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Old and New Left

Benton’s comments on Ranci~re seem to put forward
a rather different view of science than Althusser
does, so we are in fact dealing with three positions, and we can discov~r the implications of
Ranci~re’s argument by working through them.

Ted Benton provides a useful example in his argument that it is possible to separate the contents of scientific knowledge from the form of
their appropriation:


That such a separation can be achieved is a presupposition of any adequate history of the
sciences – consider, for instance, the different
ideological currents and social relationships
with which Darwin’s theory of evolution has been
articulated: the classical rlaissez-faire’ liberalism of late Victorian England, the petitbourgeois radicalism of sections of German intelligentsia (Haeckel), the reformist socialism
of Wallace in England and the Leninism of Lenin
himself: •• [Benton p28]
This formulation sets up the idea of some ‘true’

Darwin’s theory of evolution which can be separa~
ted from its interpretation in a similar way in
which positivism sets up a ‘real’ world which can
be separated from interpretations of the world
(theory) and against which those interpretations
can be tested. Yet where is this ‘true’ theory
of evo~ution? It cannot be in Darwin’s work itself in a clear and manifest way, otherwise it
could not be taken up into ideological(i.e~wrong)
currents and social relationships, since these
must inevitably change the meaning of the theory
of evolution, and that change would be apparent.

Darwin’s theory cannot exist apart from the systems (ideological or scientific) in which it is

This leads us on to Althusser’s position; which
seems to be not that there is some ‘true’ theory
of evolution separate from its interpretations,
but rather that one interpretation – one reading
amongst others is scientific; the scientific as
opposed to the ideological reading either meets
the criteria of scientificity or reveals the
existence of those criteria in Darwin’s work, and
~nce we know what those criteria are, we can write
the history of science. To discover the contents
of scientific knowledge we have to read the text
in which that knowledg~ is contained in the right
way – i.e. articulate-it into another system.

In relation to Althusser’s position, Ranci~re
argues – it seems to me – that ‘reading’ must be
extended to take account of the social and institutional relationships within which readinq takes
place – not only can we not separate Darwin’s
theory of evolution from its interpretation on
the theoretical level, we cannot separate it from
the social and institutional framework in which it
is presented since this framework too is an interpretation.

The ‘surface’ effect of Ranci~re’s position is ~o
‘neutralise’ scientific knowledge; thus, for
example, Marxism may be taught as scientific knowledge of society without threatening, perhaps even
reinforcing the bourgeois education system. But
there is a deeper effect: if our argument above
was correct – that scientific knowledge does not
exist apart from its reading, and if social relationships en~er into that reading – then the criteria for scientificity that Althusser presents,
or discovers in the proofs of the scientific discourse itself, are inadequate; in fact the distinction between ideology and science collapses
since scientific knowledge can be ideological and
ideology can be scientific. The fact that
Ranci~re continues to talk as if there were a
clear distinction between science and ideology is
an indication of his own theoretical confusion.

What we are left with is a number of different

types of knowledge, each defined by its mode of
appropriation of its object, its~own internal
featUres, its relationship to other forms or bodies of knowledge, and the social framework in
which it is articulated; in other words we move
to a way of viewing knowledge that is closer to
Lukacs than to Alth~sser.

4 Theoretical struggle

however, does not theorise his position
in this way: rather he uses it as a base to attack theory and theoretical struggle in favour of
‘practice’. Ted Benton is, I think, quite right
to defend theory against such an attack, but if
Ranci~re’s position is a degradation of theoretical struggle then the orthodox Althusserian position is a denegation. The confrontation of bourgeois ideology with criteria of scientificity is
a confrontation only, in which there is no debate,
no struggle, no argument; there is only the
presentation of an alternative and a judgement.

Both positions remove the power of theory as
weapon, as revolutionary practice in its own
right, in the latter case whilst still recognising
theory as a guide to revolutionary practice outside of theory.

The power of theory is its ability to transform consciousness, to change people
not necessarily by intellectual conviction but by
enabling them to grasp their own world and their
own experience in a radically new way and to become aware of ways of changing the world. If
Marxist theory is to do this, then it must be
able to live inside everyday representations of
the world, to take them as the starting point of
its argument, and it must be able to transform
those representations into an adequate understanding of the world.

‘Criteria of scientificity’ do
not only not enable theory to fulfil this role but
they actively proh~bit it from doing so; the epistemological break between ideology and science is
also a chasm between the Marxist and those to whom
he talks.


.Oldanew lefl

‘Tens of thousands of socialist intellectuals
radical philosophers, uneasily unattached’ – ~r
should we say, uneasily attached – this broad description is probably true, and would include me.

I was certainly as disturbed as Jonathan Ree to
read Edward Thompson’s Open Letter to Kolakowski,
and I was glad to read his opening discussion
upon it(RP9) .. The Letter was ·very pessimistic, and
so is Jonathan Ree’s commentary. In those far
off days of the fifties, he says, the socialist
intellectuals gave their allegiance to the British Labour movement, though they might criticize
it, but he suggests that this is now no longer
possible and our scope is more limited_
To my mind the central fact that alleviates
pessimism is that these discussions are opened
up, and hence I make my own contribution. The
things at issue are not those between Thompson
and Kolakowski: the argument there is not worth
breath, ,and I am surprized at Thompson engaging
himself in it. As an elderly socialist I see
Kolakowski taking the course that always is wide
open to such people once they establish some
prestige as socialists – the establishment welcome for the apostate, the pat on the back, and
the spoils that go with it. I have observed it
all my life.

The real issue is between Thompson and the New
Left Review, and here I am profoundly reluctant
to take sides, in the light of the contribution
that both are making to socialist thought and


I regret that Edward Thompson
chooses to make the issue so much a personal one
as he does.

He takes his stand upon the position
of the ‘Old New Left’ in the late fifties or
early sixties, when divergences began to disclose
themselves. These have app~rently rankled within
him for years – perhaps justifiably – but I feel
that it is not appropriate now to take up the
issues from that point. A great deal of water
has flowed beneath many bridges since then.

realized how much this was so, wben I tried to
follow him by turning up the files of the The
Reasoner and the early i’ssues of the New Left
Review. There have been immense changes in the
world picture which now needs to be o~r starting

I;m thinkin~ of the naked disclosure of
the real position of Great Britain in the world:

I am thinking of_the emergence of a new generation
that is post-Stalin, and free of the inhibitions
that that era imposed: r am thinking of the radical change in the composition of the British
Labour Party, and mass swing of its real working
class dynamic towards industrial action.

I do
not see the decline of the old sectarian left
wing groupings as so much of a tragedy as all
that: they were too set in self-defeating spites’

to cope with drastic change.

It is quite true that the New Left Review under
the editorship of Perry Anderson displays a highly specialized and systematic marxism that shows
too little need for contact with active socialist
groups. But in an international sense it is more
in tune with the present world than the parochialism which is displayed in those files of the reviews of a decade and a half ago. However valuable the ‘English idiom’ may have been, and however much it may still have to contribute, an excessive preoccupation with it can cloud the perspective of the modern world. Jonathan Ree seems
to me to illustrate the point in his last paragraph in his eloquent plea for work that is not
merely academic or theoretical. The range of
action for socialists will not stay the same for
long, he says, ‘the crisis of British capitalism
will see to that’. The most glaring feature of
the position today that it is not a crisis of
British capitalism; it is a world crisis of an
unprecedented nature, in which for the first time
Britain can only play an incidental part. Anything we may be able to do has to be conditioned
by that, and we have to begin by understanding

If we do not we are likely to be surprized
by events at every turn.

How can we (presumably socialist intellectuals)
be active today as Jonathan Ree would like to se!??

He thinks that the rather tenuo~s links which the
old left had with the labour movement are no l~n­
ger possible, and that our scope is much more

So it would be, if we continued to think
in the old ways; but surely the circumstances require that we should begin to think in new ways,
adapted to the changes that have been and still
are taking place.

In recent years there has been
a steady change in the composition of the Labour
Party, and in its role in relation to the working
class. At one time the organized working class
regarded it as its principal political voice and
instrument. The experience of the earlier Wilson
governments changed all that, and it has been
turning away sharply towards a reliance on industrial action, inspired less from Transport House
than from the shop floor.

At the same time the Labour Party machinery being taken over by what was once the
black-coated and professional lower middle class,
which suffers continual encroachment on its status
by ~oletarianizing tendencies. Alongside these


changes there has also been’an efflorescence of
ad hoc bodies created for all kinds of purposes
that parliamentary politics have ceased to serve.

The fluidity in attachments and political affiliations has been demonstrated this year; first the
flow towards the Liberal Party, and then against
it. As one door closes, another is apt to open,
and the world crisis of capitalis~will continue
to see to that.

It is these flows that we need to
understand, so that we may hope to ~t into a
fruitful socialist relationship to them, if our
thinking is flexible enough.

During recent years there has been radical change
in the trades union movement, but how little
effort there has been amongst socialist intellectuals to trace its roots, to analyse its present
position and to elucidate its differences from
trades union practice in other western countries.

Yet these differences may be crucial in the
months ahead~ We need to understand that a movement which is an organic growth deeply rooted in
history, as in Britain, must necessarily behave
differently from a system that is a recent logical ideological construct such as that in Germany.

There has always been this inability of the potential socialist intelligentzia in this country to
achieve an understanding of the unions. It was
present in the incipient turn of the intelligentzia towards marxism in the 1930s. Even in its
best days, the New Statesman always suffered this
disability, and the unions were a closed book to
it. The unions pre~ent special difficulties for
the academic because the rationale of their processes is not on the surface.

It is not perceive~
for example, that the ‘apparent anarchy of union
rank and file practice today is traceable directly back to the betrayal of the general st~ike by
its leadership in 1926. There is a deep instinct
to try to make a repetition of such betrayals impossible. No one would be better fitted than a
historian like Edward Thompson to illuminate such
matters, which would be less a waste of time than
to debate with Kolakowski.

There seems to be an inveterate tendency among
the intelligentzia to delight in keeping abstract
concepts in the air, like so many ping-pong balls.

We are very ready to talk in general terms about
‘the empirical potentia’ that is to be inferred
from history, but are less ready to strive to
grasp the multifarious ways in which that potentia
discloses itself in the developing situation.

Elaborate discourses go on in the New Left Review
– and in Radical Philosophy – about ‘alienation’,
and ‘reification’, and these are treated as
though they were no more than literary or psychological manifestations or a new dramatic technique: experiences merely in the minds of the
educated and the intelligent. These things are
not seen for what they more importantly are, above
all in this time of gathering crisis, as men
separated from other men and from nature, and
treated more and more as ‘things’.

In these circumstances the instinctive but blind efforts to
re-assert common humanity must be happening all
around us.

It is our problem how best to give
light and leading to these efforts wherever we
find them; but we have first to be able to recognize them for what they are. When we begin to
display that clarity, it may be that new channels
of ccrnrr.unir:::’I..H.lI. foill disclose themselves, and
new groups b<~gin to form, less addicted than the
old slogans, splits and sterile logic-chopping.

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