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Discussion of ‘On Practice’


Richard Norman
Rip Bulkeley’s criticisms of Mao’s ‘On Practice’

(Radical Philosophy 18) raise again issues which
were discussed by Peter Binns and Andrew Collier
in R P4 and 5 (and indeed, as far as I can make out,
his position seemS to ~e very close to that put forward by Binns). It is good to see the discussion
continued, for the relation between knowledge and
practice is perhaps the central problem of Marxist
epistemology. But it is a pity that Bulkeley did not
take direct account of the Binns / Collier exchange,
for Collier has set out very convincingly the difficulties which arise for a position of the kind
Bulkeley advocates, and I would have liked to see
how Bulkeley aims to get round these difficulties.

For the same reason, I wish that Bulkeley had set
out more explicitly his own positive account, rather
than letting it emerge from his predominantly negative discussion of Mao (though I must say I sympathise with his remark that ‘it is impossible to write
about everything at once I). I am sympathetic to
Bulkeley’s approach; I am inclined to agree with
him that Mao’s account is largely a ‘re-~tatement
of empiricist ideas in Marxist terminology’, and
that know ledge and practice need to be seen a~
more closely linked than they are for Mao. But at
the same time I am impressed by Collier’s claim
that the unity of knowledge and practice, if pressed
too far, lapses into irrationalism. I’d like to indicate the difficulties as I see them, relating them to
Bulkeley’s article. (I should add that in doing so, I
am also engaging in self-criticism, for an article
of mine in RP1 exhibits the same tendencies to
irrationalism – as was pointed out by Tony Skillen
in his comments on it).

According to Mao, knowledge ‘depends on’,
‘arises from’, and ‘can in no way be separated
from’ practice. According to Bulkeley, such formulae are evasions; the fact is that knowledge is
practice. Bulkeley then tries to show that Mao’s
epistemology, in which practice is simply the
source of objective experiential data, is inextricably linked with an elitist politics . Conversely, an
epistemology which identifies knowledge ‘with
practice is the only theory adequate to a politics
forged by the proletariat itself rather than by its
self-appointed leaders.

An essential part of Bulkeley’5 argument is the
idea that experience, located as it is within a
specific practice, cannot be communicated or
shared. In Mao’s view, he says, ‘ … “developed
technology” means that, in principle at least, any
person can have indirect access to the experiences
of any other, no matter how estranged may be
their respective living practices.’ Bulkeley then
comments that Mao is ‘blinkered with the empiricist
notion of experience as a neutral, universally avaj1:able, exchangeable and objective raw materi~ 1 10r
science’ (p7). Bulkeley’s claim would be, I think,
that those who are engaged in different practices
thereby view the world from different perspectives,
and their ‘knowledge’ is the articulation of their
p.articular viewpoint. OIlly those who are directly
engaged in a specific practice can properly be said

to have experience of h and of the world which it
reveals, and they alone are in a position to assess
that practice and the factual assumptions it involves. This is why Bulkeley thinks that his theory
justifies a proletarian politics made by the proletariat itself. To me it seems, however, that this
theory of the incom municability of experience leads
to irrationalism; and secondly it is this theory,
rather than Mao’s, that leads to elitism.

Incommunicability and Irrationalism
First the question or-irrationalism. Consider.

Mao’s example of the visitors to Yenanwho have
come on a tour of observation. Bulkeley’s comment
on the example is:

‘Notice first of all that the practice of such an
“observation group” is a very special kind of
practice, and one which fits well into Mao’s
empiricist account of knowledge. Given that
they are outsiders, the observers do not directly
engage in the formulation of that .line ; still less
do they take any part in the work of production;
training and combat, which are the central practices of the line, and to which the entertainment
of sympathetic guests is decidedly peripheral. ‘


Now Mao’s intention with this exampie was to show
that the visitors, as a result of their experience of
the work and activities going on at Yenan, can come
to recognise the correctness of the Party’s policy.

Bulkeley seems to deny this. He implies that the
correctness of the policy can be judged only by the
Party members who are actually engaged in the
work of putting it into practice, and he suggests
that Mao ignored this because the policy had in fact
been worked out not by the members but solely by
the leaders. So what would Bulkeley say to the observation group? He would have to say something
like this, I think: that only if they join the Party,
commit themselves to the struggle and participate
in the work, can they come to recognise the correct·
ness of the policy. He seems to leave LlO room for
the possibility of fruitful thought and argument
prior to such a commitment; no room, therefore,
for the commitment itself to be based on relevant
experience and rational beliefs. To me this is
reminiscent of nothing so much as the irrationalist
‘leap of faith’. It is the attitude of the Christian
fideist who, unable to produce any rational grounds
for religious belief, says ‘Commit yourself to
Christ, live in faith, and then your doubts will disap~ ar.’ In much: the sa1re way Bulkeley seems to
identify revolutionary socialis m exclusively with the
viewPoint of the proletariat and to infer that only
one who is already engaged in the practice of the
proletariat (both productive practice and political
practice) can see the validity of that viewpoint.

This seems to leave no room for any rational process of becoming a socialist, no room for engaging
in socialist politics because one has come to be
convinced of the socialist interpretation of contemporary society. The understanding must always
follow from the commitment, and never vice· versa.


I don’t know whether Bulkeley would accept these
implications. I hope not. But I don’t see how he can
avoid them, given his assertion of an identity of
knowledge. and practice – a non-dialectical identity
which simply collapses knowledge into practice.

I have pointed to Bulkeley’s stress on the incommunicability of experience. :-:e seems to
assume, nevertheless, that practice and experience
can be shared within a class. But once we have set
out in the direction in which Bulkeley points us, it
is surely arbitrary to stop at this point. Why pick
out, as the practice which constitutes knowledge,
simply and solely that practice which is com mon to
a whole class? Different sections of the proletariat
will differ” in their practice. The practice of the
industrial proletariat, for exam pie, differs significantly from that of service workers, or that of
proletarianised agricultural workers. A particularly
clear case is available if Bulkeleywants to en~phasise,
‘is he does, the proletarianisation of intellectuals
(p3). I am hesitant about such an interpr~tation anyway, but even if it is true that in some respects
intellectuals are coming to be absorbed into the
proletariat, there remain fundamental differences
between the practice of the traditional proletariat
and that of intellectuals (and as I’ll indicate later,
” I do agree that these differences affect the likely
attitudes and beliefs of the different groups). So
not only classes, but also sections of classes,
differ in their practice. And it is equally true that
no two individuals will be engaged in exactly the
same practice. Thus, once we assert the incom municability of experience, there is no nonarbitrary stopping-point short of a completely
subjectivist relativism. We end up with a picture
of solipsistic individuals, each trapped within her
or his own practice, incapable of sharing the
experience of anyone else, incapable therefore of
arguing with or rationally convincing anyone else.

A theory which has these implications is not just
to be criticised as irrationalist; it is, quite
blatantly, false.

Objectivism and Elitism
I turn now to the question of elitism. Bulkeley
suggests that an objectivist theory of knowledge,
a theory which sees practice as making available
objective observational data, goes hand in hand
with an authoritarian and elitist political practice.

Referring to Mao’s account of how practice makes
available observational data, and conceptual
“thought works on and inferprets these, he com ments:

‘Since anybody can do this, anybody who
doesn’t has either been too lazy to gather in
the necessary data, or else must be wilfully
refusing to “see their meaning in the approved
manner. The remedy in either case must be
to coerce her will. .. ‘ (p8)
But why ‘must’? Part of the trouble here is that
Bulkeley is looking for too simple a connection
between theories of knowledge and political stances.

I don’t deny that there are such connections, and I
welcome Bulkeley’s attempt to examine them. But
I don’t think that we can find any simple one-to-one
correspondences. Thus I agree that an objectivist
theory of knowledge can lend itself to the rational.isation of coercion in the way Bulkeley indicates.

But I also think that only an objectivist theory of
know ledge can provide the appropriate basis for an
open and de mocratic politics. Argument and discussion and open debate can be fruitful, or indeed
possible, only on the assumption that experience
can be shared and communicated, and that it can


provide objective data available to all. Conversely,
it is Bulkeley’s equation of knowledge and practice
that most readily lends itself to coercion and elitism. Be ascribes to Mao a ‘view of knowledge as a
privileged subjectivity’ (p6). But the phrase ‘privileged subjectivity’ is much more applicable to the
role of practice in Bulkeley’s theory, generating an
incommunicable experience and a ‘knowledge’ which
is confined to the agents of that practice. Again, he
speaks of Mao’s ‘Opportunism’ (p9), but what could
be more opportunist than a theory which eliminates
the possibility of basing practice on any prior knowledge, so that practice can only be self-authenticating? If we are looking for connections between
epistemology and elitism, it is worth noting that the
political theory which most strikingly equates knowledge and practice is Fas cis m, as illustrated in the
following passage from Gentile’s essay ‘The
Philosophic Basis of Fascism ‘:

‘Fascism returns to the most rigorous meaning
of Mazzini’s “Thought and Action”, whereby the
two terms are so perfectly coincident that no
thought has value which is not already expressed
in action. The real “views” of the Duce are those
which he formulates and executes at one and the
same time. Is Fascism therefore “anti-intellectual “, as has so often been charged? It is
eminently anti-intellectual .•. if by intellectualism we mean the divorce of thought from action,
of knowledge from life, of brain from heart, of
theory from practice.’

Now there is, in Bulkeley’s discussion, an
important political point with which I would agree.

Certainly it is the ease that people’s beliefs are
affected by their practice. I agree, for example,
about the dangers inherent in a political movement
dominated by a leadership which is cut off from
the experience of the membership or of the class
which it purports to represent. But the point here
is not an epistemological one. It’s not that knowledge is identical with, constituted by, the practice
of the members or the workers. It’s rather that
the leadership will become too remote from the
experience which is in principle available to it will replace that experience, and the authentic
revolutionary aims generated by it, with rationalisations perpetuating its own power and promoting
its own interests. For similar reasons it is import.

ant for us supposedly socialist intellectuals to think
seriously about the nature of our own practice, our
own relations of production, our relation to working class experience etc. But again this is not
because an authentically socialist experience is in
principle confined to the working class, but because
by isolating ourselves within the academy and devoting
ourselves to respectable scholarship we deprive
ourselves of the experience which we could draw
upon, and are likely to distort our own socialism
(which is what Radical Philosophy is supposed to
be all about). It is a.long these same lines that I
would understand also the relation between class
and beliefs. Although the experience of the working
class can in principle be communicated to other
classes, we know that by and large it is not going
to be (and that is why no socialist who has learned
anything from Marxism is going to devote his/her
efforts to the conversion of the bourgeoisie). But
here too the point is not that other classes are in
principle excluded from the practice which constitutes knowledge, but rather that their understanding
of reality is distorted by a class viewpoint and class
interests. This is precisely where the notion of ”
‘ideology’ becomes appropriate – for I take ideology

to be a form of consciousness which distorts reality.

But it can be described as ‘distortion’ only in relation to an objective world which can in principle be
known and understood.

Bulkeley may reject this view of ideology. He
may regard bourgeois ideology, for exam pIe, not
as a distortion of reality but simply as an authentic
expression of tre practice of a particular class.

But that seems an unsatisfactory position. Take
the exam pIe he mentions in article – the ideo’logy of ‘national unity’ and ‘the national interest’.

Given the facts of class antagonis ms and class
interests, isn’t it simply false to assert the existence of a generalised ‘national interest’? Not:

false from the standpoint of the practice of a
particular class and true in the context of some
other practice; but, straightforwardly and
objectively, false.

I want to mention briefly one other objection to
Bulkeley’s account. He claims that ‘if experience
is not itself a practice .•. but simply a uniform
raw material or “Nature”, ‘ this must lead to an
‘acute pessimis m’, since ‘if we ourselves originate
from the natural -“given”, it is a mystery how we
can ever radically change it or ourselves’ (pS).

Here I don’t need to offer any counter-argument,
but can simply refer to the answer excellently
stated by Collier, not only in RP5 but also in the
article on ‘Freedom as the Efficacy of Knowledge’

in the same issue as Bulkeley’s article. It is
precisely insofar as we have an objectively correct
knowledge of the natural ‘given’ that we can change
it. Bulkeley says: ‘Knowledge and practice … for
Mao .•. are not united, because in the last analysis
knowledge is not entirely active, since it depends
on a “given” .•. ‘ (p15). But if knowledge were

entirely active, there would be no reality for it to
know. If there is no independently-existing world
which our knowledge has to conform to, if that
world is entirely the creation of our knowledge and
nothing is ‘given’, then there can be no such thing
as error arid therefore no such thing as knowledge,
no such thing as rational action and therefore no
such thing as free action.

I may have been unfair to Bulkeley. As I have
said, he does not give any extended presentation of
his positive theory, and I may have attributed to
him views which he would not accept. I must also
admit that if his discussion was predominantly
negative, mine has been relentlessly so. I can only
add lamely that as far as a positive theory is concerned, I’m working on it. What is needed, I think,
is a theory which, like Bulkeley’s, treats practice
not just as the source of knowledge but also as, in
some 8ense, determining the nature of knowledge;
but a theory which is, at the same time, an objectivist theory, treating beliefs as true or false
according to whether or not they accurately reflect
the nature of an independently-existing reality.

The suggestion of Bulkeley’s to which I am most
sympathetic is the suggestion that we can work
towards art adequate theory QY developing in a
materialist direction the “insights of Kantian philosophy. (Cf. his remarks on p15. What I would
take to be crucial in Kant is the idea that hu man
agency is responsible for the creation not of
specific truths, but of the categorial framework
within which specific truths are articulated. )

hope that Radical Philosophy will carry further
contributions to it.


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