Objectivity, Truth, Party Spirit

Danny Goldstick

Figures don't lie. But liars figure. I first heard these words as an impressionable fifteen‑year‑old, but they ring true still.

Spark readers don't need to be told that distortion of reality can be at its most pronounced precisely when the biggest show of "objectivity" is being put on. There are plenty of outright lies, of course, but very often the slant consists in omitting or just de‑emphasizing key points that would be apt to undermine the interpretation of reality on offer. In fact there is sufficient undisputed information available to rationally answer, at least in large measure, most of the hotly contested questions around these days. But available doesn't mean readily available, especially for working people. Despite the tons of pure garbage out there, the internet has really helped to make facts and ideas more accessible today to honest inquirers; but tracking down the truth can take quite hard work.

Most often, however, you do not actually have to be an expert to arrive at a rational conclusion about things. As a member of the jury, so to speak, you can hear what the rival experts and advocates have to say, and make your own decision concerning them. The question is not, whom can you trust? Trust right from the start isn't necessary. After initially sizing things up, you may learn to trust some voices more than others. But no voice, obviously, deserves absolute trust.

And of course it is a mistake to try to short‑circuit the process of sorting out claims, counterclaims and reasons by blindly "finding" the truth half‑way between the opposed positions. Even when there only are two opposed positions. Did the truth lie half‑way between the position of Darwin and that of his opponents? Did it lie half‑way between Adolf Hitler and those, on the other hand, who criticized his ideas?

Back to the subject of slanting. Certainly sometimes it is deliberate. The media pay people to present things in a definite way. But dominant viewpoints do not have to rely on deliberate distortion. They can see to it that contrary conceptions and those holding them are "filtered out", with the result that most of the voices which do get a hearing will have been so selected, in effect, that even without any conscious dishonesty they will be most liable to leave conventional conceptions more or less undisturbed. Is bias, though, in the end unavoidable? Nobody can give an account of anything, after all, without being selective: inevitably some things will be emphasized in any account, some things just mentioned, and some things will be left out altogether. And, whoever you are (insofar as you are being honest about it), your account of things will exercise this inevitable selectivity according to what you consider to be important and unimportant; and that, of course, will depend on what view of things you take.

Nikita Khrushchev once said, "There are neutral countries, but no neutral persons." There can be countries, that is to say, that avoid permanently taking sides on divisive international issues; but no individual with half a brain can be at all involved in any issue without having opinions about it.

So where does this leave truth, and objectivity? Obviously, if there is no such thing as either of these, or if they are not humanly attainable ‑‑ at least in part, at least tentatively ‑‑ then sifting arguments and evidence will be quite pointless. Those fashionable philosophies which simply rule truth and objectivity out are in fact serving, whether consciously or not, to shield the most bare‑faced dogmatism. Objectivity can indeed be difficult, but in speaking of Marxism as scientific, just that is what is being demanded.

By "objectivity" I don't mean neutrality, I mean a receptiveness to reality such that what conceptions get held will correspond predominantly to how things actually are. At that rate, objectivity is something which can be present to a lesser or to a greater degree ‑‑ surely never perfectly in any inquiry conducted by living, breathing human beings. In scientific inquiry, however, objectivity is always a goal. Nobody, indeed, comes to a research project with a really empty head. The mix of information and misinformation inquirers start off with can contribute effectively to the objectivity of their inquiry, or else stand in the way of it. The important thing, for a scientist, is to remain open to facts and arguments which may necessitate a change in how things are to be seen.

It must be admitted, though, that political people on our side too have sometimes outrageously prided themselves on their lack of objectivity ‑‑ most often not too publicly, for obvious reasons. But the results have frequently been disastrous ‑‑ and that includes the loss of public credibility which contributed to the largely unresisted collapse of so many pro‑socialist states fifteen years ago. Here at home, the dominant side ideologically has all the advantages its controlling position offers it, and our side of the debate has only the advantage of truth, to the extent we do have that, and do not let ourselves throw it away.

This is the place to quote Frederick Engels. In the year following Marx's death, his French son-in-law Paul Lafargue had written asking for Engels' comments on an article Lafargue was preparing for the Journal des économistes. In his response, Engels wrote,

"Marx would protest against `the political and social ideal' attributed to him by you. When one is an economist, `a man of science', one does not have an ideal, one elaborates scientific results, and when one is, to boot, a party man, one fights to put them into practice. But when one has an ideal, one cannot be a man of science, having, as one then does, preconceived ideas."1

At least three issues call for our attention here. In the first place, Engels is not going to deny that Marx had a political and social objective, but he is sure Marx would protest against being said to have a political and social ideal. What's the difference? Secondly, Engels would not suggest that anyone really can or should start a scientific investigation empty‑headed, but he does object to starting with "preconceived ideas". Again, what's the difference? It appears that starting off with preconceived ideas has something to do with having an ideal, as Engels sees it. Then, thirdly, Engels speaks here of a party man like Marx fighting to put scientific results into practice. Just what does he mean by that?

Let's take the third problem first. According to a certain school of thought, scientific results are not the sort of things that ever could be put into practice, because scientific results can only reveal what a situation is, not what it ought to be, nor what to do about it. According to this school of thought, it is impossible to "derive 'ought' from 'is'" scientifically: so if, when you speak, you want your words not merely to say what is but to say what to do, you will have to depart from science and phrase your order, recommendation or entreaty in the imperative grammatically, or use some such word as the English word "ought". All that is what that school of thought says.

And just this much of that is indeed true. It is only "ought"‑statements or imperatives that it makes sense to talk of "fighting to put into practice".2 But must we agree with the denial that "deriving an `ought' from an `is'" can ever be rational and scientific? Is it so surprising that Frederick Engels, for one, should have thought the need to replace capitalism with socialism was scientifically established by capitalism's demonstrable responsibility for the persistence of war, poverty, ignorance and other forms of human indignity and suffering, and the fact that socialism, on the other hand, would make it possible to end national and gender inequality, progressively develop human potential in both labour and culture to unprecedented levels, enable people generally to become for the first time masters of their own lives, individually and collectively, and thereby open the door to the further development of human emancipation in what Marx had referred to as a "higher phase of communist society"?3 Bourgeois social‑scientific orthodoxy, it is true, strenuously denies that even the full scientific admission of these or any other sociological facts would rationally compel a scientist to acknowledge the ethical superiority of socialism to capitalism. Is there any reason, though, why we should take seriously such narrow conceptions of rationality and of science as these clearly are? Most certainly for their part, Marx and Engels had no use for such conceptions.

Contrary to the dictates of today's dominant social‑scientific methodology, Marx and Engels' descriptions of conditions do contain plenty of unconcealed "value-judgments" against what is inhuman, atrocious and disgraceful, for example. What you do not find in their writings is explanations of developments by reference to their value or disvalue. The facts about conditions and developments that make them have value or disvalue from an ethical point of view are what do the causing of that which takes place ‑‑ including, of course, by making people react at different times with favorable or unfavorable value‑judgements. Unanticipated misery in certain circumstances can give rise to resistance, for instance; but it isn't necessary, in order to complete the explanation of the effect produced, to add that human misery really is a bad thing. And it surely is pretty obvious that justice and injustice themselves (as opposed to people's judgements about what is just and unjust) explain nothing at all of what takes place in the course of events. As a causative element in events justice is a purely imaginary factor. Marx and Engels are both quite insistent on the need to keep the concept of justice out of economic explanations. Especially "eternal justice".

Here is Marx (writing in his second footnote in chapter 2 of Capital, Volume I):

"What opinion should we have of a chemist, who, instead of studying the actual laws of the molecular changes in the composition and decomposition of matter, and on that foundation solving definite problems, claimed to regulate the composition and decomposition of matter by means of the `eternal ideas', of `naturalité' and `affinité'?"4

Or, again, Engels (writing in The Housing Question (1873)):

"While in everyday life, in view of the simplicity of the relations discussed, expressions like right, wrong, justice, and sense of right are accepted without misunderstanding even with reference to social matters, they create ... the same hopeless confusion in any scientific investigation of economic relations as would be created, for instance, in modern chemistry if the terminology of the phlogiston theory were to be retained. The confusion becomes worse if one, like Proudhon, believes in this social phlogiston, `justice' ...."5

("Phlogiston" was an imaginary substance which eighteenth‑century chemistry held was released by burning matter.)

On the other hand, we find Marx in Capital, Volume I, forecasting a day "when the practical relations of every‑day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature".6 If people's relations with one another can indeed be reasonable or rational, or else be otherwise, then human rationality need not be necessarily at a loss, after all, when it comes to passing judgement on social relations.

And Engels (in Anti-Dühring, Part I, chapter 9), after emphasizing strongly the tentative and conditional character of scientific laws in physics and chemistry, let alone in biology, let alone in the "historical sciences", and stressing too the inevitable variation in moral standards over the course of history as human social conditions change, and after emphatically rejecting on account of that "any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate and for ever immutable ethical law"7 ‑‑ after all this, Engels immediately adds, though, that "there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge".8 Morality thus counts as a branch of human knowledge in Engels' view, like chemistry: its propositions imperfect, conditional and never final, just like chemistry's propositions, but capable of amounting to knowledge nonetheless.

If that is really the case, what is unscientific then, from Marx and Engels' standpoint, about having an "ideal" or having "preconceived ideas". (Engels' phrase could also be translated, having a bias in advance.) In their first joint work, The German Ideology (1846), Marx and Engels wrote,

"Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things."9

Thirty-eight years later, two months after the letter he wrote to Paul Lafargue, Engels contributed a Preface to the first German edition of Marx's (1847) Poverty of Philosophy. In it Engels sharply criticized the economist Johann Karl Rodbertus, critic of capitalism though he was, for moving

"in the direction of utopia. Thereby he surrendered the first condition of all criticism ‑- freedom from bias. He worked on towards a goal fixed in advance, he became a Tendenzökonom."10

(The editors of the English Collected Works have chosen to leave the word "Tendenzökonom" untranslated. Could we say, perhaps, that what this means here is, an economist attached to some (ideological) tendency -- and so unable to follow freely wherever the evidence points?)

The 1848 Communist Manifesto criticized the utopian socialists in these terms:

"Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action, historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones, and the gradual, spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat to an organisation of society specially contrived by these inventors."11

So what Marx and Engels considered unscientific and politically diversionary about uptopianism was the way it started with a preconceived ideal to which "reality would have to adjust itself" instead of scientifically basing itself upon "historically created conditions". The actual revolutionary process based upon historically created conditions involves mass movements of real human individuals as they actually are in whatever countries a revolution is occurring in. The gap between utopian fantasy and the inevitably messy, imperfect and sometimes tragic history of real revolutionary movements of the oppressed can readily lead to two opposite unscientific reactions on the part of nonparticipants. In the light of their preconceived ideal, utopian‑minded observers in another country may idolize the revolution and more‑or‑less wilfully blind their eyes to actual realities ‑‑ which might not, however, be so easy to discern in fact amid the barrage of lying propaganda that naturally gets hurled at the revolution by reactionary interests. Amid the mass of lies denying the revolution's genuine achievements, it may take some digging to see that not all criticisms of events in the ongoing revolution are pure lies. This kind of utopian error results from uncritical enthusiasm. But it can lead later, as we know, to a massive emotional let‑down and loss of political bearings.

Can there be anything worse politically than uncritical revolutionary enthusiasm? There certainly can be. What about the stand‑offish utopian purism which individuals proud of their "independent‑mindedness" can use to explain to themselves remaining high "above the struggle" either inside the country in revolutionary turmoil or else comfortably outside it? Flawed as a real revolution may be, the result cannot compare, the record shows, to the real human disaster of counterrevolution.

Referring to the crimes of European colonialism, which nonetheless amid its atrocities was creating a modern working class overseas, Marx wrote in the New-York Daily Tribune for August 8, 1853:

"When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, ... then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain."12



1. Engels' actual words in French were:

"Marx protesterait contre <<l'idéal politique et social>> économique que vous lui attribuez. Quand on est <<homme de science>>, l'on n'a pas d'idéal, on élabore des résultats scientifiques, et quand on est homme de parti en outre, on combat pour les mettre en pratique. Mais quand on a un idéal, on ne peut être homme de science, car on a un parti pris d'avance."

A slightly different English translation from the one given here is in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Volume 47, page 183.

2. I originally wrote this sentence for an article, "Objectivity and Moral Commitment in the World‑View of Marx and Engels", in the Spring 1983 issue of the Marxist journal Science and Society (Volume 47, No.1, pages 84-91); but the doubtless well‑intentioned editor(s) mutilated what I wrote into "It is only "ought" - statements or imperatives that give meaning to talk of 'fighting to put into practice'" (page 85). Any readers of both articles that there may chance to be will be able to see what else this article owes to that one.

3. In his Critique of the Gotha Programme. Collected Works, Volume 24, page 87.

4. Collected Works, Volume 35, page 95-96.

5. Collected Works, Volume 23, page 381-382.

6. Collected Works, Volume 35, page 90. "Perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations" -- "durchsichtig vernünftige Beziehungen" in Marx's German -- literally: "transparent, rational relations".

7. Collected Works, Volume 25, page 87.

8. Ibid., page 88.

9. Collected Works, Volume 5, page 49.

10. Collected Works, Volume 26, page 290.

11. Collected Works, Volume 6, page 515.

12. Marx's article, "The Future Results of British Rule in India", Collected Works, Volume 12, page 222. Note the absence of quotation marks around the word "progress".

Spark #19, Summer 2007