“In studying a problem, we must shun subjectivity, one-sidedness and superficiality.” -Mao Zedong, On Contradiction
This image is a reflection of a perspective that many take regarding opinions, and that does have so social value. Yet it also opens up other questions in the realm of politics, science, political science, and the correct handling of contradictions among the people.
Depending who sees this image, often the reaction is full agreement, or full disagreement – with little nuance. This is almost to be expected: people who believe their opinions to be the truth, will most likely disagree with the cartoon and vice versa.
I admit that intuitive reaction is mostly negative on my part: I know certain things to be facts and these are not subject to opinion, and thus I consider opinions contrary to those facts as being untruthful as they relate to the facts. However, I recognize this intuitive perspective I have is in fact subjective – even if supported by facts, an opinion in is still an opinion, and holding it as truth based on my subjective understanding is still an exercise in subjectivity, as much as the contrasting opinion is. They are, in the abstract, equally valid as opinions. The name often given in a general sense to this perspective is relativism, and while this word in itself is ambiguous – we will use it here in the most basic sense, that of “the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration.” Rather than explore the meaning of relativism, lets focus on truth and opinion and science.
For the purpose of this post, lets stipulate what is meant as truth and opinions.
“Truth”, according to wikipedia which can be considered a generalized view, is:
The opposite of truth is falsehood, which, correspondingly, can also take on a logical, factual, or ethical meaning. The concept of truth is discussed and debated in several contexts, including philosophy and religion. Many human activities depend upon the concept, which is assumed rather than a subject of discussion, including science, law, and everyday life.”
Put simply, “truth” is generally understood to depend on what is being examined or what is it measured against. That is not say that everyone thinks truth is relative, only that it is generally agreed upon that there are levels of truthfulness. For example, in a movie, if a character played by an actor is killed, it is truthful to say that in the context of the movie there has been a death, even if the actor is alive and well. There is of course those who argue from relativism that there is no such levels, that in fact that fictional death is as real as the actor who is alive. But such philosophical relativism is not what we want to address – it is ultimately irrelevant tot he political, social, and economic struggle we are about, and want to explore here. We do however accept the view of truth as having levels, and thus “relative” in this narrow sense of there being a factual truth and fictional truth, and what divides them is the presence in what we generally call the real world.
“Opinion”, again according to wikipedia and thus as a generalized view, is:
“[…] a belief about matters commonly considered to be subjective, i.e. it is based on that which is less than absolutely certain, and is the result of emotion or interpretation of facts. An opinion may be supported by an argument, although people may draw opposing opinions from the same set of facts. Opinions rarely change without new arguments being presented. It can be reasoned that one opinion is better supported by the facts than another by analyzing the supporting arguments. In casual use, the term opinion may be the result of a person’s perspective, understanding, particular feelings, beliefs, and desires. It may refer to unsubstantiated information, in contrast to knowledge and fact-based beliefs.”
So opinion also has generally two separate meanings, one based on the interpretation of facts, and one that is based on belief or desires.
This has a consequence for opinion: some opinions cannot be proven false, others are subjected to falsifiability. Opinions that cannot be proven false are, for example, preferences on what flavor of ice cream one likes over another, or what practice turns one on sexually over another practice, or if cats are better than dogs (of course they are!). To try to challenge those kinds of opinions is folly: even if one can factually explain why people like these things, that would have little to no effect in changing that opinion – ultimately attacking those perspectives is an exercise in subjectivism itself.
On the other hand there are opinions that can be subjected to falsifiability, that is, they can be tested by scientific methods, using an experiment that can prove it scientifically false if that is the case. The interpretation of facts as a basis of opinion can indeed be challenged at many levels, and it is indeed the primary method of science.
Why not prove it true? Well, science in itself has developed, over thousands of years, into a predominant idea that it is way easier to prove something false, than to prove something true. A good example of this is classical mechanics, that took a couple of centuries to be proven insufficient and in fact false at very large and very small scales, but which seemed to be true at human scale. So science has decided to speak of false things and likely things, rather than false and true things, mostly because it has found that often times what has been recognized as true, even after centuries of experiments supporting it, can often be less than true, even if it was not false. False things, however, are determined to be false pretty easily: almost as soon as the idea of the Earth as more or less round emerged in Ancient Greece, there was an experiment done that confirmed it to be true, thus rendering the flat earth views false, even if the Earth is not a perfect sphere and it would take centuries for this to be known: it was enough to know the false – that the Earth is not flat – even if the truth – that the earth is close to an oblate spheroid, called a geoid – was not known, because it couldn’t be know for lack of knowledge on how to determine its actual shape.
The truth of the image above lies in exposing as illogical – perhaps even oppressive – the opinions which claims themselves to be truth, when they are impossible to process using falsifiability. This is a good thing: often those in power and in dominant positions (such as politicians and religious leaders) utilize arguments that are similar to those criticized in the image to establish their opinions as truth. Even among those resisting the dominant perspectives and systems, there is a tendency to see opinions held by self as truthful, often using the methods described in the cartoon, thereby reproducing the dominant paradigms of knowledge and truth – a perspective that leads to confusion at best, and reactionary positions at worst. A good example in the history of the communist movement of this process would be Lysenkoism, a topic we will touch upon on a later date, but suffices to say is an example of opinion presented as truth having terrible concrete consequences.
The cartoon however, makes a logical error itself: some opinions are indeed falsifiable, but more importantly, not all opinions are equal in the consequences they have: A racist promoting ideas of racial supremacy is not the same as someone who claims dogs are superior to cats (although in my humble opinion they are close! ).
Some opinions can indeed be proven false. And some opinions might be right or wrong but are ultimately inconsequential to the struggles for political, social, and economic justice and emancipation.
If you are of the opinion, for example, that the Earth is flat, there are multiple, simple, experiments you can perform that prove this false, as well, of course, the actual pictures of the Earth from outer space. Flat Earthers, however, will argue all of this evidence is manufactured, a conspiracy to counter their deeply held beliefs and to oppose their own religious opinions, which they take as fact. According to this cartoon, their opinion would be valid, or at least, fact-based challenged to those opinions to be mocked. This we criticize deeply: an individual’s opinion in their own mind is indeed to be respected, but when it becomes socialized, part of the public sphere, it should be challenged, opinions be formed collectively, and arguments against false opinions be presented. And this is to be celebrated, not mocked.
Thus the cartoon, like classical mechanics, works at certain level – that of individual opinions in an individual-to-individual exchange – but breaks down socially, or when the opinions have social consequences. For example, which candidate to follow in an election might be an opinion without individual consequence, but it could have severe social consequences if, for example, said candidate is Benito Mussolini. Thus, it is the narrow relativism that is the problem, not the relativism in itself – the elimination of actual context, rather than the relative relations of this context.
In the end, the cartoon claims to defend relativism, but what it does is defend absolutism – it defends as an absolute truth that all opinions can be valid. And that opinion is in itself a contradiction with a real relativism, a dialectical relativism, a dialectical materialism.
As dialectical materialists, we believe there is such thing as an absolute truth. As historical materialists, we believe the truth of human relations is revealed in its history. As scientific minded people, we understand that the absolute truths are hard to access, that what has seemed in the past to be absolutely true, has indeed been shown to be incomplete views of truth of reality, or completely wrong.
In the struggle to achieve the revolutionary goal of a communist society at a global scale, Maoists have been unique in pushing for a scientific worldview, one in which truth is determined by rigorous examination of reality, while at the same time recognizing that it is better to act than to be correct. However, in this process, we have also been arrogant with truth, engaging in the same process the cartoon addresses in ways that have been proven by history to be false themselves. The truth process of science is the positive aspect of Maoism, as its its acceptance of other truth processes – art, politics, and love. Yet this exists in tension, within Maoism, with the negative aspects, in particular dogmatism, as well as those not unique to Maoism, but present in the various Marxisms – such as the presence of un-dialectical, metaphysical methods of absolute truth.
Lets see, for example, this other image, from the French Marxist-Leninist-Maoist website La Voie Lactee:
Here we have a correct idea, that of women’s liberation, presented as needing to fight “relativism”, and a claim that “maoism is a science” but that this means it is neither “a method nor a toolbox”.
(For what little French I know, I think this is not a mistranslation and not something of a linguistic error. What is said there is what it means in both French and English.)
First, lets say it is correct to say that Maoism is science, in so far as it makes hypotheses, upholds theory, and makes predictions that are testable. It also recognizes other sciences and is enriched by them. However, what is science if not precisely a “method” and “a toolbox”? As we shown above (and the link to “Scientific method” explains), science in defined precisely as a method of determining the most likely truth, of forming a fact-based opinion on reality that is testable, predictive, and falsiable. And every method indeed has its toolboxes. The astrophysicist has her Standard Model and satellite-borne X-ray telescope, the Maoist guerrilla her Protracted People’s War and assault rifle, but both are still part of a toolbox to prove a hypotheses or confirm a theory. Both make science, both use methods, both use toolboxes. To claim a contrast between science and methods and toolboxes is to re-define science unscientifically, to elevate science as a truth process above all other truth processes and to separate it from the material and concrete existence and elevate science to the level of the ideal, it is science by name, religion by action. To do this is to destroy science and render it meaningless, turn it into a simple opinion. It is “left in form, right in content” – the hallmark of dogmatism.
This runs counter to the science of Maoism:
“Inevitably, the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie will give expression to their own ideologies. Inevitably, they will stubbornly express themselves on political and ideological questions by every possible means. You cannot expect them to do otherwise. We should not use the method of suppression and prevent them from expressing themselves, but should allow them to do so and at the same time argue with them and direct appropriate criticism at them. We must undoubtedly criticize wrong ideas of every description. It certainly would not be right to refrain from criticism, look on while wrong ideas spread unchecked and allow them to monopolize the field. Mistakes must be criticized and poisonous weeds fought wherever they crop up. However, such criticism should not be dogmatic, and the metaphysical method should not be used, but efforts should be made to apply the dialectical method. What is needed is scientific analysis and convincing argument.” -Mao Zedong, The Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People
If I understand correctly, the argument being made by VL is against the kind of relativism that suggests that Maoism is a method and a toolbox with equal value as other such methods and toolboxes. We can reject that, in fact we must: Maoism is not equal to say, post-colonialism or identity politics, it is in fact better than them. However, as posed in the above image, rather than clarify this line of struggle, the slogan muddies the discussion, makes a false claim, and in fact comes across as ignorant as to what relativism, Maoism, science, methods, and toolboxes mean! It is a metaphysical at best, dogmatic at worse, method. And thus, counter to the science of Maoism.
Yet it also bring up an ignorance of the relationship between Marxism and relativism:
“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” K. Marx, 2nd Theses On Feuerbach.
We are materialist, scientific, relativists, in so far as our “truth” is in relation to human activity taken as a whole. Yet, we do understand that the relativism being addressed by Voice Lactee is the moral relativism most often displayed in practice. This relativism I do reject, but perhaps in a different way:
The fundamental practical issue is that most often than not, self-described relativists are not actual relativists – underneath their purported relativism, they actually hold certain things as true, factual, and absolutely so. This is not new: it is precisely what Marx calls above a “scholastic question”: a false relativism, one in which the denial of the existence of an absolute truth is in fact a tool to establish the practical dominance of a particular set of absolute truths. More often than not, in academic and radical spaces, those who purport to be relativists actually do so conveniently, inconsistently, and based on whatever argument is needed at the moment. Thus, it is not relativism, but the appearance of relativism in the acceptance of the individual as formed under capitalist social relations – the very definition of subjectivism. It accepts as absolute truth the supremacy of the subjective and individual – to the exclusion of the objective and the collective. This is not relativism, it is perhaps closer to Objectivism – but accepting this description is capitulating to their agenda.
Thus the problem with relativism is not that it is not truthful – as we have shown, relativism is a critical perspective in science, including the science of the various Marxisms and Maoism- but that it is inconsistent. In the end, the real relativism is dialectical materialism, in so far as it is the only one that is consistent in its relativism. Nearly all other relativism in practice and ultimately fall back to the upholding of the dominant positions or to the ineffective challenge to the dominant positions (which can be considered to be in itself part of the dominant dominant position).
The truthfulness of an opinion lies in its practice, that is to say, its falsiability, and opinions that cannot be falsiable are best to be treated as equally irrelevant from the perspective of social transformation. So the truth of the class struggle lies in its measurable existence, the truth of its organization lies in its existence, yet the truth of the communist hypothesis lies in the practice of communists to make it true. This is not a process of faith: a hypotheses is not a simple random proposition (as some are prone to believe), but rather is based on previous theory with a sufficiently reasonable expectation that it would survive a test. It is an opinion that can be tested, and thus, we take as superior to opinions that cannot. The hypothetical nature of communism, however, is not to mean an agnosticism. What separates the communist from the other politico-economic hypotheses is that it is unconditional: we are committed to making communism, to make mistakes, to face repression, to expose ourselves to criticism – we dare to struggle and dare to win:
I believe in clear-cut positions. I think that the most arrogant position is this apparent, multidisciplinary modesty of “what I am saying now is not unconditional, it is just a hypothesis,” and so on. It really is a most arrogant position. I think that the only way to be honest and expose yourself to criticism is to state clearly and dogmatically where you are. You must take the risk and have a position.
Slavoj Žižek. Conversations with Žižek by Slavoj Žižek and Glyn Daly.
So, as communists, we have made a conscious choice to be humble, to confront, to struggle, and to transform: expose ourselves to criticism, to state clearly and dogmatically where we are, to take the risk and have a position.
This creates a practical consideration: How to approach idealist and metaphysical relativists who nevertheless seem to despise the existing political, social, and economic order? Mao says that “what is needed is scientific analysis and convincing argument” and suggests this contradiction is not in the main antagonistic.
Voice Lactee seems to think the contradiction is in the main antagonistic, that “relativism” is an antagonistic challenge to science, and that science is supreme.
We think not and stand with Mao on this: the contradiction is non-antagonistic, and thus resolvable by the correct handling of the contradictions among the people. To explain and uphold science as method and a toolbox, made better not because it is non-relativistic, but because its practical consideration, its measure of truth, is concrete improvement of the human condition, the environment, the Earth, and all that is within it. The communist hypothesis is true in so far as we make it true, and it is superior in so far as we make it superior. The simple declaration of being true and of it being superior is not enough: it must be proven in practice.
VL is attacking relativism when it should be attacking its misuse, the hypocritical and convenient claim of “relativism” when it fact what is being defended as absolute truth is reaction. This error divides into two:
1) It is a dogmatic application of dialectical materialism, with the practical consequence of all dogmatic approaches: isolation and incorrect line of march. This is a strategic mistake.
2) It fights the reactionaries in the arena of their choosing, that of relativism vs absolute truth, were we should be fighting their core ideas, exposing their hypocrisy and unevenness, their false relativism, with our materialism. This is a tactical mistake.
Thus, VL serves to enhance the position of the enemy by breaking their isolation, making them seem reasonable and inclusive, make the intermediate assuming agnosticism, and thus, weaken the position of the communist hypotheses. This is a failure of the mass line, but also a failure of ideological formation.
We should reject the view of that holds all contradictions with relativism as antagonistic, and instead struggle to transform the relativistic into dialectical materialists, accepting our own materialist relativism – and only seeing as antagonistic those contradictions with relativism that have a reactionary character, for example, in the case of women’s liberation, those relativists who say “men’s rights” are under attack or deserve equal consideration. To do so, actual study of Maoism and dialectical and historical materialism, including that outside of Maoism and including that which failed, is necessary to avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism. Of course, there exists the danger to fall on the other pitfall, that of eclecticism, but at the present moment, in the western world, the main contradiction in the communist movement is not eclecticism, but dogmatism and dogmato-revisionism.
After all, if the communist hypotheses is true – and we posit the evidence suggests this, nothing can change that fact, and thus our opinion is in fact the truth, even if we accept the truth process as relativistic in so far as it is dependent on a context – practice – and it is accessed imperfectly – via human perception. Absolute truth does exist, but at best we can access it only partially, and its determination is dialectical, not finite. Thus, we are both relativists and anti-relativists, we accept that opinions are relative, but we also accept there are absolute truths and the pursuit of them in worth it. And we call this dialectical materialism.
Yes, it can be mind blowing – but since when are communists afraid of big explosions?