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Scientific Socialism


Russell Reat
In Radical Philosophy 21, Roy Edgley replied to
some criticisms I made, in RP16, of his article on
‘Science, Social Science, and Socialist Science’ in
RP15. I don’t finj his comments at all convincing,
and I will try to say why. At the end, I will briefly
indicate what, for me, are some of the more general
issues involved in this exchange.

Roy deals with three objections I made to his original
article. First, showing that social science can be
critically opposed to real social contradictions
doesn’t amount to showing that it’s socialist. Second,
acceptance of a Weberian fact-value distinction
doesn’t commit socialists to reformist, ethical, or
Utopian socialism. Third, Roy’s conception of
sCientific, theoretical knowledge is provided with no
criteria of validity, in performing its critical, practical function, beyond what he terms the ‘Enlightenment’ standards of correct description, explanation,
and prediction. I will concentrate on his responses
to the second and third of these, with a short
comment on the first later on.

Relativism and Reformism
Roy tries two separate, mutually reinforcing, ways
of establishing a link between the fact-value distinction and reformist politics. The first goes like this.

Acceptance of this distinction involves treating
moral values as emotive, subjective, and relativistic; and since, on this view, ‘nobody’s moral position
is objectively truer than anybody else’s’, it is
natural to adopt ‘the human rights principles of freedom, tolerance, dialogue, moderation, and-compromise’. But to do this makes it impossible to engage
in any kind of effective, non-reformist class politics.

There are two main errors here. First, though tolerance is one possible outcome of a subjectivist view
of moral values, it is by no means the only possible
one. It is perfectly consistent to regard such values
as rationally arbitrary whilst setting little value on
the merits of tolerance and compromise in realizing
these ‘non-rational’ commitments. (If actual
examples, as well as ‘mere’ logical possibilities,
are demanded, I suggest Nietszche, for a start. )
The second error is to assume that the fact-value
distinction involves a subjectivist view of moral
values. Of course, this depen:is on precisely. what
sense is given to the expression ‘the fact-value
distinction’; but, at least in his original article, it
seems that Roy regards the key feature as the claim
that value-judgments cannot be derived from scientifically established results – thus e. g., his quotation
from Poincare, p3, as a representative advocate of
the position, consists mainly in this claim. But this
position neither presupposes, nor entails, that
value-judgments are non-objective. This further
claim would only follow if we make another, quite
independent, assumption: that scientific knowledge

is the only legitimate / objective / genuine form of

Such an assumption – which can be called, for convenience, ‘epistemological positivism’ – has often
peen associated with the fact-value distinction, and
can clearly provide support for it. But the nonderivability claim can well be maintained without
accepting epistemological positivism. For instance,
in Habermas’s theory of knowledge-constitutive
interests, there are said to be three different forms
of knowledge, each with its own, disti!lctive, criteria
of validity. One of these forms, the ’empiricalanalytic’, corresponds roughly to standard conceptions of scientific knowledge; whilst the third,
critical-emancipatory, includes within it the validation of normative jUdgments. This overall doctrine
constitutes an explicit and systematic challenge to
epistemological positivism; but it does not involve
the claim that value-judgments can be derived from
empirical-analytic statements. Thus the fact-value
distinction is logically compatible with an objectivist / rationalist conception of values. (Another, rather
different example of the consistent adoption of both
positions would presumably be Kant ..)

Value-Neutrality and Reformism
Roy’s second way of establishing the link between
this distinction an:i reformism (which, he says, was
suggested to him in correspondence by Martin
Barker) is this.’ The fact-value distinction yields a
practical distinction between means and ends’, and
the latter distinction is naturally operated so that
production – conceived as technology, and thus as
the realization of ‘the power of a science that is
independent of and impervious to any kind of morality or politics’ – is regarded solely as a means. It
thereby escapes from the sphere of moral or
political values, which concern only ends. In this
way, morality and politics are restricted, in the
manner typical of reformism, to matters of

I have three objections to this line of argument.

The first is that, even if it were true that the factvalue distinction yields a distinction between means
and ends, according to which moral and political
judgments can be applied directly only to ends and
not to means, it would not follow that production was
thereby ‘sheltered’ from moral or pOlitical judgment.

Quite the contrary. If a negative judgment is made of
distribution (e. g. in terms of its inequality), “and
it’s then shown that a specific system of production
is the means through which this pattern of distribution is generated, then, other things being equal,
the negative judgment would be transferred to the
system of production.

Second, it seems doubtful that the fact-value distinction ~ yield this form of distinction between

means and ends. For to show that some course of
action or practice is a means to an end that is positively valued does not remove that means from potentially negative evaluation by reference to some value
or values other than those specifying the end. Thus
Weber – the usual bogeyman for Marxist critics of
value-free social science – argued strenuously
against those who, in the name of economic efficiency or progress, mystified people into believing
that, once the ends were accepted, it was possible
to show by scientific argument alone what means
should best be adopted. The fact-value distinction
cannot be invoked to protect ‘mere means’ from
moral or political judgment.

Third, there is no reason why the fact-value distinction should be taken to protect science /technology
in particular, from such jUdgments. For there is
no contradiction in separating the criteria for the
validity of scientific knowledge from those for moral
or political values, whilst at the same time making
value-judgments aOOYtscientific knowledge, e. g. of
its role ih, forms of economic production, the
charac~r of the social practices involved in its generation,. and so on. To invoke the example of Weber
once more: on Roy’s apparent view of the implications of a’value-free science position such as
Weber’s, one of the main features of Weber’s work
would become highly paradOxical, viz. his concern
with the consequences for ‘the human spirit’ of the
process of ‘rationalization’, a central element of
which was the growing influence of science and the
scientific attitude in the organization of society.

Weber saw no inconsistency in denying that valuejudgments could be made scientifically, yet making
such judgments about the practice of science and
technology, and I can’t see that he was mistaken in
this. (Curiously, in the passage Roy quotes from
Poincare in his original article, a similar mistake
seems to be made: Poincare apparently regards the
non-derivability claim as establishing both that ‘it
is not possible to have a scientific ethic’ M.Q that
‘it is no more possible to have an immoral science’,
p3. )

Knowledge as Practice and as Theory
I turn now to Roy’s response to my third objection to
his original article, concerning the criteria for the
theoretical knowledge achieved by a critical social
science. He says that in stating this objection, I
assume a distinction that his whole article criticized,
‘between “theoretical knowledge fI and “the critical
practical function of scientific knowledge” ‘. Against
such a distinction he insists upon a unity of the two,
which ‘is expressed in the central category of contradiction, since this category is both critical and
explanatory .• :: we can and should conceive of
‘explanation in the evaluative mode of criticism … ‘

(P3l). I must say I find it extremely difficult to
understand what Roy is getting at here; in fact, I
don’t think I do. But I get the impression he didn’t
understand what I was saying, so I’d like to try again.

I accept Roy’s view that, in the social sciences,
there’s a legitimate sense (absent in the natural
sciences) in which there can be ‘contradictions in
reality’; and that a social theory, in identifying these:

is at least implicitly critical of them. My point was,
and is, that the criteria by which these relations are
judged to be contradictory and thus criticized, derive exclusively from the criteria governing the truth
or falsity of the statements constituting the theory:


the critical function of theoretical knowledge involves
making judgments about social reality by reference
to what has been established by the theory, i. e. its
contradictory character. For instance, in his
original article Roy said that:

In this way social science, in criticizing other,
ideological social theories and ideas as deeply
contradictory, and so contradicting them, at the
same time criticizes as contradictory, and so
contradicts, the society in whose structure those
inconsistent and muddled theories and ideas are
realized. Marx’s critique of what he calls ‘the
system of bourgeoiS economy’ attacks at one and
the sa,me time both theories and concepts of
political economy and capitalis,m itself (RP15,
p7, my emphases).

Now I can more or less accept the ‘unity’ of theoretical knowledge and practical criticism that is
indicated in the phrase I have italicized. But this
seems to me a unity which gives priority to theoretical knowledge in the sense that the legitimacy of the
criticism is dependent on the legitimacy of the
theory that has enabled us, in the example quoted,
to detect these inconsistencies and muddles in the
theory and practice of ‘the system of bourgeois

For me, this point is crucial because it indicates a
serious limitation on the scope of the ‘critique’ of
capitalism that is possible from the standpoint of
Roy’s conception of scientific socialis,m.

I do not believe that the concept of ‘contradictions’

can encompass the range of criticis ms that have
traditionally (and correctly) been made by socialist
opponents of capitalism, unless this concept is
illicitly extended to include features whose ‘contradictory’ character could!!Qi be established by reference to correct theoreticafknowledge, given that no
attempt has been made to provide any criteria of
validity for that knowledge, other than those of ‘the
Enlightenment’. As examples of such criticisms I
suggest: the alienated character of work, the competitive and individualistic nature of social relationships,
the division between mental and manual labour, the
absence of genuine democratic forms of control, and
so on.

Criticism and Chntradiction
This brings us back to my first objection, that showing social science to be critically opposed to real
social contradictions doesn’t amount to showing that
it’s socialist. Roy’s reply is that, in effect, it does,
since ‘a science that takes objective social contradictions as its target .mYS.t be socialist … ‘ It must be
socialist, because, being opposed to the contradictory character of the structure of capitalist society,
and requiring its transformation, it must ‘take up
the class position of the proletariat as the only class
capable of understanding and eliminating those
contradictions’ (P29).

I can’t say much of any use about this, since a lot
depends on just what are the contradictions of capitalism that Roy thinks can be SCientifically established
But I am sceptical about the way that, in this response’ he apparently takes belief in the revolutionary
potential of the proletariat as either ~ or .a.. defining
characteristic of socialist critique. I think this
removes the main emphasis, in articulating a socialist standpoint, from where it should be – namely, in
the distinctive nature both of what it takes to be

objectionable, oppressive, etc. about capitalism,
and of its conception of an alternative form of
society that is historically realizable.

Science and Socialism
I’ll conclude by mentioning what, forme, are the
bigger issues that .make it worth engaging in what
may seem a rather nit-picking exchange. What I say
will, I’m afraid, be very sketchy, and consist mainly
in assertions rather than arguments; but it may help
to explain the standpoint from which the earlier
arguments were constructed.

I take the central question to be: can a socialist
critique be founded exclusively on a science of
society? I read Roy’s articles as claiming that it
can, and I think both that this is mistaken, and that
it impoverishes the character of socialist theory and
practice. To this extent, I am sympathetic to some of
the sentiments expressed in one of E. P. Thompson’s
recent forays, ‘The Poverty of Theory’, in· which he
attacks the scientistic anti-moralism and antihumanism of .most ‘Marxisms’. Thus I can only suppose, from certain references of
theoretical practitioners to ‘moralism’, that these
imagine amoral choice, or a choice between
values, to be a kind of grunt, and a grunt which is
the reflex of ‘ideology’; and that they suppose that
one grunt is as good as any other, and have never
noticed that it may take the form of a discipline
with its own arduous and rigorous ‘discourse of
the proof’ . .. And in so far as the full disclosure
of choices between values is inhibited, in so far
as the articulate ‘discourse of the proof’ is
actively suppressed, so any value view
of life will rot away into rhetoric and hypocritical
moralistic oratory.


And Thompson that it is precisely the suppression of this ‘discourse’ of values – a discourse which,
he insists, is neither scientific nor irrational (P367),
that has led to the distorted form which moralistic
critique has so often taken when it has emerged: for
one form of the protest against Stalinist ideology
and forms has very often been ‘moralistic’, but,
since it has been denied every opportunity for
open articulation, it often appears as a kind of
displaced, illusory, and, of necessity, ‘utopian’

moralism – as a reversion to Greek Orthodox
faith, as nationalist self -exclusion, as personalist self-isolation, or as Solzhenitsyn – as the
agonized heartbeat within a heartless world.

Now Ray might well object to my quoting these
passages as if in opposition to his position, on the

grounds that he certainly does not view all valuejudgments as ‘unscientific grunts’. But this is only
because he believes that some such judgments namely those specifying ‘contradictions’ – are
establishable by a social science; and it seems to be
his view that this set of judgments exhausts the
nature of socialist critique. My response is that
there is much that is socialist that falls outside this
set, and that any position which restricts socialist
critique in this way, and dubs non-SCientific,
‘moralistic’ critiques as (in prejorative senses)
‘ethical’, ‘utOpian’, ·or ‘reformist’, may easily
obliterate essential areas of moral and political
discourse in the name of socialist science.

The belief in the superiority ‘Of science to other of knowledge, and in the possibility of making
moral and political discourse properly scientific, is
one of the unfortunate inheritances of early 19th
century positivism ‘that much Marxist theory has
been saddled with. It recurs in many forms – today,
for instance, in the curious belief that the defects of
‘sexism’, ‘racism’, the ‘bourgeois family’, etc, can
be adequately characterized by attaching labels that
immediately qualify them as ‘ideological’, ‘contradictory’, etc; and rejected without bothering to say
just what is objectionable about them, and so without
the possibility of engaging constructively with people
who haven’t already made the (presumably arbitrary)
leap into radical categories with their scientistic
pretensions •
Finally, I suggest that Weber’s attempt to specify the
place of values in social science can be seen, not as
a bourgeois threat to the possibility of socialist
social science that it’s so often taken to be, but
instead as a valuable defence against this aspect of
early 19th century positivism. For’a fundamental
theme in his writings on this issue was his opposition
to political and moral values being given a misleadingly scientific status. This could happen in at least
two ways: by claiming that value-judgments can be
justified solely by scientifically established results;
and by using one’s authority as a scientist to give a
quite spurious status to one’s politics or ethics.

Now Weber also argued against social scientists
making value -judgments, at least in certain contexts
(e. g. especially, in teaching). But he never cl~imed
that this prohibition could be established by epIstemological or methodological arguments: it was itself a
value-judgment, which he tried to justify. There are
good grounds, I think, for rejecting this judgment,
and for constructing a social science that is both
scientific and socialist; but what emerges will not
be scientific SOCialism, and this will be no loss.

PIt,fC,,,ELY,. . ..


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