Maurice Cornforth on Partisanship and Objectivity

by Ralph Dumain

One could easily skim Maurice Cornforth's "Partisanship and Objectivity in Theoretical Work" without giving it a second thought, but there are some subtleties in it worth examining.

First, I want to caution that ideology has a variety of competing meanings within and without the Marxist tradition. It's a long and complex history. See my ideology study guide. Raymond Guess, for example, divides the differing meanings of the term into descriptive, pejorative, and positive. The term itself stems from DeStutt de Tracy (circa 1797); it was a progressive trend of the French Revolution. The 'ideologues', who thought that the rational study of ideas as a natural science, could help organize society on a rational basis, and hence were denounced by Napoleon. There is dispute over the interpretation of the concept as used by Marx and later Engels, but it could be considered a pejorative take on the term, certainly never a positive one. I don't recall which Marxist began to use 'ideology' in a positive sense; perhaps it was Kautsky or Lenin. In any case, this nonsense about a scientific ideology is a Soviet creation.

I dislike Cornforth's following of this practice. Not am I thrilled by his traditional Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. If you can clear this out of the way, you can get to what really matters in this position piece. It's not new or original, but it is succinct. Here are the key passages:

There is no such thing as "a theory" in the abstract.

Theory is made by people, used by people and kept going by people. Without people active in a society there is no theory. So the actual circumstances and interests of people and in particular of people socially related in classes determine how theories are worked out, what questions they deal with and what they say.

Marxism, then, is not just a set of propositions about the world and human society.

Theory is not just a set of disembodied propositions proposed by a neutral outside observer. Theoretical activity—the activity of the theorist—has a relationship to society and societal interests, which shape the directions the theorist takes.

Marxism is ideology. And its opposition to other theory is not just that of a "disinterested" debate about theoretical problems.

Against the theory of the revolutionary movement, which informs that movement, we see, and oppose, the theories of the existing establishment which has to be overthrown.

I disagree that Marxism is ideology, because I disagree with this use of the word. Otherwise, the point is that the 'disinterested debate' of bourgeois theorists is that it is not disinterested but disguised, slanted, and predicated on a vested interest in the maintenance of bourgeois society. Thus, the theories of the existing establishment should be overthrown, and unmasking their pretenses is part of the struggle.

Cornforth then confronts the crux of the issue, that is as the bourgeois apologist sees it (and postmodern relativists, which Cornforth apparently did not live to see):

Does then this partisanship place Marxists in some sort of dilemma? Do we have to choose between partisanship and objectivity in theoretical work? If we chose objectivity, are we then opting out of the class struggle or even taking the other side, and so giving up Marxism? And if we choose partisanship, are we then deciding only to make propaganda instead of seeking the truth? These questions are the way bourgeois theorists put it. They say one should put objectivity above everything, and that we Marxists are merely partisans — and as such outside the pale of scientific theory and discussion. One should never be taken in by such bourgeois attempts to put social theory into a dilemma. Like many antitheses posed by bourgeois theory and by bourgeois ideologists, that of partisanship versus objectivity is a quite false antithesis. To be partisan of working class struggle one does not have to ditch objectivity. No, one has always to be as objective as one can in theory.

Cornforth then goes on to enumerate some objective realities: class struggle, exploitation, etc. Objectivity is not neutrality, but the confrontation of objective facts. But who has an interest in grappling honestly with these facts? That is partisanship.

I have only one quibble here:

The necessity to overthrow capitalism, establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and advance through socialism to communism is a fact.

It is not really a fact, unless 'necessity' means not urgency, but an objective historical law whose timetable can be tweaked but is otherwise inevitable. There are severe consequences for the failure to overthrow capitalism, which are also factual, when they occur. Cornforth is probably speaking colloquially, here.

On the other hand, those who theorise in such a way as to cover up these facts are not being objective. They are objectively partisans of the bourgeoisie. And in their case, their partisanship shows itself by a disregard for objectivity. It is an objective fact that all social theories are partisan. Our partisanship consists in recognising this objective fact. Their partisanship consists in denying it and trying to cover it up.

Cornforth plainly says just what I said above. Notice he says it clearly without invoking a dubious positive conception of 'ideology'.

From the very nature of their class position, exploiting classes always have, in theory, to try to cover up the fact of exploitation and class struggle. They cannot recognise the fact of their own way of life, which consists in exploiting and oppressing others. They have to conceal this fact from the exploited. And they have to express their own class interests and aims in a way to make them appear other than what they are — class interests and class aims.

They are thus partisan in theory in ways that depart from objectivity. But they practice this partisanship by trying to make out that they espouse objectivity and not partisanship in theory.

This is indeed very cunning of them. It is our job always to expose this cunning deception — as the objective fact it is.

Very clearly stated. It's this I like about Cornforth's speech, not the boilerplate Marxist-Leninist rhetoric.

We are in no way interested in covering up, distorting and falsifying social reality. On the contrary, we are interested in understanding it as it is, in order to be able to change it. Evading the recognition of fact, distorting it, does not help the working- class struggle at all. On the contrary, the interest is as scientifically as possible to recognise the facts and understand them. So working-class partisanship demands objectivity.

In other words, 'taking sides' is not enough. One has to recognize objective reality whatever one's subjective desires.

With regards to Althusser, Cornforth is not clear about which of the competing meanings are at stake. Here he seems to shift to the negative connotation of the term. Ideology is triangulated with science and partisanship. The bone of contention is Althusser's alleged assertion:

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.

Note that the only real problem here is the notion of partisanship, which Cornforth does not want to see as contradicting objectivity (science). He even admits that natural science is not partisan. . .

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.

I don't know whether Althusser claimed that social science could also be non-partisan, but it seems unlikely.

Cornforth is clear about the distinction between science as objective knowledge and science as an institution. Natural science, as objective knowledge, is not partisan . . .

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.

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.

This is the nub. It has been so stated by many before.

I only disagree with the term 'scientific ideology', which just muddies up the waters.

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.

Disembodied sets of propositions do not explain how scientific theory is made. This was one objection, BTW, against logical positivism, raised both internally and externally. (See George Reisch's book.)

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.

This is their ruse, disguising their implicit partisanship.

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.

Very important.

That is why the criticism of an ideology always come from a less constrictive ideology

Here Cornforth reverts to the positive conception of ideology. I don't like this.

Marxism is often accused of dogmatism.

It may at once be admitted that the way some Marxists carry on does sometimes give some substance for this accusation. In this connection, a few words will be apposite on so-called "dogmatism" and "revisionism" in Marxism.

"Dogmatism" has been variously described: reducing Marxism to a few formulas dogmatically asserted; failing to see what is new in developing situations, but continuing to apply to them ideas belonging to the past.

But its real essence is: bringing into Marxist ideology from exploiting-class ideologies the ways of prohibiting and banning questions characteristic of those ideologies.

In its so-called "struggle" against bourgeois ideology, dogmatism introduces a kind of tit-for-tat exchange: "You ban this question, so we shall ban that." Typical of dogmatism was Stalin's announcement (in an article denouncing one Slutsky who had imprudently raised some questions about Leninism) that there are certain "axioms" which must not be questioned, one of which was that Lenin was always right.

This dogmatism is contrary to the open scientific nature of Marxism. Marx himself declared: "De omnibus dubitandum." We must never stop our questioning.

Dogmatism inside the movement (Cornforth being ensconced in the Communist Party, poor guy) is a trojan horse:

So dogmatism is only a kind of sham partisanship. Dogmatists shout very loud about "partisanship". But the noise they make holds up and restricts the movement.

And they play right into the hands of the enemy, who can very easily discredit their dogmatic pretensions. Dogmatists ban certain questions. It is very easy for the enemy to stir up those very questions, leaving the dogmatists with no defence.

Anyone raising questions is apt to be dubbed "revisionist" by the dogmatists.

But if Marxism is scientific, and if continual questioning is revisionism, then Marxism is by nature revisionist. Indeed, all scientific theory is and always must be constantly under revision. And if revision is stopped, scientific theory is stopped with it.

Cornforth goes on to defend a legitimate opposition to revisionism, which I won't address. The interesting part of this discussion is that revisionism is not revising forward, but backpedaling into outmoded, conservative thinking. Both tendencies should be proscribed by marxism, as they reflect bad habits inherited from the past:

But dogmatism and revisionism are alike importations into Marxism of bourgeois ideology, and its corruption by the influence of bourgeois ideology — dogmatism by its refusal of questioning, revisionism by its refusal to probe deeply and to take account of what has been established by considering facts as they really are.

My point is, that once you the beyond the formulaic mode of expression to which Marxist-Leninists are accustomed, you can appreciate the rational content of Cornforth's argument very concisely expressed.

The unfortunate usage of the word 'ideology' aside, Cornforth's treatment of Gramsci contains some important statements about popularization. Pay close attention, please:

He pointed out that, as they produce it, theory is just theory for the top intellectuals. It is their special province. For the masses, and to influence the masses and serve their daily lives, there is a lower-level theory — the mass teachings. These levels are connected. The subtleties of the Schools are not comprehensible to the masses and so mean little to them. But the Schools' debates are not unconnected with what the schoolmen consider should be taught to the masses — to put them on the right path and correct their dangerous heresies. The subtle doctrines are brought down to the masses in versions more suited to the mass level. But whereas there is this connection between the levels, there can at the same time be wide divergences. In particular, what is presented to the masses as a very simple truth is made into something quite different and even contradictory at the top level.

Note the dangers of a double standard!

Our Marxist partisanship and objectivity is shown not only in the work of Party intellectuals in keeping the theory going and developing it in ways required for the class struggle. It is shown in the relationship between levels. The "higher theory" of Marxism must never lose its relevance for the masses. This does not mean that it must not deal with difficult specialised scientific and philosophical questions. It must. But the relevance must not be lost. And it must serve continually to foster and inform the fighting consciousness of the masses.

This is a two-way street. The higher level should not dry up simply out of fear of its esoteric nature. The lower level should not dry up out of formulaic, ritualistic, stagnant thinking. Vitality can only be preserved on both levels when they are in communication with one another and both are vital. This I think is very important, beyond the rhetoric.

When such relevance and service is lost, then partisanship is lost too. And so is scientific objectivity. Theory then becomes "merely abstract", irrelevant, out of touch with reality.

This passage could easily be misunderstood, but it is not merely prescriptive; it's about the conditions under which intellectual vitality is fostered or inhibited.

But there's more—the consequences of dishonesty:

With the Catholic Church there is often a divergence amounting to contradiction between the higher theory and the mass teachings or mass propaganda. And this can happen, and sometimes does happen, with a Marxist party. It happens when assertions are made at the mass level which at the top intellectual level are so qualified as to become quite different, or are even at that level considered to be false. Thus for "political" reasons awkward questions are covered up in the Party's propaganda, facts swept under the carpet, things presented differently from how they are known to be. But the awkward questions are recognised at the top, the facts are known, and the bias of the propaganda is known but not corrected. Marxist theory, its partisanship and objectivity and, indeed, communist politics in the proper sense, always demand that the Party should always "come clean", so to speak, with the masses to whom it seeks to give service and leadership. Comrades dubbed "intellectuals" are often known to be "awkward" in the Party. This is bound to happen if there is anything to be awkward about. But only if the intellectuals are thoroughly imbued with true Marxist scientific partisanship and objectivity, which requires great intellectual effort from them combined with the proper humility of learning Marxism in the Party, not intellectual conceit or arrogance, can this "awkwardness" be helpful.

The final section is a rejection of the fact/value dichotomy for social theory.

To sum up, if you consider the thought content of Cornforth's speech, and not merely the rherotic and the specific party context and orientation, hopefully you will see the simple yet vital points he takes pains to express. These are the key components of the essay, in my view:

(1) partisanship and objectivity;
(2) praxis and the nature of social theory;
(3) 'dogmatism' and 'revisionism' as bad habits inherited from the past;
(4) popularization and intellectual honesty and vitality.

It doesn't happen often, but occasionally one finds a correct treatment of the relationship between objectivity and partisanship. See "Objectivity & Partisanship in Science" by Aant Elzinga and "Theory and Ideology" by Alvin Gouldner.

Written 17 March 2006
Edited & uploaded 12 June 2006

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Offsite links:

Partisanship and Objectivity in Theoretical Work by Maurice Cornforth
(also on The Autodidact Project web site

"Maurice Cornforth's Contribution to Marxist Metaethics" by Renzo Llorente

On Reappraising Maurice Cornforth” by Edwin A. Roberts

Origins of the Private Language Argument by Jan Dejnozka

Maurice Cornforth - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (minimal information)

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