Partisanship and Objectivity in Theoretical Work

by Maurice Cornforth

This article is the text of a lecture given to the Philosophy Section of the Communist University of London in July 1973. It was later published in Marxism Today, January 1974.

1. The false antithesis of partisanship and objectivity

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. It is the guiding theory, or ideology, of the world-wide revolutionary movement of communism. And as ideology, it took shape under the same social pressures of material circumstances as provoked the formation of a revolutionary movement.

In these circumstances, the development of Marxist theory has been formative of the revolutionary movement itself — by bringing to it the consciousness of the conditions, methods of organisation and struggle, and aims, without which there could be only sporadic protest and revolt but no effective comprehensive movement.

In this sense Marxism is very definitely partisan. It is a party theory — the theory of a movement, for a movement; the theory of revolutionary struggle for socialism and communism; the theory of the working class vanguard of that struggle; a class-biased and class-interested theory.

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.

If this partisanship is lost sight of, and not deliberately espoused, then whatever theoretical activity and theory-building is done is not Marxism. On the contrary, in that case Marxism is being watered down, weakened, opposed or destroyed.

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.

And we can explain why this is so.

Class struggle is an objective fact, the existence of which is evident in experience and can be demonstrated by science.

Exploitation of man by man is objective fact.

The fetters now placed by capitalist production relations on the development of production to satisfy human needs are a fact.

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

In stating these facts we are being objective, not disregarding the need for objectivity. At the same time, in stating them we are being partisans of the working-class struggle.

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.

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.

The working-class interest in theory is a different one. And this difference comes from the very nature of the case as a necessary consequence of the development of the working class and of working-class struggle.

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.

And socialism becomes a science — to grasp and understand the objective conditions, the possibilities and necessities contained in them, and to work out, on that basis of scientific understanding of objective fact, what is to be done.

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.

4. Dogmatism and revisionism

In contradiction to the openness and objectivity of the partisanship in Marxist theoretical work, Marxism is customarily accused by bourgeois ideologists of being itself a closed and restrictive system.

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.

For our partisanship demands questioning. Questioning must go on, in order that the working-class movement shall find its way to conduct its struggle.

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.

There is nevertheless a proper use for the opprobrious epithet "revisionism" as there is for its opposite, "dogmatism". The term was used in the Second International by so-called "orthodox" Marxists first of all against Bernstein, and then used by Lenin (see, for example, his Marxism and Revisionism), in a definite sense derived from the terminology of current international politics, where "revisionism" meant revising frontiers. So the term "revisionism" was used to attack those who wanted to blur the difference and opposition between Marxist and various kinds of bourgeois theories — to revise their frontiers.

There are such "frontiers" between Marxism and bourgeois social theory.

Lenin insisted on three main "frontiers" of Marxism: (1) materialism as opposed to idealism in all theory; (2) the dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary condition for effecting the transition from capitalism to socialism and communism; (3) the organisation of a vanguard working-class party.

Questions have indeed continually to be raised about all these. But when in such questioning people pass from materialist theory to various forms of idealism, from considering the forms to be taken by the dictatorship of the proletariat to saying that no such thing is necessary, and from criticising the organisation and policy of the party to saying that we do not want a party — that is anti-Marxist revisionism.

For it means going back from Marxist theory to bourgeois theory — which is not the product of objective consideration and analysis of all questions about the social situation, but only of avoiding, dodging and covering up essential facts of the social situation.

The answer to revisionism is always to show up its one-sided, partial, unobjective, unscientific bourgeois presuppositions.

Dogmatists, for their part, never "refute" revisionism. All they succeed in doing is to provoke and encourage it.

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.

The Marxist opposition to revisionism is not dogmatic, and is paralleled in science generally. For when, as a result of thoroughly investigating certain questions, general conclusions on them have become scientifically established, then science is opposed to questioning these conclusions in order to revert back to earlier views that were formed in error before the original questioning was conducted — though not, of course, opposed to continuing to raise and to investigate questions arising from the scientific conclusions.

Thus, for example, Galileo was once in trouble for raising questions about the movement of the earth, in opposition to the Church which forbade such questions because it taught that the earth is stationary at the centre of the created universe. As a result of his and many others' work on these questions, it has by now become scientifically established that the earth spins on its axis as it moves around the sun.

Science is far from banning all further questions about the movement of the earth. But it is opposed to questioning whether the earth moves at all, so as to reintroduce ancient errors about the stationary earth — simply because it is so well established, as the result of scientific questioning, that, as Galileo said, "it does move".

Natural science must continue to consider any attempt to reinstate the Ptolemaic theory as transgressing the frontiers of science. And it is just the same with Marxism and revisionism.

5. Levels of ideology

There are two other aspects of the topic of partisanship and objectivity that are, I think, worth mentioning.

The first arises from a point made by Gramsci, about the different social "levels" at which ideology operates.

It was specifically in connection with the activities of the Roman Catholic Church that Gramsci pointed out the role of the "top" intellectuals in the continual elaboration of theory.

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. For example, a reading of what the great schoolman Aquinas had to say in his Summa Theologica about the relationship of the soul and the body reveals that, in its subtleties, it contradicts what the village priests customarily teach.

There are and must be different levels of ideology with Marxism likewise. This follows, indeed, from what Engels said: "If socialism is a science it must be studied."

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.

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.

And there is another consideration too.

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.

6. Valuations in social theory

Finally, I want to touch on the question of partisanship and objectivity in valuations (value judgements).

In all social theory valuations are made, in the sense of evaluating what is done and being done, and also in the sense of evaluating social aims and saying what ought to be aimed at and ought to be done.

In the theories of the natural sciences this valuation is absent. One does not, for example, in considering the motion of atoms and electrons, arrive at judgements like "that's a good electron", "that was well done by that atom", or "that combination was a dirty reactionary one".

One does not reach any conclusions about what atoms and electrons ought to do, as distinct from what they do do, or about what ends they should seek to achieve. Obviously, all such judgements of value would be totally meaningless in the context of natural sciences.

But the opposite is true when it is ourselves and our own motions and intentions that are under consideration. Then judgements of value are appropriate. And we are always making them. This is an essential difference between natural and social science.

According to the latest bourgeois theory, judgements of fact and judgements of value are quite independent the one of the other. Science is one thing, value judgement quite another. And social science is exactly like natural science in that value judgements do not come into it.

This separation of fact and value is a very important element in the ideology of monopoly capitalism today. It enables the bourgeois value judgements to be propagated without any awkward contradictions of them being allowed to come up from objective considerations about social reality.

But for Marxism, the scientific understanding of social reality is the basis for value judgements, and is incomplete without them.

This can be seen clearly, for example, in Capital. Marx did not only deliver an objective analysis of capitalist society but a condemnation of it, based on that very objective analysis. And he did not only make a scientifically-based prediction about socialism but a call to fight for it with a practical policy for doing so.

For this reason, Capital is said to be slanted, biased, unscientific. But on the contrary, the fact that its analysis is so scientific and objective is what makes these value judgements come up so clearly in it and from it.

It is said that if we want to consider human affairs objectively, scientifically, we should make no value judgements. But when we do consider them objectively and scientifically, then we do make value judgements. And these judgements are objective rather than being merely products of emotions, sentiments and particular class or personal interests.

So the combined partisanship and objectivity of Marxism is expressed in the combined partisanship and objectivity of the value judgements contained in Marxism.

Our partisanship is shown by our value judgements, made from the standpoint of working-class revolutionary struggle — judgements of approbation and of disapprobation, and about the ends and means of struggle. This partisanship itself demands the objectivity of scientific communism.

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice. "Partisanship and Objectivity in Theoretical Work," Australian Marxist Review, No. 37, April 1997.

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