Science and Ideology (1956)

Every so often, a workers’ congress convenes to decide by unanimous vote or a plurality of votes upon certain truths. It makes some solemn announcement that “world war 3” is inevitable, that there is no escaping “the crisis of capitalism (or Stalinism, or democracy, or colonialism)”; that centralization or federation – or abundance or dearth – or unemployment or full employment – have prevailed, prevail or will prevail in certain circumstances. It asserts that economics dictates policy or vice versa. It delves into hypotheses regarding the origins of human society, its purposes and so on. In other words, “resolutions” are tabled on de facto findings, inductions or prognoses and the reckoning is that in so doing they are investing the movement’s approach with a “scientific” or “objective” character. In actual fact, that procedure could scarcely be any more anti-scientific: it falls within the proper remit of church councils and consistories to define the orthodoxy of the faith, and not to serious gatherings where objective researchers spell out their research and discoveries.  At a gathering of doctors, ethnographers or chemists, the hypotheses and proofs can be compared and contrasted, detailed explanations asked for and adduced, schools of thought take shape, but the actual issue is always left open. It has never occurred to astronomers to swallow whole the theory of universal attraction or the theory of relativity by way of a claim that they accord with the facts: physicists have held no symposia to embrace or repudiate as incorrect the idea of quanta, or the fashionable formula regarding the structure of the atom, or the wave or corpuscular nature of light, etc. Likewise, biologists have never cast a vote for or against the heredity of acquired characteristics, for or against Mendel’s theory of hybridism, nor passed “resolutions” on the evolution of complex creatures.

By definition, a “resolution” reflects a preferential choice, a determination and a hope, and, when it comes to turning or not turning, the world pays small heed to Copernican or anti-Copernican preferences, decisions or acts of faith. Any critical mind, and any man of good will has to concede that much. Articulating whatever “pleases” us intellectually, aesthetically or morally, in the form of a verdict passed on reality, rather than as a straightforward judgement value, amounts to “monkeying” with intellectual honesty and with science; it is tantamount to playing the trickster or the charlatan or casting oneself as the unwilling victim of illusion; to mistaking wishes (or fears) for facts.

The proper role of any congress or gathering with any pretension to objective common sense is therefore to compare and contrast opinions and evidence, but not to decide which opinion best fits the facts. It may always come down to reaching a compromise between competing desires, reconciling different projects, working out some practical way of steering efforts along very rational lines, but never to arriving at a middle way between a theoretical yes and a theoretical no, nor persuading a minority by strength of numbers, with the initiated and the profane “formally” reassured as to the veracity or falsehood of some claim by the decision of a majority.

Where the facts are put to a vote (say, in totalitarian regimes where the Party leader, in his capacity as governor and leader of the faithful, determines what is, was and ever shall be true or false), the upshot is this monstrosity: the identification, banishment or even the physical liquidation of researchers whose observations have led them to results in conflict with the official ideology, or who dare to espouse in their researches working hypotheses contrary to Marxist-Leninist, Catholic, National-Socialist, fundamentalist or other dogmas.

Unlike the heresy trials which are still with us, albeit sometimes disguised as scientific, the old courts at the least had the decency to acknowledge the subjective nature of their verdicts: they would draft their verdict, not on the basis of some indicative approach (laying down “the truth”), but in the subjunctive voice: (“it has pleased us (nos placuit) that such-and-such a party has won its case”, they used to say). And rightly so, as the motives behind the acts of men are not theoretical but emotional – and acknowledgement of that emotional character represents the first step in the direction of scientific disinterest and objectivity. In dealing with current fact, past history or likely prospect, everybody comes to a judgement the very same way as he passes judgement on a painting, a play or a political address: according to the personal affective leanings of which ideologies are just a slightly “rationalized” expression.

Any ideology (any Weltanschauung, as the Germans say) is nothing but the more-or-less coherent and successful theoretical systemization of a given number of instinctive, subjective attractions and repugnances felt by this or that person vis à vis the ideas that are put to him, as well as the terms and facts associated with them.

Ask a man to place a plus or a minus sign (or more than one if need be, or a blend of them) beside a list of key words – such as mass, individual, community, property, discipline, autonomy, unity, diversity – words that, by themselves, carry no positive or negative “value judgements” and you can get a better grasp of his ideology than you will from reading all of the theoreticians to whom he looks for guidance. Conversely, apply emotional tones and pejorative or laudatory connotations to those very same keywords in a few words of text and the person in question will be able to identify you as a kindred thinker or as his bitterest foe.

That is ideology for you, a pair of black-and-white spectacles that ensure that one sees certain things as “all good” and others as “all bad”, throwing relief into perspective and giving a “steer” to all our contacts with the universe. Whether one might act or bring any cohesion to behaviour without some modicum of ideology is open to question: but it is the very height of error and fanaticism not to recognize the personal, subjective, emotional and volitional character of our value judgements, and to draw upon them unconsciously in our analysis of the facts.

Inside ourselves, the wilful man and the knowledgeable one must be deliberately amalgamated on the basis of candour and mutual honesty. It is the former that frames the options that are, of necessity, also acts of faith, but he should not mistake those acts of faith for articles of law or become wedded to them as he would to intangible truths unsusceptible to authentication and experience. The worst illusion would be to take as read the scientific validity of what we project into things, poetry, myth and ideology. No ideology is scientific, nor can it tell what is real, possible or probable. There is no science that can state what ought to be, what is good, desirable or just. The ideal is a subjective field and inquiries made of reality merely enlighten us and can enlighten us only in respect of the means and the odds of bringing it about.

Writing as A. Prunier in Défense de l’homme (Paris), No 94, June 1956. From Un anarchisme hors norme (a collection of texts by André Prudhommeaux, published by Tumult )

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.