Relativism and expertise

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Mon Jan 30 05:47:16 MST 1995

On Mon, 30 Jan 1995, Chris Burford wrote:

> I keep on getting reminded of some of the stranger passages in section 2
> of the Communist Manifesto that look so relativist:
> >>They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to
> shape and mould the proletarian movement...
> ...
> The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on
> ideas that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would be
> universal reformer.
> They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from
> an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our
> very eyes.<<<

There's nothing at all relativist about these passages. The target here is
utopian socialism, e.g. Fourier, Owen, Proudhon. Marx wants to claim that
he and the Communist (members of the Communist League, for whom the CM
was a manifesto) did not have a ready-made scheme that they wanted to
impose on the workers and which the workers couldn't think up themselves,
schemes such as Owen's New Lanark, Fourier's phalanasteries, or Proudhon's
universal credit bank. Marx also wants to say that the Communists don't
reject but rather express the interests and strategies of the working
class in its actual struggle--thus, pace Fourier and Owen, class struggle
and confrontation is accepted as a reality; pace Proudhon, trade unions
and political work are accepted too.

Far from being relativist, the anti-utopianism expressed in these
statements is deeply realist: it is the ACTUAL movement which the
Communists respect and take AS IT IS, not as they might like it ideally.
Communists tie their cart to the REAL tendencies in history, driven by
OBJECTIVE interests. In my view Marx takes anti-utopianism too far, but
the passages cited cannot be understood in relativist terms.

The only passage in the CM that seems to me to even be susceptible to a
relativist reading is the final objection to Comunism discussed at the end
oend of Part II, where the bourgeois interlocutor complains that
"Communism abolishes eternal truths." But first, the context clearly
restricts the scope of the truths under consideration to moral truths, or
at most to moral, philosophical, and legal truths, so called--that is, to
what Marx includes under ideology. About these things he is a relativist,
at least officially. (I think Marx has a moral theory malgre lui.)

But look why! "The history of all past society has taken the form of class
antagonisms...that assumed different forms in different epochs." And which
 constrain "the social consciousness of past ages" (and present ones too);
in short because social beind determines consciousness, as he says
elsewhere. Morality, etc, is relative to modes of production or classes.
But that statement, the statement of historical materialism itself, the
basis for the argument about moral relativity, is simply taken as true.

Changing the subject, Jon Beaseley-Murray complains that my recent posts
have involved a regrettably elitist element, aspect, or tone. I presume
that this refers to my claim that there a place in a revolutionary
movement for extremely abstruse, technical, and specialized inquiries
which require professional training or long study to master or to
contribute something worthwhile to.

I accept this label with pleasure. Elitism of this sort, the elitism which
acknowledges real expertise where it is necessary and where it exists, is
something the working class and its allies need more of. I am happy to
learn, e.g., economics from people who have made a long study of it and
thought hard and deeply about it--much more than I am happy to learn
economics from those who haven't! (Aren't you?) And I hope that the twenty
years I put into studying and writing philosophy, while it failed to keep
me a job, nonethel,ess involved my learning more philosophy than someone
might pick up by skimming Will and Ariel Durant or even taking Intro
Social & Political. Jon, wouldn't you feel cheated there at Duke (an elite
institition if there is one) were you to go into a graduate seminar and
find it headed up not by Frederic Jameson but by a freshperson from the
compsition class?

That said, two points need emphasis. First the existence of real expertise
does not abridge the need for revolutionary democracy in the working
class movement. Just because I know more philosophy or Wolff more
economics than some worker, say a file clerk, doesn't mean that we should
get to say what party or state policy should be (if we had a party or a
state) and she doesn't. Rather, and this ought to be so obvious that it
ought not need to be said, policy should be made on the basis of
democratic deliberation, using expert advice, but as advice and not as
commands. As someone who will be affected by any policy a hypothetical
party or state might adopt, the file clerk is entitled to equal say with
the professor or the law student. The second point is that the need for
specialized and technical studies does not abridge the need for popular
communication of its results, but I've discussed that.

I know that this avowal of a place for expertise will lead some on the
list to stamp me as an antidemocratic Platonist, a Bad Leninist, a proto-
(or maybe not so proto-) totalitarian who doesn't respect the wisdom of
the masses. I remind those who react reflexively in this way that
rejection of expertise can be quite as undemocratic as its improper
assertion or claiming on its behalf more than it is due. In the Chinese
Cultural Revolution, "Red" prevailed over "Expert," and "bourgeois
specialists" were humiliated and sent to the countryside, or sometimes
even killed. Oh, you say, that's not what I mean! OK, well, a Platonic
dictatorship of the experts isn't what I mean either. So maybe we can
agree not to caricature each other.



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