Science and Evaluation

by Maurice Cornforth

The demonstration of what it is possible to make of human life by progress to communism is at the same time a demonstration of its desirability. It establishes factual judgments about the actual character and mode of development of forces of production and relations of production; practical or political judgments about what has to be done and who has to do it, if human relations are to be developed in conformity with the possibilities and requirements of technological progress; and, finally, value judgments about the desirability of the end and the merit of the struggle to reach it.

The scientific ideas of communism about social development and human personality, and likewise its ideas about how to conduct the politics of class struggle, are not derived from moral concepts or value judgments; they are derived from investigation of human relations and experience of class struggle. On the other hand, moral concepts and value judgments are derived from the scientific and political ideas of communism. Thus communism is not founded on principles of morality but, on the other hand, it enunciates foundations for value judgments. Communism does not by a moral argument deduce an ideal of human association and standards of conduct but, on the other hand, by examining the actual conditions and possibilities of human association and the causes and effects of different kinds of conduct it finds the reasons for judging one form of association more desirable than another, and one mode of conduct better than another.

At the same time, the value judgments which the scientific ideas of communism lead to are not in contradiction to those which have been previously evolved during the progressive development of mankind. Communism does not contradict the traditional conceptions of human values exemplified in the condemnation of greed, cruelty and oppression, the assertion of the rights of individuals, the inviolability of human personality and the brotherhood of men; on the contrary, it embraces them, justifies them by sufficient reasons and shows the way to convert them from ideals into realities.

The evaluative significance of the scientific ideas of communism was already shown very clearly in the work of Marx.

Marx's arguments for replacing capitalism by socialism are not "moral" arguments, in the commonly accepted sense. Yet they are arguments in favour of doing something, in support of certain prescriptive judgments of value. Marx did not simply make a prediction: capitalism will in fact be replaced by socialism, because the laws of social development make it inevitable. He did not merely advise people to make a virtue of necessity by voluntarily acting in the way they were compelled by the laws of history to act anyhow. He investigated the actual development of relations of production, and on this he based prescriptive practical judgments to guide action to change them in a desirable way. He never supposed socialism would be brought into being without the prescribed collective action, or that it could not fail. He stated facts; but he did not merely state facts, in stating them he execrated them and, on the other hand, warmly advocated the new conditions that should replace them. And the more clearly, fully and factually he described the existing conditions and what should replace them, the greater was the moral force with which he drove home his condemnation of the one and advocacy of the other.

This mixed descriptive‑evaluative character of Marx's social analysis has been remarked on by a number of his readers. Professor Popper drew attention to it in the second volume of The Open Society and its Enemies. Again, Professor E. J. Hobsbawm remarks in his Introduction to the English translation of Marx's Pre‑capitalist Economic Formations that Marx's theory is "a model of facts, but, seen from a slightly different angle, the same model provides us with value‑judgments".

With the development of the sciences in modern times it has become an axiom in some quarters that questions of fact, such as are ascertained by the sciences, are logically unconnected with questions of value. If you are making a scientific inquiry you are unconcerned with questions about values, and if you are engaged in making evaluations you are not engaged in any kind of scientific enquiry. The confusion of both thought and action leading to and resulting from this antithesis is extreme. There is confusion about science and also confusion about values; but the root of it is confusion about science.

Of course, the conclusions of science must not be influenced by antecedent valuations, in the sense that a scientific inquiry must always test its conclusions in terms of what is the case and not of what someone thinks ought to be the case. But that does not mean that scientific generalisation, on the one hand, and evaluation on the other, are separate and independent matters.

The setting of them in antithesis results in the first place from taking natural sciences as the model, and ignoring the special character of social science. When a physicist generalises about the behaviour of atoms, his conclusions merely show how atoms in fact behave and have no bearing on how they ought to behave. This is not surprising, since such words as "ought" apply only in prescribing the behaviour of people and have no meaning if applied to atoms. But social science differs from natural science in that it deals with people. And generalisations about people, stating the actual conditions of their lives and effects of their actions, do have some bearing on deciding what people ought to do.

In the second place, the antithesis results from so limiting the scope of social science that it is not permitted to generalise in the way natural sciences do. In accordance with the old positivist philosophy of science, social science is limited to stating particular facts and formulating statistical correlations. Of course, if scientific inquiry is so limited, social science remains on a merely classificatory and descriptive level, and is not permitted to arrive at the sort of generalisation familiar in the natural sciences and which, in social science, does become relevant to the foundation of evaluations. Such generalisations do not merely describe social relations, but show how people can and do change them corresponding to the development of their actual means of satisfying their needs, and therefore how both existing relations and men's aspirations and aims to change them satisfy or fall short of human needs and possibilities of developing human capacities.

If, indeed, we are ever to find good reasons for judgments about what is socially desirable, this requires first of all an accurate description of the current state of society—its economic basis, the interests and conflicts of interest contained within it, the individual and collective needs which people have acquired in it and the ways in which and extent to which the current social relations permit their satisfaction, and the possibilities of maintaining social stability or of effecting social changes. And it requires, secondly, a scientifically based general theory about man and his social life. It is such a theory that provides the basis of evaluations, for standards of judgment. For it permits a comparison of the actual with the possible which provides insight into the defects of our social relations and modes of social behaviour relative to the objective requirements for the development of social life, and into practical ways of overcoming them. In other words, if only we can work out a scientifically based general theory of man and society, we can do what so many would‑be scientific moralists and philosophers say is logically impossible, namely, find a way both practical and rational of concluding from what the human situation is to what ought to be done in it, and of finding reasons for what we think ought to be done in the investigation of the human situation.

The chief reason why it has been argued that value judgments can never be based on science is that those who argue like this refuse to admit that social investigation can do any more than record lists of facts—they deny it the right enjoyed by other branches of science to establish a general theory. In actual practice, however, people always do argue from an account of a particular set‑up, judged in the light of a general theory (however vague and implicit that general theory may be), to the conclusion that certain things are desirable or undesirable, and ought to be changed or left alone. And those who disagree, argue by denying that the current set‑up is as described, or denying the general theory, or denying both. For example, I have yet to meet anyone who admitted the truth of Marxist general theory and of its particular descriptive analysis of capitalism, and at the same time denied the Marxist conclusion of the desirability of replacing capitalism by socialism; they have always found fault with some item of the general theory or of the particular analysis or both.

On questions of social desirability, reasoned judgment is always based, and cannot but be based, on theories about the actual conditions of human existence. And likewise when it comes to questions of the rights and wrongs of individual conduct and personal relations, no reasons can be given for what is right and what is wrong without presupposing some such theory. Such theories have traditionally been religious—and hence the widespread idea that morality is inseparable from religion. But there are also all manner of non‑religious or lay theories. The real point for moral reasoning must be, first of all, to discuss and test such theories, and then to test value judgments in the light of the theories and in the course of practical experience.

The claim of Marxism is precisely to have established the foundations of a general scientific theory of man and society, of the conditions of human existence. And so it is that the generalisations which Marx established for social science, comparable with those established as the foundations of other departments of science, provide a basis, and a truly scientific basis, for evaluations.

This means that not only does the Marxist scientific approach to social questions formulate aims for the present, but the same generalisations on which present aims are based are the basis for evaluation of the past. The Marxist historical approach not only tries to explain what happened, but the way it explains it is the basis for evaluating it, for evaluating historical actions, institutions and movements and, in another sense, social, political and moral ideas. Such evaluation is, indeed, inseparable from the scientific approach to history. If the study of history is regarded as nothing but making a record of events, then naturally it is not evaluative—but neither is it scientific. So far from the scientific approach to society and its history being antithetical to evaluation, the approach which fails to evaluate fails as science.

Scientific generalisation about people and society shows that people can live only by co‑operating to obtain their requirements from nature, that they depend on each other, and that they can develop their human nature and human powers only by adapting relations of production to forces of production. Consequently, it shows the deprivations they suffer, in relation to human needs and the latent possibilities of human life, while they remain in primitive conditions and while they suffer the effects of self‑alienation.

It is only in our present epoch, when, as Marx. put it, social relations have developed to the stage which "brings the prehistory of human society to a close", that it is at length possible for these deprivations to be overcome. And it is now, when to end alienation effects has become a practical question in the field of social action, that the corresponding science can be and is worked out in the field of social theory. Science then establishes the sufficient reasons for the practical desirability of the communist reconstitution of human relations, and of everything that can tend to overcome, and can finally remove, the alienation effects in human relations. This value judgment is not founded merely on the sentiments of approbation or pleasure which may be evoked by the image of personal relations free from impersonal conflicts, and of everyone having the opportunity to satisfy his needs—though there does go with it the cultivation of such sentiments. It is founded on the scientific demonstration that this is what people can and must do in order to develop the mode of human cooperation by which they live.

The guiding principle of the scientific materialist communist humanist method of arriving at value judgments is that what is worth while, what is good, what is right, what ought to be aimed at and done in human relations and human behaviour is what promotes the human mode of existence—or, as Marx put it in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, "realises the human essence". It is what promotes that mode of existence in which people co‑operate to obtain what they require, and in which the development of the personality of each is aided by and aids that of others.

This principle establishes, in terms of human relations, the objective standard by reference to which value judgments can be based, not on individual and subjective sentiments and aspirations, or, for that matter, on class interests, but on sufficient reasons.

For ages and ages the common people, and the representatives of progressive thought, have proclaimed these human values and deplored and condemned whatever goes counter to them, even while they have accepted the class values and moral codes thrown up by particular social formations. But they have proclaimed them as aspirations hardly realisable, or as realisable only by individuals or sects who separate themselves from the mass of sinful humanity; as drawn down as revelations from heaven, not as rooted in the earthly existence of men. What Marxist social theory does is to discover the foundations for human values—the reasons for them, the demonstration of their universalisability or objectivity—in the science of man; and at the same time discover how men, when they have advanced to the stage where they are able to establish the science of man, can conduct and win a struggle to make the conditions for a good life not a dream but an everyday reality. It strips the idea of a good life of its supernatural glamour, as something to be earned by the happy elect in another world, and presents it in commonplace terms as descriptive of ordinary people going about their worldly business.


This essay on Communism and Human Values reproduces, with some slight changes, three chapters from my Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy, first published in 1965. References originally made to views of "linguistic" philosophers have been deleted, and, for the sake of rounding this off as an independent essay, some small additions have been made and some re‑arrangement of the original material.

London, August 1971                                                                                 M.C.


SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice.  Communism and Human Values (New York: International Publishers, 1972), Chapter 8, pp. 41-47.

Note: The three chapters from Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy are adapted from Part III, chapters 3-5.

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