[Marxism] Partisanship and Objectivity in Theoretical Work

Louis Kontos lkontos at mac.com
Sat Mar 18 15:42:57 MST 2006

A few thoughts on this post.

(1) bourgeois ideology doesn't appear to exist as a 'closed' system  
in contemporary society, except perhaps among the political class and  
some reactionary groups. the general public doesn't appear  
ideological in the same sense; which is why answers to opinion  
surveys are all over the map ideologically. in 1967, when ideological  
lines were sharper, arguably, philip converse found that only 17 per  
cent of the american public was 'ideologically consistent', meaning  
that you could guess their responses to questions from their  
responses to other questions.
bourgeois ideology does in fact seem to work partly at the level of  
interpellation, as althusser argued, since people whose core identity  
is created through official myths, narratives and ubiquitous  
propaganda (wall to wall business-speak) respond to ideological  
pronouncements as if they (pronouncements) embody the voice of  
reason. i think gramsci was also right in his rendering of the  
concept of bourgeois ideology normative -- i.e., equating it with  
'common sense' rather than any specific set of political beliefs,  
which means not only that the status quo is naturalized, that the  
politics of ideas (political ideologies) are neutralized/obscured,  
but also that there is something wrong or deviant about the person  
who rejects bourgeois ideology, in that he appears to lack common  
sense. marcuse was right too, in my view, to argue that the power of  
bourgeois ideology in contemporary society lies in its apparent  
realization/materialization (whereby rationalization in the weberian  
sense supports rationalization in the freudian sense as a method of  
reconciling contradictions in experience), and by closing spaces for  
critical dialogue.

the problem, in that case, is not that people believe in such things  
as 'the market', but that they have learned to use such concepts  
axiomatically to offset critique/judgment and shut down debate.

(2) bourgeois social scientists don't seem generally unwilling to  
discuss any particular issue -- what issue do you have in mind, by  
the way? the problem seems to be that when they talk about such  
issues as exploitation, they don't do it in a serious way -- that is,  
without arguing by fiat and engaging in absurd reductionism, logical  
fallacy, etc. moreover, while they seem comfortable with almost any  
kind of 'proposition' or testable hypothesis, they don't seem to like  
engaging in theoretical debate or serious dialogue of any kind. (the  
official format of the social sciences for journal writing requires a  
theoretical statement in the beginning and some kind of theoretical  
generalization by way of conclusion -- which means that data have to  
be treated as speaking for themselves naturally in the language of  
one middle-range/formal theory or another.)

for that reason, i'm happier with the current state of the humanities  
than social sciences -- because at least there, one can still read  
and discuss real books. in sociology, my discipline, i know of only a  
handful of people that can tell you anything about the theoretical  
origins of the field or describe any significant theoretical debate  
(sociological or otherwise) without reducing it to a bunch of cliches.

(3) i don't understand what you mean when you describe marxism as an  
'open ideology'. i don't think marxism is only ideology (though every  
philosophical system has that quality, especially if it becomes  
popular outside the academy.) i don't know of any open ideology --  
what makes an ideology 'open'? ideology critique was practiced by  
marx, as i read him, as a form of immanent critique. in other words,  
he doesn't simply oppose one set of ideas to another, but thinks  
through the thinking of bourgeois apologists and ordinary people  
(never confusing the two) involved in class struggle, whether they  
are aware of that fact or not, and discovers contradictions that lead  
to conclusions that anybody would also reach in the absence of fear  
(being seen as lacking common sense, or being labeled a marxist),  
without engaging in reduction and reification (or bad faith or  
argument by fiat). etc.

(4) i don't believe the goals of propaganda and education are the  
same, though both are necessary. in propaganda battles, what is at  
stake is the situation or crisis of the moment. educating the public  
(raising consciousness) takes time and perseverance and requires both  
internal and immanent critiques. in other words, we begin by engaging  
the concepts, ideas, assumptions and so forth of people (our students  
or whatever other available audience) as members of a group to which  
we belong -- not outsiders who need us to enlighten them. saying to  
people that they're lacking a particular -- 'scientific' -- concept  
that would help them better understand the world never amounts to  
much, in my experience. moreover, all of the social sciences do this  
as a matter of routine. by contrast, taking up a concept like 'the  
market' (which is a normative and standard trope of everyday  
language) and dealing with it in a rigorous and serious way leaves  
the interlocutor with the choice of maintaining a dialogue that calls  
much of what is called common sense into question, or withdrawing  
from it in bad faith.

my concern is not with converting anybody, but with engaging people  
around the important issues of our times in situations where  
axiomatic answers to legitimate questions do not satisfy them, at  
least not fully. as hegel said, realization of negativity, of  
unhappiness, is the origin of all learning. is their another route to  


On Mar 16, 2006, at 12:54 PM, Charles Brown wrote:

>  2. Misunderstandings about science and ideology
> At this point a comment may be made on certain misunderstandings  
> which have
> been introduced into this topic, especially by Louis Althusser.
> These misunderstandings concern "science" and "ideology". They come  
> from
> posing an antithesis between science and ideology. And when this  
> antithesis
> is posed, it is said that science, one the one side, is objective, and
> ideology, on the other side, is partisan.
> But the antithesis is a false one. For Marxist-socialist ideology  
> is in
> fact scientific - and in this case we find that science is partisan.
> Following up this pretended antithesis, Althusser proceeds to divide
> philosophy from science. Philosophy, he says, is class struggle,  
> and so it
> is not science. Science, on the other hand, is not class struggle,  
> and so
> it is not partisan.
> It is quite true that natural science is not class struggle and is
> not partisan. And whenever class-ideology and partisanship is  
> brought into
> natural science (as happens sometimes in scientific controversies)  
> it is by
> way of an importation of philosophical preconceptions into science  
> which
> have subsequently to be expelled in the development of science.
> But the class struggle does come into science, in social
> science.
> Althusser does not, in fact, sufficiently consider the  
> relationships and
> differences in science between natural science and social science. But
> these are important.
> Marx waged working-class struggle in his scientific work of  
> establishing
> the scientific theory of historical materialism, and in writing
> Capital. In this scientific work it is evident that, as Lenin
> insisted, "science is partisan". Class struggle enters into the  
> development
> of science.
> Turning to natural sciences, we then find that one is not partisan on
> physics, say, in investigating elementary particles and quantum- 
> mechanical
> interactions. But one is partisan in considering both the social use
> of physics and the social organisation of physical research through  
> the
> management of scientific institutions. And physics as a science cannot
> develop without partisanship in the organisation of research and of  
> its
> application.
>> From the very nature of the case, the effort to achieve rigorous  
>> scientific
> objectivity about social affairs is partisan. Such effort is a form of
> working-class struggle, or at least is in aid of it, in opposition to
> theorising which covers up or distorts the social facts.
> And this effort to achieve rigorous scientific objectivity about  
> social
> affairs is the basis for scientific objectivity - ideology based on
> scientific understanding of objective fact, about nature, about  
> mankind,
> and about the relationship of man and nature.
> Marxism is scientific ideology.
> 3. Partisan bans and proscriptions
> One main way - perhaps the main way - in which partisanship is
> expressed in theoretical work is by imposing bans and  
> proscriptions, on the
> one side, and fighting to lift them, on the other.
> Theory is often presented simply as a set of propositions, as  
> though rival
> theories simply presented contradictory sets of propositions.
> But essentially, theory is theorising. And this does not consist  
> just in
> stating propositions. Propositions answer questions. Theory and  
> theorising
> is a process of asking questions and proposing answers. And the  
> content of
> theory is largely determined by the questions asked.
> To understand a theory one always needs to understand what  
> questions it is
> meant to answer.
> A very basic feature of the ideology of exploiting classes in  
> general, and
> of bourgeois ideology in particular, is that, effectively, a ban is
> placed against certain questions. Namely, a ban is imposed on all
> questions that tend to the questioning of the real basis of class
> exploitation on which the exploiting class' way of life depends,  
> and of the
> real, as distinct from the pretended, interests and aims of the class.
> This is evident, for example, in bourgeois economics.
> It is not so much that false propositions are asserted. For quite a  
> lot of
> the propositions put forward are true, as far as they go.
> The basic criticism that Marx always made of bourgeois economists  
> was that
> they took capitalist relations for granted, did not analyse them,  
> did not
> consider the nature of capitalist exploitation and its  
> consequences, and so
> took no cognisance of what Marx called "the law of motion of  
> capitalist
> society".
> This means that any searching questioning on these matters is banned
> in bourgeois economics. Such questions are simply prohibited. They
> are not asked. The bourgeois economists are those whose whole way of
> social thinking contains a built-in inhibition concerning these
> questions, and an attitude of shock, rejection and
> disapproval towards the asking of them.
> It is the same in philosophy. The bourgeois philosophers nowadays are
> concerned only with certain questions - especially, as it has  
> worked out
> in their class ideology, certain questions about language. On these  
> they
> have in fact done and continue to do quite good work. Not  
> everything they
> teach is false, or even useless. Some of it is true and useful. But  
> they
> simply rule out questions which we, Marxists, are concerned to ask. We
> Marxists who ask them are severely disapproved of, and dismissed as
> unphilosophical people with a political axe to grind.
> An essential - perhaps the essential - thing about "an ideology"
> is not to be found in what it positively teaches but in what it  
> bans and
> proscribes - the questioning it forbids, the inhibitions  
> characteristic of
> it.
> That is why the criticism of an ideology always come from a less
> constrictive ideology - one that is more free and more "open", in that
> it concerns itself with questions formerly prohibited and perhaps  
> not even
> thought of at all.
> Marxism is such a more "open" ideology, in relation to and in  
> comparison
> with bourgeois ideology.
> The point about Marxist partisanship in theoretical work is that,  
> on behalf
> of the working class, we insist on the forbidden questioning. We  
> open up
> forbidden ground.
> And in doing that, our partisanship is equally our objectivity in
> opposition to bourgeois partisanship.
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