Knowledge: A Matter of Opinion?
It is often said that: ‘we all have a right to our opinion’. Socialists would confirm this, perhaps not as a matter of rights but as an inevitable consequence of an enquiring mind. The expression of an opinion within the public arena is, of course, a rather different matter. I was once informed by a librarian that he would not stock the Socialist Standard because they would then have to make available fascist material in an effort to balance two political ‘extremes’. Somehow, in this perverse logic, because we have always opposed xenophobia, racism, class/political elites, militarism and authoritarianism (the essence of fascism) we are responsible for our own antithesis!
We would say that some opinions have more value than others when analysed in terms of motivation and obvious intrinsic humanitarian content. On a more prosaic level if you have problems with your car it is rational to consult a qualified mechanic rather than someone who has watched motor racing on the TV occasionally. It is the same with politics – an opinion not grounded in some level of study is of less value than that of another who has dedicated their life to understanding the origins and evolution of social power. It may be objected that even those who have made such a study may, and do, come up with very different, and often opposing, values and perspectives. Is, then, all knowledge merely a matter of opinion?
Most of us would not consider ‘gravity’ as a matter of opinion. It is, of course, a theory that attempts to explain the observed phenomena of the attraction of two bodies – commonly called ‘falling’. It might be said that this is a scientific fact and so cannot be compared to political ideas. But anyone who is interested in the history of science is aware that scientific consensus is often the result of bitter internal struggles within the science establishment. Some have maintained that the discipline of history (including the history of science) is purely the creation of historians and is, therefore, entirely composed of subjective opinion. But has any historian claimed that Belgium invaded Germany to start the First World War; or that Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo? If they were to do so then the subsequent derision would be well deserved as in the case of the theories of ‘holocaust deniers’.
Socialists are materialists and one of the consequences of this philosophy is the insistence that events, whether scientific or political/historical, occur independently of their observation. We insist that a tree can fall even if there is nobody there to observe it doing so. This, in no way dilutes the importance of human agency within the understanding of phenomena but it insists that it is the objective existence of phenomena that must always precede our ability to observe it and think about it. Our minds, both physically and psychologically, have to exist independently before we can ‘think’ at all. Is it possible, then, to cut our way through all of the preconceptions and prejudices that so often make up an ‘ideology’ and get to the elusive ‘what actually happened’?
The recent success of the ‘Brexit’ campaign has been explained by some as an example of an uneducated and politically naive section of the population being easily manipulated by lies about the nature of the EU and the benefits of leaving it. But what of those who make this judgement – from where does their superior information originate? The ‘liberal’ media also has an ideological agenda that is just as politically superficial as that of the Brexiteers. How can we be sure of this? Because both camps completely ignore the biggest political elephant in history’s room – the class struggle. Well over one hundred years ago the discovery was made that this was the dynamic element within human culture which drives historical development. The implications of this for liberal sensibilities are intolerable and so are ignored thus rendering any attempt at political analysis superficial and ultimately meaningless. It’s like trying to understand evolution without reference to genetics or physics without reference to quantum mechanics.
All political phenomena have their origin within the relationship of social groups (classes) with the means of the production of life (industry, etc). This mutual antagonism is reflected within all political ideologies whether recognised or not. Some debate the possibility that you can be involved in the class struggle without being conscious of its existence but nobody would claim that before we became aware of the existence of bacteria and viruses they had no effect on human life. This is the essence of materialist thought – we strive to create theories that are increasingly successful in describing our world which, in turn, allows us to be more confident in our predictions of how it might change. Knowledge is the historical assimilation, refinement or rejection of such theories; in this sense it can never be purely a matter of personal opinion unless that opinion originates within, and recognises, this context through study. It is not a matter of cultural consensus since this is invariably the creation of power elites who only seek to justify their continued existence and therefore explicitly reject any theories concerning the dynamics of historical change which might indicate an end to their rule.
The absence of class consciousness prevents political evolution because ideologies swirl around the anachronistic phantoms of nationality, race, gender, religion and (the most fantastic of all illusions within a capitalist context) economic fairness and social justice. Because, historically, the working class represent the revolutionary catalyst they have a privileged perspective in terms of relevant knowledge – they see the world as it really is and, potentially, what it can become. The universe is indifferent to the needs of our species, as is history. Many have dedicated their lives to creating equality and justice but without knowledge their failure was inevitable. The resolution of the class struggle is the only way to liberate our species from the slave mentality that sustains capitalism. Once achieved there seems to be no limit to our potential – think about this the next time you are promised a few more crumbs from the rich man’s table by liberal/leftists, whether we are part of the EU or not.