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‘On Practice’ III

‘ON PRACTICE’ III ·
Reply 10 NOI’. .aD *”
Rip Bulkeley

Richard Norman may have some cause to complain
of my coyness and reluctance to set out my own
ideas. But fo r my part, I think he might have been
less hasty in constructing my position for me. For
I wholly agree with him that the consequences of the,
theory he offers me would be disastrous. It seems
to me unlikely, therefore, that I ever held that position, though of course noone can be an entirely
privileged authority in their own case over such
matters. However, Norman has established in his
own person that I wrote opaquely enough to get
myself seriously misunderstood by people to whom
these are issues of long-standing study and concern.

I apologise both to him and to any others who may
have been similarly aggrieved.

Let me preface what follows by saying that I have
little sympathy for the subjectivist/relativist/
pragmatist epistemology which he and Collier have
attributed to Binns. But I rather suspect that Binns’

greatest mistake may have been to take too many
things for granted, as already established within the
Ma,rxist theory of knowledge and reality, and to
concentrate too closely on other aspects of the theory
which he felt at the time to be of more urgent
political importance . It is probably still very risky
to assume that any generalised understanding of,
or consent to, any basic principles of Marxis m is
common ground for radical British intellectuals.

Next, a rough working definition of ‘practice’. I
take practice to be people’s more or less selfconscious, active, social conduct in relation to the
satisfaction of their needs. Social self-consciousness in some degree is part of what is meant by
calling any things people – there are no people
prior to history. (But Andrew Collier has reminded
me that a’ fully self-conscious and collective class
practice is not given at all, but has to be won
through organisation and struggle. And I agree
with him.)
Norman fea-rs that ‘… the unity of knowledge and
practice, if pressed too far, lapses into irrationalism’. What is overlooked here is that the
moments of that unity cannot go on being conceived
in the familiar -empiricist way. For empiriCism,
knowledge and practice-are concepts grounded and
constituted in their -supposed distinctness from one
another. If we attempt to think knowledge and practice
still conceived on empiricist lines as a dialectical
unity, obv:iously we will end up with an unviable
monstrosity. It is too easy to object to the notion
of a unity of knowledge with practice, then, just by
assuming that the uncriticised, established notions
of these things are what everyone ‘must!. be talking

*

Richard Norlll:n. Discussion of Rip Dlllkeley’s ‘On “Un Practtc-e”‘, HP21
This replies to Hip Bulkeley. On ‘On Pracllce’. HPlll

about. But they are not at all what I supposed myself to be talking about, however cryptically , in
my allu sions to my own position in’the
Mao article.

There seems to be an awkward hiatus between
Norman’s defence of objectivis m, which I do not
attack, and my attack on empiricism, which he
does not defend. But I think I agree with him tha~
what is needed is an objectivism which’ ..• treats
practice ••. as, in some sense, determining the
nature of knowledge’, though I might not have put
it in quite those words.

To unite the notion of know ledge as a social
human activity, with the requirement that it consist in a veridical correspondence between some
parts of reality, which are people (or, in Norman’s
more abstract ternlinology, ‘beliefs ‘), and other,
ontologically independent, parts of reality, I
suggest that a metaphor of ‘matching’ is more helpful than the familiar one of ‘reflection’. Within
‘matching’ we can unite the moment of correspondence with the moment· of activity or practice. The
term connotes repeated adjustment and change in
the continually renewed relationship between objective knowing subjects and the known objective world.

It is also intended to have some of the force of the
‘adaequatio mentis rei’ (equalisation of the mind to
the fact) or some medieval epistemology, and to
echo the terminology of systems engineers when
dealing with artificial perception or detection in
complex pTocesses. ‘Matching’ expresses the notion
of correspondence in a manner suited to a conception of the world in terms of powers, processes and
change; whereas ‘reflection’ expressed the -same
fundamental notion for the empiricist conception of
the world in terms of completed, abstract things
and states.

Conceived of as an adequate matching between
people and the world of which they are part, knowledge would of course not be something that could
be willed into existence by any subjectively selfcertified ‘leap of faith’, for it itself would be a
matter of the plainest material fact. Also, though
the effectiveness of work predicated on a belief that
such a material correspondence has been achieved
is never enough to prove that it has been, such
,effet!tiveness is still a necessary condition for our
sustaining such a belief. Marx merely repeated the
views of Socrates, Galileo, Bacon, Hobbes and
others in this respect.

As to the communicability or otherwise of experience, in respect of which Norman says I first set
foot on the slippery slide into irrationalism, I must
repeat my regret for. the way in which my too close
engagement with Mao’s empiricism (the subject of
27

my article) may have led me to leave the matter so
unclear. Far from conceiving experience as something which might first be ‘had’ and then not be able
to be communicated, I find such a schema not so
much unwelcome as incoherent. It is in the social
practice of various groups that human experience is
grounded and constituted. So that, far from experience being incommunicable, if there were not
human sociality and communication, there could
not be experience in the sense in which I use the
term.

Certain corollaries follow. First, revolutionary
practice (experience, understanding) is possible in
various sorts and degrees for all who are oppressed
and alienated within capitalis m, that is – but only
in the last and most abstract analysis – for every~·
one. There are indeed common practices and a
unity of life in capitalism, however incomplete, in
which a public though imperfectly objective understanding of the world is grounded. That is why it
has been possible for Marxist insights to be taken
up, in some form, by non-Marxist thinkers, and
the other way around – sometimes.

But only sometimes. For there are also major
oppositions in practice which constitute more or
less extensive breaks inside the capitalist parody
of community and communication. These breaks,
these deformities of the bourgeois miscreation,
are central to the structure; in a way, they are the
structure, and so could not be remove-d-with9ut
destroying it. (It is not that people separated in
such a break ‘view’ the world differently, as
N;orman puts it, so much as they live it
live it differently. Always on the understanding,
which I had better re-emphasise, that no-one can
live the world in Crusoesque atomicity, nor can
any class exist except in its relations to another
class or classes _)
In discussing the vJsit of the observation group to
Yenan, perhaps I overstated the position which I
wanted to contrast to Mao’s. (It- was his using that
sort of example as centrally typical which seemed
to me as significant in his theory as what he actually had to say about it.) Of course such an observation group might, depending on the already actual
lives of its members in China at that time, have
been able to understand fewer or more of the
Chinese CP’s policies. But, and perhaps this is
one way into the heart of the matter, I would interpret that obviously sensible supposition in terms of
there already being central aspects of their lives
through which the visitors are actively involved
with the practice of the Corn munists, and also with
some of the things in the world with which the
Communists were not just verbally but also actively
engaged, such as the Japanese occupation or
landlords.

Thus it is never a simple and, if I may take a turn
with the dreaded epithet, ‘non-dialectical’ matter of
people first understanding something and then doing~
something about it, which is the position I have
criticised as ’empiricist’ and ‘idealist’. That is
not how things are, because everyone is already
engaged in a practice which, with other things,
constitutes their knowledge and experience – had
with and through their fellows – of the world in
which they live. (Various institutions in our society,
such as sixth forms, monasteries, universities,
honeymoons etc, try more or less successfully to
realise the myth that it is possible to retreat into
isolated pre-social thought or feeling, secluded
from the rest of social practice. The fact is, how-

28

ever, that no-one gives up eating for all that long.

The sense in which it is true to say that unde~stand­
ing can precede comtnitment in capitalism is also
the sense in which the understanding in qu~stion is
distorted and incomplete, a product of the gulf
which maims both practice and knowledge in our
society _ It is no less irrational for being ‘normal’

and widespread. People first ‘fall in love’, then
‘make love’; a work of art is first ‘conceived’ and
only then- made. These examples are meant to show
that we are already moving beyond this form, unevenly. But it is still pervasive as well as pernicious – a chasm in human being. And here on the
page, my own words are only another attempt to
think a unity which it is not yet possible to live and
hence, on my own argument, which it is not yet
fully possible to think either. But I prefer to
struggle within a dynamic contradiction than to
settle for some vacuously consistent, milk-andwater sterility. )
The causes inclining people to new practice and
with/in it new knowledge are never ‘purely rational
grounds’, not because there is no such thing as
coming to understand something on rational groundsbut rather because that real process still gets
misrepresented, in terms of the purely abstract,
mentational, and immaterial origins of new knowledge which have been counterfeited into currency
by centuries of the idealist tradition. Marxism
cannot be reduced to attempts to do new things with
those inadequate notions of reason, belief, knowledge, and experience. (For ordinary language
buffs, one use of ‘experience’ in English already
unites knowledge with practice. In this sense,
experience can be gained only in a practice which
is recognised to be social. And that experience, so
gained, makes all the difference between abstract
or potential knowledge and the real thing. )
Since I think experience is only possible on the
ground of human community, I’m bound to agree
that discussion and debate are also possible, to the
same extent that experience is socially available but not beyond those fluctuating limits. Now, the
perspective of revolutionary Marxism is towards
the overcoming of those real limitations on people
which at present do make it impossible for everyone to understand the truth of existing society and
of the process by which it is being bverthrown.

Far from being–elitist as Norman suggests, people
with such an approach are enabled to act concretely
towards realiSing a society in which everyone may
so live together that they will also understand one
another ,and join in building up each other’s interrelated adequacy to a world they will15e making
adequate to themselves.

But no mere ‘verbal exchanges within the present
social and intellectual structures will substitute for
that historical process. That is, to achieve the
aims of epistemology, or at least to make any
further major advances towards them, a communist
society, brought about through social revolution, is
necessary_ A public and humane :rationality caIUlOt
be accomplished first, in the ‘freef-heads of privileged left intellectuals, and then ‘applied’ under
their benevolent direction by the docile manual
side of history, the mass movement. Rather, as
our active politics develops, so also can our understanding — the two are facets of one real process.

If this implies that no-one under capitalism can
have achieved total rationality or perfect science,
well, that does not seem implausible to me.

Though others are welcome to nominate themselves

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

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

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

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

view of the Enlightenment and its radical politics.

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

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

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

Pluto 4~ Press
DDYStllfIBG
SOCIAL S’lATIftICS

~I~

-,
~

NOTE + BIBLIO. FOR
‘TOWARDS A MATERIALIST THEORY
OF IDEOLOGY’

NOTE:

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

Abridged bibliography
Norman Geras, ‘Marx and the Critique of Political Economy’, in Robin
Blackburn (ed.), Ideology in Social SCience, Fontana pb, 1972, pp284-305
Les Levidow, ‘A Marxist Critique of the IQ Debate’, Radical SCience Journal
6/7 (1978), 13-72
Karl Marx, Grundrisse (1857-58), Penguin pb, 1973 (especially the
Introduction, elsewhere known as the ‘Introduction to a Critique of Political
Economy’)
Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (1867), Penguin pb, 1976 (esP.Elcially ‘The
Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret’)
I. I. Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value (1928), Detroit, Black & Red
pb, 1972
Alfred Sohn-Rethel, ‘Intellectual and Manual Labour’, Radical Philosophy 6
(1973), 30-37
Bob Young, ‘Science i§. Social Relations’, Radical Science Journal 5 (1977)
65-129

–==

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