception, and it took a long
time for new scientific conceptions, developed in
opposition to common sense, to be integrated into
ordinary thinking and become part of the common sense
of the latter world.

There is in fact no such thing as an universal
common sense, valid at all times and places. Not
only does the content of popular beliefs change, if
only slowly, but the concept that we have that these
popular beliefs somehow make up ‘common sense’ is
itself a recent development and one which has also
changed its form in the course of the last two
centu~ies.

What we now believe about common sense,
where i t begins and ends and how it stands in relation
to other forms of thinking, is in fact a product of a
particular class ideology of the eighteenth century.

The original concept of common sense was based
on the belief that there exists an understanding of
the world which is ‘common’ in the sense of natural
to everybody.

It was part of the belief in Universal
Reason, the ideology of a class that was contesting
the ‘irrational’ institutions of Church and King.

It was also part and parcel of eighteenth-century
individualism and ‘of the belief in a ‘natural man’

who, if left to himself and uncorrupted by existing
social forms, would automatically develop the right
ideas about the ‘ ….orld. But just as Robinson Crusoe,
on his desert island, ‘spontaneously’ develops a
primitive capitalist mentality, so both Universal
Reason and ‘natural man’ acquired from the start a
distinctly middle-class character.

It is not just that the content of common sense
beliefs belonged to the middle class.

The fact is,
only the bourgeoisie could have invented such a
concept. For the bourgeoisie is the only class in
history for whom individualism is an article of faith
and which has a vested interest in seeing itself in
individual rather than class terms and thus as the
embodiment of all mankind.

From the outset the abstract and individualistic
conception of common sense ran headlong into a contradiction. What the eighteenth century mistook
for universal common sense had no correspondence with
actual thinking. The development of thought is a
social phenomenon and not the product of an encounter
between a disembodied mind and a previously un thoughtabout reality. The mind is not just a blank sheet on
which the truths of ‘common’ sense can be imprinted.

The common sense that the bourgeoisie exalted was
what they considered ‘reasonable’.

Part of the ambiguity inherent in this concept
of common sense has survived to this day, though in
a form that is far less he!oic. Op the one hand
common sense mea,ns a form of pragmatic reasoning based

16

on direct perception of the world and opposed to all
form of thought that lack this direct link with
experience. On the other hand it means whatever
understanding of the world happens to be generally
held.

The two meanings come nearest to converging in
the mentality of the person for whom ancient folk
wisdo~ also represents an adequate vehicle for coming
to terms with the world.

But even at this level there
is an element of hideously crude class mystification
present. When Heath calls on indUstry to ‘stand on
its own two feet’ he is expounding the philosophy of
laissex faire capitalism but in terms which have a
resonance in popular thinking, a gritty unimaginative
common sen’se which is also the class sense of the
petty bourgeoisie.

Common sense, then, retains the class character
imprinted on it from the outset. As a philosophy it
is also bolstered Up by academic philosophers.

In the
eyes of English philosophical orthodoxy especially,
common sense is the Holy Grail of truth itself.

The world is as it must be.

It can only be as the
English language (as spoken in Oxford) tells us that
i t is. Every mystified formulation that has crept
into the English language to describe a bourgeois
reality, as seen by the bourgeoisie, is sanctified as
for ever inviolate. The idea that the world appears
to us as i t does only as a result of a long process
of integrating various forms of thinking about the
world into a single fabric of language, and that this
fabric may have to be torn apart to allow new conceptions to develop, has never been heard of in those
bastions of reaction. Common sense is good enough for
them, so it can be good enough for the people too.

Common sense is neither straightforwardly the
class ideology of the bourgeoisie nor the spontaneous
thinking of the masses.

It is the way a subordinate
class in class SOCiety lives its subordination. It is
the acceptance, by the subordinate class, of the
reality of class SOCiety seen from below. As soon as
the exploited realise that their oppression is not a
natural fact but appears as natural only through the
medium of a mystifying use of language – common sense
– they challenge it. Why is it common sense that a
capitalist ‘deserves’ a return on money invested, when
capital as such in point of fact produces nothing?

Why is i t the case that women ‘must’ be ‘feminine ‘;
when the attributes of so-called femininity bear only
the most tenuous relation to the biological datum of
being a woman?

These are indeed ‘facts of common sense’ because
they have a certain validity as a mirror of the way
society operates. But no class conscious worker or
member of women’s or gay liberation could submit to
them as truth. To paraphrase what Marx originally
wrote about religion, the struggle agains_t common
sense is indirectly the struggle against the world
of which common sense is the passive reflection.

We have to struggle against language, against its
well-worn metaphors about black and white, masculine
and feminine, noble and common. Even more we have to
fight common sense with a conception of the world
which is radically antagonistic to everything common
sense stands for.

It is a great mistake to think that common sense
will reform itself on its own. The heroic days are
long past when common sense could be seen as the
language of progressive values against the mystique
of feudalism, and as the language of science against
the abstruseness of philosophy. Common sense is
always to be the lowest common denominator of what
people can collectively believe.

It integrates those
features of scientific and progressive thinking which
have become ‘acceptable’. It is now for example
common sense to believe that the earth goes round the
sun.

OUr social conceptions have also changed.

But
there is always an area in which science will be in
advance of and in contradiction to the apparent truth
of common sense.

‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world,
in variousways: ,the point, is to change it’.’ Science alone
cannot teach us where we are misled by appearances. We
must learn how to contest the built-in truths of language every time we pick up a pen or open our mouths.

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