Wood for the Trees: Through a Glass Darkly

Through a Glass Darkly

Jacobite leader: Charles Edward Stuart

A struggle has been going on in these islands for centuries of which you’re only dimly aware’ is a quote from the 1971 movie version of Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped. It is spoken by the Lord Advocate to David Balfour as part of an explanation of his political ideology. He seeks to communicate the idea that his political insight (or consciousness) is superior to that of his young listener. Balfour’s response: ‘I can’t argue with you; you’ve answers to questions I haven’t even thought of’ is a confirmation of this disparity of political knowledge. The historical context of the novel is the struggle in Scotland between the English-backed bourgeoisie and the reactionary highlanders attempt to restore the Stuart monarchy and its autocratic rule (the Jacobites).

The Lord Advocate couches his understanding of events in ideological terms by referring to his protection of the freedom of religion and equality under the law. A socialist would likewise accuse him of a naïve and superficial understanding of history by reference to the class struggle. We have here an example of three different political perspectives: Balfour’s idealistic insistence on the moral integrity and rational coherence of the law, the Advocate’s belief in the use of realpolitik to further the ideals of the Enlightenment (ideology) and Marxism’s economic and political materialism that exposes the underlying class struggle. We can perhaps boil down these three polemical stances into idealism, ideology and materialism. Of course the three do occasionally overlap but they can still give us an insight into levels of consciousness or, to put it another way, into different degrees of awareness.

Socialists quite often refer to political or ‘class consciousness’ as a higher form of social awareness that is essential in seeing what lies behind the propaganda and ideological values of any given historical period. To some class consciousness is mistaken for an obsession with social status and socialists are accused of having ‘a chip on their shoulder’ or suffering from financial envy. But in reality an understanding of the social tectonics of class is the only way to cut through the ideological overgrowth of ideology that merely serves to justify minority political power. But how can we be sure that this approach to politics is not also ideological? Do socialists force everything into a class context when an ideological or even moral perspective might be more revealing? It would be ironic indeed if Marxism could be accused of being ideological or even idealist since opposing these twin illusions was responsible for its very conception. One way to undermine such allegations would be to examine the existence of the reality, or otherwise, of the different levels of awareness (consciousness).

It would be nonsense to deny that some members of any community are more talented than others in certain areas of conception and/or production. The complexities of the technological age in which we live make a division of both intellectual and physical labour essential. Because everything is socially produced all these talents are totally interdependent and so there should be no question of a hierarchy in production creating any kind of elite (unlike today in class society). So we find a disparity of knowledge between those who studied and have experience of a certain discipline and those who have not. This is just stating the obvious but in politics everyone is expected to somehow have an equality of understanding even if they have made no effort to study the subject.

To object to this nonsense is to risk being accused of elitism. But those socialists who take an interest in this kind of philosophical inquiry are entirely aware that the ideas, language, laptops and electricity are all equally necessary to its creation and is therefore itself conceived of as a part of social production. Avoiding the emotional and intellectual seduction of the language of the idealistic, moralistic and ideological is impossible without some knowledge of their respective origins in terms of context, rhetorical structure and power source. Awareness that these elements obscure, distort and condition our experience of the world is vital if we are to lift the veil from what is real and authentic.

All of the above is, of course, dependant on the existence of an objective world that is, in some sense, independent of how we think about it (materialism). The efficacy of this ‘higher consciousness’ can only be tested empirically: the ability to make predictions based on research, etc. The fall of the Russian (sometimes erroneously called Soviet) empire was no surprise to socialists. Although the ideological rhetoric was a parody of Marxism every socialist knew that it was, in fact, just another form of capitalist economic imperialism that along with all the others of its kind (British, Japanese, German, Spanish, Portuguese etc.) would flourish and then decay with time. We knew this because we are not subject to the emotional, intellectual and moral illusions of ideology. If this is not proof of the existence of different levels of political consciousness then what is?

Those whose beliefs and values are not based on empirical evidence leave themselves open to accusations of dogma, delusion and self-deception which are a testament to the existence of vastly different levels of political consciousness. Such muddle-headedness has resulted in untold suffering and an unerring ability to be wrong time and again. A critical response to the moral values and political mores of the culture into which we are born is not easy and depends on more than just the intellectual deconstruction of propaganda but without such an ability a viable political alternative is rendered inconceivable.