The theory and politics of knowledge

01 December 1993
Article
Introduction In the late sixties activists in new movements wete unselfconsciously eclectic in the theoretical traditions on which they drew. For example, Daniel Cohn Bendit, a leader of the French student movement in 1968 and a member of the critically minded anarchist grouping Noir et Rouge, defined himself as an anarchist 'negatively' by his rejection of dogmatism. He did not completely reject Marx, any more than he accepted Bakunin. When he was pressed to define his position, he placed himself in the general stream of 'council communism'. [1] Sheila Rowbotham, who was active in the British New Left and a founder in 1970 of the Women's Liberation Movement, described the reading of the New Left in the sixties: 'Unselfconsciously we read Kropotkin and Bakunin as well as Marx, Ghandhi and G. D. H. Cole, Camus, Sartre and Emma Goldman. We bought Anarchy as well as Peace News, Sanity, Tribune and Labour Weekly.'[2] Although anarchistic themes have been and continue to be influential on the radical movements of the last twenty years or so, criss-crossing with various feminist and ecological traditions, Marxism of various forms has been the most persistently and pervasively influential tradition. Exploring the precise character of its influence provides the clues to the undertheorization of the movements' political innovations and to how these innovations might now be best understood and spread. The new social movements have always had an uneasy and eclectic relation with Marxism, reflected in the variety of engagements with it to be found amongst movement activists. On the one hand, an impetus of these movements' rebellions was a rejection of the models offered by both sides of the Cold War: a rejection of both Second International and Soviet Marxism and their attendant reductionism and economism was for the majority almost automatic, if not thoroughly thought through. On the other hand, in their practical break from the shallow complacency of the post-war consensus they needed critical concepts to understand the Vietnam War, the factory drudgery that existed alongside the exotic promises of a consumer culture, the state repression and cultural standardization. The extent and form in which Marxism was a source of such concepts varied from country to country, depending on pre-existing left traditions. In countries like Germany, France and Britain where there was a well established Marxist tradition critical and independent of official communism, it was a widespread cultural and intellectual influence among many activists whether or not they were members of any Marxist organization. The influence of Marxism Looking back it is possible to distinguish two distinct influences of Marxism, one positive, the other negative. The Marxism which had developed in opposition to Soviet orthodoxy - especially through the Frankfurt School but also work like that of Isaac Deutscher,[3] in a non-sectarian Trotskyist tradition, or like Andre Gorz,[4] who applied a creative materialism to contemporary capitalism and the strategic problems of labour's resistance - this Marxism provided a necessary framework for developing critical explanatory concepts and theories. The creative development of Marxism as a source of analytic tools and research agenda for explanatory social theory, however, was not paralleled by equivalent development of Marxist theories of political agency. The underlying problem is that Western Marxism of the post-war period - critical theory along with the earlier more revolutionary writings of Lukacs and other anti-Stalinist Western Marxists - was concerned to understand the conditions of the defeat of the revolutionary project. This led to a concern with consciousness and culture, which became central to their continuing contribution to critical social theory. With little prospect of socialist change in post-Yalta Europe, they had little motive, however, to address problems of agency and organization. The case of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School illustrates these limitations best, because of all schools of Western Marxism it probably has had the greatest influence on the new movements. Critical theory The influence of critical theory on the emerging social movements of the late 1960s - especially the student movements of Germany, Britain and the US enabled these movements, which in many respects were unorthodox, to establish a creative association with Marxism. Critical theory provided the stimulating force for application of Marxist concepts of imperialism, exploitation and the class nature of the state, combined with concepts from non Marxist theorists (Freud and Weber, for example) to analyse bureacracy, authoritarianism, information technology and sexual repression: concerns well beyond Marxism but at the centres of the new movements' interests. Although critical theory was influential on these matters of substance, it also resonated with the movements' philosophy of action. Critical theory's insistence, against the laws of capitalist crisis predicted by orthodox Marxism, that 'history is made' by 'the situated conduct of partially knowing subjects',j accorded with the social movements' emphasis on ideological and cultural critique and their initially self-confident sense of themselves as agents of social change. Habermas' notions of 'the life-world' and communicative action, which he argues need protection from colonization by the political and economic systems, provides a powerful theory of the cultural influence of the new social movements and legitimates their role as a counter culture. And there are significant parts of the social movements who do indeed see themselves in this role. There are others, though, who desire to transform the existing economic and political systems. Habermas sees these latter phenomena as unavoidable products of modernization against which the social movements can at best protect some public space for undisrorted communicative action. Rather than treat culture, economy and polity as varying parts of interconnected social relations - as in effect did activists in the new movements, moving with relative ease from university actions to organizing with workers in the factories - he treats them almost as different kinds of phenomena. Political and economic systems he sees as 'thing-like constraints on communicative action', and analyses them as if they were inanimate objects, in effect reverting to a positivist method. In this sense, the second generation critical theorists, most notably Habermas, unintentionally follow economistic Marxists in underestimating the cultural and subjective dimensions of political and economic power, inspite of the importance they give to culture as a separate sphere.[6] In this way, contemporary critical theory could not provide a guide to political agency that accorded with the aspirations and sense of possibiliry typical of the activists of the 1970s and, in a different way, the 1980s. Moreover, Habermas' sharp demarcation of the economic system and 'the lifeworld' could not account for the workers' radical resistance to the disciplines of this system. Indeed, the critical theorists dismissed the workers' movement as a spent and incorporated force. Yet it was these simultaneous explosions of revolt, in the factories and in the universities, sharing many critical values, whatever their positive alternatives, which led the politically conscious amongst both to want more specific guides to political action. Marxism as a theory of political agency In spite of the weaknesses of Western Marxism as a guide to action, activists were drawn to it by the critical content of its tools for understanding contemporary reality. Partly as a result they frequently, if only temporarily, joined Marxist (Trotskyist or Maoist) groups or parties. The main function of these organizations prior to 1968 had been to guard the flame of revolutionary Marxism, as Tom Nairn puts it, 'in a world that would not catch fire'.[7] They had to varying degrees become incredibily conservative not only in terms of their style and routine - these in many cases were intelligently altered - but more fundamentally in terms of their central concepts of organization. Even where they had opened themselves to innovative theoretical traditions (for instance, organizations such as the International Socialists in Britain, which drew on the libertarian Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, Hal Draper and others), this openness did not extend to taking sustained risks with their own organizations. Werner Hiilsberg, a historian of the German Greens, describes the paradoxes of this Leninist phase through which significant parts of the new left passed in their search for new forms of organization (in Germany the predominant form was Maoist): 'These non-human parties, with their Stalinist organizational forms, turned young people into political automa-tons and failed totally to break out of their isolation. These organizations were not a continuation of the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (the '68 inspired movement in Germany) but a break with it. Self-organization, love of life, spontaneity, and enlightenment were replaced by zombie-like obedience, discipline, ascetic ism. . . which the intelligent among them couldn't take for long.'[8] And indeed many of those who went briefly to the Maoists later joined anti-nuclear 'citizens' initiatives' in founding Die Grlinen, which was created explicitly and proudly on principles of 'base democracy', almost the polar opposite of the kinds of 'democratic centralism' to be found on the sectarian left (some would say that grass roots or base democracy, however, has been implemented in an equally rigid manner). The problem was that the Leninist parties or groups that emerged out of the shadows with the first popular challenge to Cold War politics were steeped in a methodology which was itself the object of the revolt. These revolutionary organizations could provide a banner for younger movements struggling against US imperialism, against poverty, injustice and exploitation and for a period many people worked through these organizations for these causes. But the activists in these movements interrogated and rejected those who claimed superior, overarching knowledge. They soon found that Leninist organizations tended to make just such a claim, grounding it in somewhat teleological interpretations of Marxism. After brief and often exhausting attempts to make these organizations capable of learning from new movements, activists wandered off, some into new political projects, including explorations of non-Leninist forms of radical political organization, others into creating spaces in their job or community for political change, or into subversive cultural ventures; others became disillusioned with the possibilities of political and economic change, and contributed to a 'life-world' that was being increasingly absorbed into the existing economic system.[9] It is revealing that, across Western Europe, wherever these organizations had roots in the new movements (Britain and Italy in particular) it was feminist activists who broke open the contradiction between the encrusted methodology of warmed-up Leninism and the emerging political culture of the new movements. Feminism and then black militancy were profound challenges to the ideology of social engineering. Here is evidence of another lag in the impact of questioning of conventional theories of knowledge. Recent developments in the philosophy of knowledge and the emerging forms of left political practice to be found amongst movement activists tended to emphasize the experimental interaction of theory and experience. Yet the organizations of the Leninist left, despite protestations to the contrary, ended up safeguarding theoretical truths rather than taking the risk of learning from novel political initiatives. I would suggest two explanations of the lag. The first is a matter of political environment and the second of theoretical tools. Marxist politics: its political environment The influence of latter-day Leninism, with an ultimate priority on preserving the Bolshevik tradition, however that is interpreted, has been strongest in those political environments where the radical left has felt most strongly the fear of betrayal. The more their political environment has bound them as the dependent, subordinate partners of governmental parties of the left, the more this fear has constricted their political imagination. In Britain and France, where the political system made it difficult for the new left to sustain its own political expression, and construct experimentally its own relation to a social base, the influence of a more or less petrified Leninism was at its height. In Britain social movements have produced a dense undergrowth of projects and campaigns, and concerted onslaughts have occasionally been mounted on the methods of the all-knowing sects. But without political representation these alternative groups find it difficult to accumulate the experience and refine the theory necessary for a political identity of their own. Where the new left face an electoral system that allows for a greater plurality of representation, and the possibility of an independent political identity, there has been a pragmatic process of developing new political parties or radicalizing ones led by an earlier 'new' left out of splits with social democratic or Communist parties. In these circumstances - most common in Northern Europe - there has been a greater confidence on the radical left about embarking on new organizational and political experiments without fear of diverging from some sharp, thin line of political correctness. The German Greens, the purest 'new party', developed the most explicitly new institutions of 'base or grass root democracy'.[10] The Dutch Green Left, creating a new left party out of a merger of three older parties - one radical liberal, one pacificist socialist and the third Communist - has also created new kinds of political institutions so that, for instance, the majority of its active supporters, who see themselves as involved primarily in movement activities rather than the party itself, can nevertheless contribute to the work of the party without being sucked away from movement activity into a party apparatus. New left parties in Denmark and Norway, which grew out of pre-1968 splits in Communist and Social Democratic Parties, have more gradually adapted their parliamentary methods in response to the pressure and innovations of the new movements. In Italy most successfully, there has been the phenomenon of Euro-Communism, which has been responsive to the agendas set by the social movements - especially feminism and ecology - but not always to their radically transformative goal and extra-parliamentary methods. Methodologically, Euro-Communism represented a rejection of the official Leninist concept of a single party monopoly in favour of party political plutalism and the more or less conventional model of a parliamentary party. In this, however, party professionals would still be the prime soutce of party policy and direction. They would simply be more willing to form alliances, and do deals with professionals from other parties. [11] Marxist politics: its theoretical tools The problem of theoretical tools seems to be this. In much of his writings Marx implied a theory of knowledge in which the tacit and particular insights of experience play an important role. Consciousness, according to Marx, develops through experience of a changing and contradictory society. His notion of experience and social being is an active one in which people are interpreting and debating their reactions to events; thus ideas and culture are part of practical experience. It is in practice, he argues, that the working class 'are in a position to achieve a complete and no longer restricted self-activity, which consists in the appropriation of a totality of productive forces and in the development of a totality of capacities entailed by this.[12] However, he never translated such general notions into principles of political agency. At the time, this might have been wise. He looked upon parties and political organization as essentially practical instruments, temporary and necessarily flexible. On this basis, Lenin's form of party might have been treated historically as a particular kind of political instrument appropriate for a distinct historical moment. Instead, with the authority of the Russian revolution behind it, it became a model which distorted and hardened under Stalin into an international strait-jacket for part of the European left.[13] Its establishment as a rigid model was aided by the fact that even if its origins were pragmatic, it was argued for in a manner that gave it foundations of reinforced concrete. Lenin asserts that 'class consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers'.[14] This was primarily a polemical critique of the idea that the consciousness developed through trade union struggles either already is, or could spontaneously become, political class consciousness. It is a rejection of the assumption that workers will spontaneously and through the struggle of the workplace develop an understanding and connection with struggles for democracy and social justice in spheres beyond the factory. Lenin went on to argue that only the party, the laboratory and the transmission belt of revolutionary political science, could interpret the wider society to the workers in a way which would generate this political consciousness: only a disciplined party of professional revolutionaries could unite workers' struggles with those of other subordinate social groups to create the power to overthrow the state[15] Lenin did not write his tracts as part of a doctrine for all time. His writings are rather the developing, sometimes self-contradictory, thoughts of a political leader reacting to events, with an acute sense of the opportunities for fundamental transformation and the need for strategic intelligence to grasp them. Whatever the appropriateness of his theory of the revolutionary party to the circumstances of twentieth-century Russia,[16] it became hardened into the presumption of an all-knowing organization, unable to acknowledge the need to learn from the practical and cultural insights of working-class and social movements that had a political life and history of their own. Hallowed by 1917, it became embalmed in the thinking, often only half consciously, amongst many parts of the radical left. Few of the social movement activists who joined or associated with Marxist organizations profoundly believed Lenin's theory of consciousness, at least with its Kautskian emphasis. They were more attracted by the different emphasis which Mao and Trotsky place on popular self-activity and cultural revolution. But although Trotsky andMao at different times demonstrated a real understanding of the creative capacities of working people, both clung tightly to notions of political leadership and organization which took it for granted that those with scientific knowledge, understood in theoretical terms - in terms of knowing the overview - would set the direction and control the process of cultural revolution/self-activity. Their latter-day followers (even those who demonstrate considerable organizational creativity, like the Inter national Socialists since the 1970s, later the Socialist Workers' Party) took a similar course. Judging by the accounts of members and ex-members, their procedures did involve some notion of learning from struggle and from working-class experience. The problem was that they believed all this practical knowledge must be absorbed through a central process and then a single 'line' arrived at to which every braq.ch and member were bound. Moreover, the line was usually all-encompassing, or at any rate quickly became so if a section of the party (such as women, gays, lesbians, blacks), initially allowed autonomy, took serious initiatives of their own. A genuine recognition of practical knowledge, of both tacit and ephemeral kinds, and a commitment to its expression would require spheres of autonomy co-ordinated within a framework of shared goals. Without the autonomy by which groups of members (or individuals) can act on their experience, a component of knowledge is lost, repressed or appropriated in a fragmented, partial way by the leadership[17] Rosa Luxemburg was one of the few Marxist writers and activists from the early twentieth-century years of working-class militancy and revolutionary insurgency who directly challenged Lenin's political methods. She argued that these methods were leading the Bolsheviks to drain genuine power from the soviets to be concentrated in the Party's Central Committee. Her definition of socialist democracy was one in which the working class ruled by means of 'the most active, unlimited partcipation of the mass of the people, of unlimited democracy. . . This democracy must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of class - that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses: it must be under th~i£,Birect influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity: it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of people.'[18] Moreover, Luxemburg did not share Kautsky's and Lenin's belief in the superior knowledge of the party leadership: 'Let us speak plainly, historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more truthful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.'[19] The problem, however, is how such a participative approach can be translated intI sustainable organizational forms in periods and places where there is n revolutionary movement but instead constant, everyday struggles that onl indirectly pertain to state power. Rosa Luxemburg did not live to confrol this problem, and the legacy of Lenin and the Russian Revolution prov overpowering, even in 1968. The leadership of the post-war Marxist grOl: who revived Luxemburg's ideas were not willing to take the risks, includj risks for their own leadership, that implementing them would have entail The imperative of safeguarding the theoretical truths won the day.[2O] Post-modernism and its critics In countries where no new party of the social movement left had emerged (Britain, France and the US, for example), post-modern theories explore the fragmented character of contemporary cultural and political life became especially influential - though they have been influential – though they have been influential throughout the West. There are many ways in which post-modernism, with its characteristic concern for the symbolic, has been in close accord with the activities of the social movements and has helped them gain a reflective self-consciousness 'Post-modernism' has become too embracing a term to be very u has been applied both to theorists concerned with the relation of the ~ to extra-symbolic reality (who would be more accurately described as materialists'), as well as those who consider the symbolic or disc constitute reality. In both cases, however, the concern to scrutinize cultural forms expresses the impulse of the social movements to take apart the soothing consensus of post-war social democracy. The women's mow instance following the US black civil rights movement, challenged universalizing concepts of 'citizenship' and 'human rights', showing how these hid both inequalities and differences which excluded social groups from access to power. Similarly, in the green movement, critical scientists and technologists together with community activists subverted the modernist commitment to technological 'progress', revealing values and implicit choices embedded in this apparently neutral notion. Post-modernism has also raised the problem of 'totalitarianism' in 'totalizing' theories, reflecting a tendency within the social movements to favour a pragmatic, piecemeal approach to theory. Furthermore, it echoes and theorizes the social movements' concern with language; like them it has drawn attention to the role of language in creating our social and cultural life rather than simply reflecting a reality 'out there'. Post-modernism, however, describes the emergent qualities of the culture out of which the social movements developed, rather than a theorization of the movements themselves. This was a culture which produced neoliberalism as well as libertarian socialism, Richard Branson and Virgin Records as well as Tom Robinson and Rock Against Racism.[21] What post-modernists who deny extra-discursive reality cannot express about the social movements, is their purposeful collective effort aimed at transforming structures that exist independently of their activities. They are unable to understand what makes Rock Against Racism different in its purposes and its consequences from Richard Branson and Virgin records. The women's, anti-racist, green and peace movements, for instance, are not simply concerned with changing discourse; their concern with language is part of an effort to achieve greater public truthfulness about the institutions which materially constrain people's lives. Their emergence and continued existence presupposes that the only way to overcome. this oppression is for these victims to become active subjects transforming relationships which they would otherwise tend to reproduce. The debate and argument in the social movements about how to do this is not just a series of diverse solipsistic statements, it presumes common reference points against which stategies for change can at least be tested in practice - something that most post-modernism would deny. Post-modernism has been more influential after the setbacks faced by the social movements in the late 1970s. Geographically it is most influential in France, where the early social movements were at their stongest (in 1968), and yet where they suffered the severest defeat. It is perhaps more of a theory for ex-members of social movements, loyal to the culture of which these movements have been a part, but disillusioned with the frustrating efforts of bringing about social change. Many such people would nevertheless identify with the left and feel politically hostile to neo-liberalism. Yet in this their instincts are stemming from a more universalistic culture than post-modernists can offer. For post-modernism itself does not, I would argue, provide adequate tools to answer the radical right. To be fair, post-modern writers do not claim this as an aim. However, there are those on the left who dress their politics in post-modern garb as if it helped to make the left popular or convincing in a culture influenced by the radical right. In fact, on their own, the tools of postmodernism produce only a more volatile version of the radical right. For like Hayek, post-modernism cuts the connection between human intention and social outcome. While for the radical right the incompleteness of our knowledge means that society is the ourcome of the blindfold and therefore haphazard activities of the individual, for the post-modern theorist, society is an equally haphazard plethora of solpsistic statements of various sorts. The only significant difference is that while the neo-liberal is interested in social order, the post-modernist celebrates chaos. Where the right's dilemma is to explain the social order which pertains despite the haphazard outcomes of individual activity, the post-modern dilemma is to identify the criteria for the value judgments without which even their own activities would be impossible. The radical right resolve their dilemma through what they argue are the moral and political outcomes of social evolution, to be protected by the state against all particularistic protest. The post-modernists resolve their problem by various forms of narcissism, ethno-centrism and relativism. Both devalue the processes of democracy. Critical realists: underlabourers for the new left? A distinctive intellectual undercurrent in the whirlpools of the late sixties and early seventies was an intense interest, especially in Britain, in anti-positivist thinking in the philosophy of science. It was an intellectual revolution stirred by the unlikely figures of Karl Popper in his role as philosopher of science and author of The Logic of Scientific Discovery (as distinct from his role as Cold War polemicist and author of The Open Society and Its Enemies, for which he is more well known), and the later Wittgenstein, whose philosophical debut in the 1920s was as a leading logical positivist, applying the principles of mechanical engineering to the understanding of society.[22] Popper challenged conventional assumptions of the linear, cumulative character of scientific development. Wittgenstein stressed the social character of language and meaning and consequently our knowledge of the world, undermining the individualism that flowed from empiricist notions of knowledge as the atomistic absorption of sense data. These challenges were taken up by Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn.[23] Kuhn demonstrated the character of science as a social institution that was, like any other social product, subject to the exercise of power. Kuhn argued that, typically, science alternated between periods of 'normal' science during which aspiring scientists (not nature) were tested on the basis of the dominant paradigm; and periods of revolutionary science, during which the paradigm suffered such an accumulation of anomalies that rival groups, or more often just a new generation of scientists, generated a new paradigm, around which the scientific community eventually cohered for another round of normal science. Lakatos tried to synthesize the insights of Popper on the one hand (that science could be rational) and Kuhn on the other (that science is by fits rational and irrational). He elaborated a methodology by which research programmes could be judged according to whether they were progressive or degenerating - thus knowledge could be cumulative but still fallible. Feyerabend points out that science develops through the existence, at any period of time, of a plurality of competing scientific theories, and argues for much more individual choice for the scientist. He took this insight to extreme irrationalistic and relativist conclusions. By the late sixties monistic and deductivist notions of science were under severe attack. One approach to an alternative was emerging out of the linguistic philosophy of J. 1. Austin, who developed a dimension of Wittgenstein's stress on the social character of language and the contextual character of meaning. Austin's method was to analyse everyday language and its presuppositions.[24] More often than not this turned philosophy into a trivial pursuit. Linguistic philosophy did, however, take the development of philosophy out of the realms of a debate that was spiralling away, not only from the world but also from the ways in which humans sought to describe and understand the world. Although much linguistic philosophy got lost in the minutiae of everyday speech, it also stimulated two breakthroughs. The first was to explore the actual practice of scientific reasoning. In the course of such investigations, Rom Harre and Mary Hesse took even further the critique of deductive and instrumental reasoning of the sceptics mentioned above, showing the importance in science of models, analogies and a whole range of non-linear forms of reasoning. They also demonstrated the value-laden character of scientific knowledge. The second breakthrough was P. F. Strawson's attempt to start from everyday language but to probe further, asking what must be the case for speech activity to be possible.[25] This transcendental method of argument originated with Kant, who asked what must be the case for experience to be possible. It led from reflection on the use of language, whether in everyday life or science, to considering what the world must be like for language to be used and science undertaken. Critical realists later developed this line of reasoning into a radical break from the anthropocentric thesis that being can always be analysed in terms of statements about out knowledge of being, and therefore philosophy can concern itself exclusively with human knowledge of the world, rather than of the character of the world itself.26 They developed the term to transcendental argument and asked what must the world be like for philosophy, science, social activities in general and human emancipation to be possible? Surprisingly, perhaps, all these developments, from Popper and Wittgenstein to Srrawson, turned out to be vital resource for a generation of young British social scientists radicalized by 1968. They were faced in their academic work as well as in their politics with practical, empirical problems: how to understand economic underdevelopment; how to explain the continued subordination of women in liberal capitalist societies; how to understand and transform the stasis of British society. With these questions in mind, it did not take long to become frustrated with what the shelves of conventional sociological and economic studies had to offer. Threads of critical and Marxist theory, and especially history, existed in British cultute, but they were too sparse to weave a rich tradition. Continental Marxism began to be available in translation in the late sixties, and provided another resoutceY But in many ways that Marxism was engaged in its own internal debates; only here and there - Althusser's 'On Contradiction and Overdetermination', Marcuse's ‘One Dimensional Man’ and Habermas' ‘Knowledge and Human Interest’s, for instance - did it provide tools for radical empirical analysis and the means of transformation. This paucity of easily available critical tools led social scientists such as Roy Bhaskar, William Outhwaite, Andrew Collier, Ted Benton, and later Mary Kaldor, Michele Barrett and many more - none of whom starred their work as philosophers - to explore systematically questions of method and, in the latter cases, to apply them to problems of empirical analysis. In some instances their frustration with existing theories of the problem with which they started led them to reconsider the very basis of scientific knowledge. They were all sympathetic to Marxism as the framework for a reseatch programme, but not satisfied with its present form. So a second impetus was self-consciously to reconstruct tools of materialist analysis. Roy Bhaskar's work is the most systematic implementation of these two projects. He began his philosophical journey as an economist concerned with problems of underdevelopment and the relevance of orthodox economic theory to them; the apparent irrelevance of the latter to the issue of explaining and overcoming third-world poverty posed a problem which his writing has set itself to answer. William Outhwaite has developed some of Bhaskar's ideas, also drawing selectively on some of the insights of critical theory. Others have developed and applied these ideas in relation to ecology, feminism, and the military. There now exists a distinct intellectual school of 'critical realists' whose work, significantly, is based to a large extent outside the academy and applies itself to political and social problems of the day. The conceptual tools they have developed make it easy to overcome the lag between the collapse of positivistic understandings of knowledge and science in philosophical circles and the persistence of these methods in state, party and economic organization. Concepts alone, however, can never achieve institutional change. It is the way they harmonize with and help to clarify the practice of the movements with whom they share their origins, that gives them this potential potency. The social production of knowledge An intellectual outcome of the 1968 revolts against the ruling military and industrial institutions of the Cold War was scepticism of all claims to social neutrality, especially those of science and technology. This led to a widespread reflection on the social context both of particular theories and of the production and distribution of scientific understanding itself. This focus on the social production of knowledge was the starring point of critical realism. Whereas other philosophies of science analyse the language of science or seek to reconstruct science according to some ideal type, critical realists looked at science as a form of social production. The transcendental question that critical realists ask is, what must the world be like for experimental activity and the distinctive activities of scientific production to be possible? Knowledge and being The process of answering this question led them to insights that parallel those implicit in the practice of the social movements. In a sense this is to be anticipated, in that social movements seeking to transform society without any precise recipe are themselves engaged in a continuing process of experimental activity, the focus of these critical philosophers' concern. But critical realists have conducted a philosophical investigation which helps us to ground some of the insights implicit in movement practice, and to make use of them. I have argued that one of the main insights of the movements is their recognition of the importance of many different kinds of knowledge - tacit, experiential, theoretical - for a full understanding of a problem or phenomena. In its most radical form critical realism argues that there exist several levels of being, or reality. It shows how experimental activity in social science presupposes the existence of social structures or mechanisms which generate or produce more or less directly observable phenomena. These structures and mechanisms are not themselves necessarily directly observable - though in some cases they can be. They need to be discovered, through experimentation, through investigation following various clues and with empirical controls of different sorts. Already this implies the likelihood of different kinds of knowledge: the existence of different forms of being requires different kinds of knowing if these distinct levels are to be understood. Knowledge, for instance, of the effects of structures or mechanisms can be gained through direct experience or clues to their effects through more indirect experience. On the other hand, knowledge of the structures themselves is best gained through the construction of and experimentation with theoretical hypotheses on the basis of knowledge of past and present effects. This approach to ontology grounds a critical Marxist insight (though not exclusive to Marxism) influential in the radicalism of all the social movements; an insight that identified levels of reality beneath and behind the world of phenomenal, directly observable events (and meanings), but without denying the reality and real consequences of these appearances. In natural science, the atomic structures - and behind them their electronic configurations - which produce the observable phenomena of matter would be an example of such mechanisms. In social science, where closed, laboratory, conditions are absent, and where the understandings of the agents of strucrures and the social position and perspective of the social scientist are all in some way involved, an example might be the mechanisms of domestic, cultural and economic subordination which produce the position of women as objects of display. Women's representation as sex objects itself has a reality with cultural effects, which reinforce deeper, not necessarily observable, mechanisms of oppression. In understanding a problem, therefore (or, to put it in political terms, in developing a strategy for change), critical realism implies the need both to take into account people's own perceptions of their circumstances and to draw on other evidence and hypotheses to explore, where possible, with the people concerned, causal mechanisms at work of which these people might not be aware, because, for example, of the existence of unacknowledged conditions or unconscious motivation. In this way the critical realists justify the social movements' attention to language, culture and the expression of distinct identities but they under stand these as related to underlying structures of power. Unlike post-modernism, therefore, they can sustain philosophically the presumption of most social movement activists, of a real world independent of their knowledge of it - the object of their efforts of transformation. But in contrast to many forms of positivism, critical realists make this presumption in a way that does not reduce this reality to one strucrure or one level of reality. A differentiated world This theorization of the differentiated as well as structured nature of reality provides a foundation for the emphasis of many movement activists on organizing autonomously and at the same time forming alliances on particular issues and/or converging, conditionally, in support of a political party. This political practice presupposes a plurality of different structures. Some of these are seen as in internal and hierarchical relations with each other though this is a matter for empirical research and experiment. The value the social movements place on the shared interrogation of their everyday knowledge arises from a sense of themselves as the agents of social change. Knowledge and action are inextricably bound up. Critical realism provides a grounding for this in its rejection of the conventional positivist assumption that facts and values are entirely separate and its demonstration of the value-laden character of our knowledge of the world. This is daily illustrated in the way that we reproduce or transform social institutions. New knowledge about the consequences of our passive acquiescence in these institutions can lead people to take transformative action in their own lives. This leads to critical realism's 'transformational model of social activity'. The model suggests that social structures exist by virtue of the individuals who reproduce or potentially transform them. Such a theory implies - contrary to the positivist, determinist model - that the reproduction and transformation of society depends on actors' understandings of the relationships and structures in which they participate. This transformational model extends critical theory's recognition of the importance of the meanings people give to their own action, to the recognition of the importance of subjective consciousness in material structures of economic and political power. It takes us out of critical theory's fatalism concerning these structures without leading to voluntarism. In the early days of social movements, the energies newly released by the discovery of collective power encouraged an' initial voluntarism both of the individual and the collective. Critical realism guards against this in its analysis by directing our attention to social relations - as Marx did in his substantive work-rather than either atomistic individuals or supraindividual collectivities, as the explanatory key to understanding social trends and events. Without an understanding of social relations mediating individual behaviour and the reproduction or transformation of social structures, the left tends to lurch from voluntaristic Jacobinism to deterministic structuralism, depending on whether 'the masses' are quiescent or in revolt. Critical realists show how the nature of social structures depend upon social relations, between capital and labour, ministers and civil servants, parents and children.[28] Consequently, although it is the activity of these people which transforms or reproduces these relations, nevertheless the relations into which people enter exist before the indivuduals who enter them. This 'relational view' accords well with the distinctive character of the new left: on the one hand it emerged, from 1956 onwards, as a reaction to the bureaucratic collectivisms of Labour and the Soviet Union, and at the same time it was sickened by the hyped-up individualism of the consumer boom. Its implicit model of society posits relatively enduring but transformable relations between individuals, rather than either as the sum of individual action (dogmatic individualism) or as supra-individual wholes (bureaucratic collectivism). Knowledge as a social product How might these conceptual tools help the social movement left clarify the wider implications of its practical alternative to the free-market right? I showed in chapter 2 how Hayek presents us with a choice between an open and a closed prison. His individualistic understanding of knowledge leads him to an overly restricted choice between fallibility and false claims to omniscience. This implies the political choice between the rough justice of the free market, understood as the haphazard outcome of individual activity, and the central planning of a party that claims to know your every inrerest. At the root of this hopeless choice is the way that Hayek's view of knowledge breaks the connection between human intention and social outcome, making accident rather than human creativity the mechanism of evolution. Much of ; the more politically conscious activists of recent social movements hold out ~ the elements of an alternative. But Hayek's choice has theoretical staying power, in spite of practice which points in alternative directions. Critical realism helps us theoretically to justify, learn from and disseminate the' alternative practice. In particular, it does so by providing the tools to theorize the practical insights of movement activists into the varied, social character of knowledge. Knowledge, like language, is not a physical or natural attribute of individuals. According to critical realism it must therefore be an attribute of individuals by reason of their social character, their particip;1~ion, active or passive, in relations with others within inherited structures. And if it is social it will have historical and relational aspects, to varying degrees. This means that the content, distribution and structure of any particular area of knowledge pre-exist any individual. An individual is born into a heritage of know 1edge. But how that knowledge and its organization are reproduced or transformed depends on the individuals who in any way participate in it, whether passively or actively. If we combine this understanding of knowledge as a social structure with Hayek's initial insight into the fallible, dispersed and ephemeral character of knowledge, we arrive at a conclusion quite contrary to Hayek's. People will mobilize whatever resources they can, including co-operation with others, or the control of others, to overcome the limits of their knowledge and thereby come closer to achieving their purposes. This is one factor explaining why, for instance, the market does not and probably never has worked in the way that Hayek envisages. Ever since markets began, producers and sellers have used whatever resources at their disposal to gather to themselves the knowledge that enables them to influence the market to their benefit. And the different ways that market economies have developed is evidence that they (employers, trade unions, governments) have had some success. The outcome is rarely exactly as they hoped. But on the other hand, where they have had power, including extensive knowledge or means of controlling knowledge, their purposes have undoubtedly been a direct influence on the evolution of market institutions. Similarly the individuals creating the networks of social movement organization are gathering the knowledge they need from different vantage points in order to understand the social mechanisms at work and take action to influence, spike or reverse them. In the cases of the women's, peace and green movements there has been some success. The historical distinctiveness, indicated here, of the social movements of recent years is a politics of knowledge which has broken from both a confidence in scientific reason as providing the complete social map for political intervention. But the deep and varied limits they recognize on reason does not, in their view, break the link, however tenuous, between their intentions and the social outcome of their intended actions. Much of their practice indicates a belief in the possibility, through social organization, of extending and combining fragmented knowledge to gain not 'a complete picture', but rather a better understanding of the social mechanisms at work, so as to direct their efforts in order that their intentions might be more efficiently fulfilled. Knowledge and democracy: some implications Where does this approach leave solutions to the problem of social order? It eliminates as empirically impossible both order through the accidents of a naturalistic model of social evolution and order through centralized design (even the authoritarian regimes of the Soviet bloc were not able to control society as they intended). Furthermore, if, contrary to the accident theory of social evolution, the mechanism of social evolution is the conscious, purposeful projects of groups and individuals changing their social environment by trial and error, then the question arises of procedure and criteria for a just and ordered framework within which these projects can be undertaken. Processes of democratic public judgement thus once more enter the equation, potentially at every level of society, after Hayek's attempt to replace them with the elite processes of discovering and protecting supposed laws of evolution and civilization. But 'Democracy' cannot be brought triumphantly centre stage, as if its character is not significantly altered by a new approach to knowledge. As a means of government its forms are unavoidably, if usually invisibly, underpinned by presumptions concerning what workings of the economy, polity and social order can and cannot be known, in what way and by whom. It is apparent retrospectively that the different institutional arrangements that claim to be 'government by the people' have been and continue to be influenced implicitly by a range of beliefs about the knowledge and capacities of different sections of the people and by views on whether and how this knowledge should be mobilized. Tom Paine made the need for a form of government which awakened human capacities that normally lie unutilized, central to his polemic for representative government and the political rights that should go with it:
It appears to general observation, that revolutions create genius and talents; hut those events do no more than bring them forward. There is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolution.[29]
Once representative democracy was achieved, however, its forms were determined by representatives of labour, and by political leaders with less generous views of 'ordinary' human capacities, and greatly influenced by the social engineering philosophies which came to dominate the left. Beatrice Webb's belief, for instance, that 'the average sensual man can describe his problem but is unable to prescribe a solution' no doubt influenced the British Labour Party's acceptance of, more accurately deference to, the expertise of senior civil servants, to the exclusion of opening government departments up to the expertise in Labour's own ranks. And Beatrice Webb openly expressed an assumption widely shared by socialist intellectuals and Labour leaders alike.[3O] A view of knowledge which, by contrast, validates theoretical, experimental, tacit and social dimensions, has radical implications for the character of democracy. The innovative democratic forms of recent movements rebelling against authorities claiming omniscience illustrate some of these. Innovations can take place both in the forms of democracy, emphasizing processes of participatory self-government, and in extending the levels of society at which questions of democracy are considered relevant. Democracy, for these new movements, is a matter for the institutions of everyday life: the institutions of work, welfare and community, as well as for those of state. As the projects of these movements have had to metamorphose to survive - in the face of market pressures or state austeriry and/or repression - or as they have reflected on how to spread their networks or generalize from their particular experiences, they have experimented with new forms of non-market social and economic co-ordination. And they have explored forms of regulation independent of but in wary partnership with sympathetic elected political authorities. In some countries, mainly at a local or regional levels, they have forged precarious new forms of representation, through which new left parties seek to represent not only individual voters but also movements capable of changing social institutions independently of the state. Finally, in the context of the re-ordering and suppressing of traditional forms of popular sovereignty that is taking place as the private market dominates Europe-wide decisions, the new movements are pressing principles of subsidiarity: insisting on decision making at the lowest appropriate level from the standpoint not of the private market but of social, ecological, and democratic needs. The next section of this book will explore the pattern of 'differentiated democracy' which can be glimpsed in the messy and uneven experience of the movement left. From movements to institutions Social movement politics have come a long way since the students of 1968 demanded 'wholeness' and what they imagined would be the immediate transparency of direct democracy throughout society. From De Gaulle's victory in the elections of late May 1968 through to the defeat of the miners' strike in Britain and the failure of the West German Greens to win representation in the Bundestag, the social movement left has had considerable experience of defeat and loss. At various times they have been dismissed as a youthful phase, either literally or in political terms, which will pass. The some social implication is that they will mature and provide fresh blood for existing social democratic parties. And undoubtedly some social movement activists have joined such parties. Usually, however, they have taken their social movement politics with them: like the feminists who campaigned successfully for quotas for the representation of women on leading SPD committees, or the black militants who have been demanding recognition of their rights to autonomous organization in the Labout Party. Sometimes they have withdrawn, recognizing a dead end. Most significantly, however, their distinctive politics has lived on and developed through a variety of initiatives and projects. Most of the latter are institutionalized to some extent, sometimes through public funding, through needing to survive in a market environment, or as a competitor in the electoral process. But in becoming institutions, with varying relations to movement style organizations, they illustrate in the West practical possibilities for a new kind of left, more able to respond to what are seen as the failures of socialism in the East. Often participants in this left are unconscious of the wider significance of these innovations. They are realistic in their modesty since these innovations are incomplete and cannot be presented as a coherent alternative. More often than not they are embedded in practice. But they are worth investigating because they provide tried and partially tested tools for such an alternative. Notes 1) Magazine Litteraire, 8 May 1968. 2) Sheila Rowbotham, in Beyond the Fragments, by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright (London, 1981). 3) I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (London, 1959); The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929 (London, 1959); The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929--40 (London, 1963); Stalin: A Political Biography, revised edn (London, 1966). 4) See for example Andre Gorz, Strategy for Labour (Boston, 1968). 5) Quoted in William Outhwaite, New Philosophies of Social Science (London, 1987) - along with his Jiirgen Habermas (Cambridge, 1994), the most relevant exegesis of critical theory for the arguments of this book. 6) In an important sense, Habermas, with his dualistic view of culture and material systems, has not followed through the original promise of the Frankfurt School. The first generation of critical theorists - Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse, for instance - were concerned with investigating the relation of culture, consciousness and unconsciousness to the material structures of everyday life, with a view to social transformation, about which, however, they became increasingly pessimistic. See Paul Connerton, Tragedy of Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1980). 7) Tom Nairn, The Beginning of the End (London, 1968), p. 129. 8) Werner Hiilsberg, The German Greens (London, 1988), p. 51. 9) As Habermas was to argue in Theory of Communicative Action, vols I and II (Cambridge, 1987). 10) For an explanation of this idea see Werner Hiilsberg, The German Greens (Lon don, 1988); and Green Politics, by Charlene Spretnak and Fritjof Capra (London, 1985). 11) See chapter 7 for a detailed analysis of the methodological differences between the new parties influenced by the social movement left and the traditional parties of the left. 12) Marx and Engels, The German ideology, in Collected Works, vol. 5 (London, 1965), p. 87. Marx's concept of 'praxis' expressed this understanding of the importance of practical knowledge. See the entry on 'Praxis' by Gajo Petrovic in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. Tom Bottomore (Oxford, 1983). 13) A process traced by Fernando Claudin in The Communist Movement (London, 1977). 14 Collected Works (London, 1965), p. 422. 15) For a full explanation of Lenin's political thought see M. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London, 1975); also E. Mandel, 'The Leninist Theory of Organiza tion', in R!:IJolution and Class Struggle: A Reader in Marxist Politics, ed. R. Blackburn (London, 1977). 16) See Sam Farber, Before Stalinism (London, 1991) on the debates within the Bolshevik party before Lenin's death. He suggests that in spite of the flaws of Leninism, it would be wrong to see the brutal authoritarianism of Stalin as somehow inscribed within it, an unavoidable consequence of the revolution that Lenin led. See also Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. M. A. Waters (New York, 1970). 17) For a critical history of the International Socialists, through which many of the radical left in Britain passed in the 1970s, see Martin Shaw, 'The Making of a Party', Socialist Register, 1978. 18) Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism (Michigan, 1961), pp. 76-8. 19) Luxemburg, p. 15. 20) I have in mind here the experiences of the SWP in Britain, Lotta Continua and Avante Guardia Operia in Italy, and Lutte Ouvriere in France. For the material on the history of the far left in Italy, see Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy (London, 1990). 21) See David Harvey, The Condition of Post modernity (Oxford, 1990); Kate Soper, in A Meeting of Minds (London, 1991), and 'Postmodernism and its Discontents', Feminist Review, 39 (a special issue entitled 'Shifting Territories: Feminism and Europe'). See also R. Braidotti, Patterns of Dissonance (Cambridge, 1991). The distinction between those post-modern theorists who, whatever they avow, undertake analyses of the material or extra-discursive aspects of social reality, and those who are completely unconcerned with the material dimension of life, I' is illustrated by on the one hand the early work of Foucault (The Archaeology of Knowledge (London, 1962», and on the other hand the stance of a Baudrillard - treating such phenomena as the Gulf War exclusively as a media event (see C. I: Norris, Intellectuals and the War (London, 1991). For a thorough discussion of the changes in Foucault's work, see H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault (Hemel Hempstead, 1982). 22) K. Popper, the Logic of Scientific Discovery (London, 1959). 1. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London, 1961). 23). S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edn (Chicago, 1970); I. Lakatos, 'The Rationality of Scientific Research Programmes', Criticism and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge, 1967); P. Feyerabend, Against Method (London, 1975). See R. Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality, chapter 3 (London, 1988) for a full discussion. 24)See for example J. 1. Austin, Philosophical Papers (Oxford, 1962). 25) See especially P. F. Strawson, Individuals (London, 1951). 26) See Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science (Sussex, 1978). 27) Mainly through New Left Review and New Left Books (now Verso). 28) See for instance Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality. 29) The Rights of Man, in The Thomas Paine Reader (London, 1987), p. 277. 30) See Fred Whitmore, 'British Socialism and Democracy in Retrospect', in Socialism and Democracy, eds Sean Sayers and David McLellan (London, 1991).