From New International, Vol.3 No.1, February 1936, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Web of Thought and Action
by Herman Levy
Prof. Levy’s The Web of Thought and Action is intended for the ordinary man. It was written with the purpose of seeing whether modern science can provide him with an answer to his great problems: why should there be war? Why can’t he and his children have more of the good things of life which society seems capable of providing? Why has he so little to say concerning the ordering of his social world? What can science do for him?
Prof. Levy turns to different scientific specialists and men of action for answers to Everyman’s problems. The conclusions of each dialogue – achieved partly by means of dialogue and partly by exposition – are very familiar to Marxists. The dialogue on politics discreetly accuses the modern politician like Sir Herbert Samuel of being – to put Prof. Levy’s opinion more frankly – only blundering, pragmatic, half-charlatans, only interested in improving as far as possible the awkward instruments of the existing state. He prefers not to experiment with new-fangled institutions, his main objective being to keep the old from crumbling. The dialogue on economics accuses the bourgeois economists of evading the essential task: that not only of explaining how society works, but also of showing how it can be made to work more adequately, perfectly, satisfactorily. (In this chapter is to be found the discussion on “bias” about which we shall have more to say later.) Another dialogue insists, against the position of Dr. Carpenter, a clergyman, that the ethics of society are not heaven-made, fixed in formulae, unchanging. Instead they are constantly being re-made, newly invented or ultimately rejected in order to solve human conflicts and smooth the work of social cooperation. Prof. Levy even goes so far as to charge men of religion, experts, etc., of perpetuating ethical ideals whose social meaning and fruitful-ness have long gone the way of their creators. Another dialogue finds an interlocutor – Mr. John Pilley – who, apparently in agreement with Prof. Levy’s – by this time – more or less explicit credo, states that society changes and complicates, grows and decays, around the attempt of men to satisfy their wants: the Marxian theory. And Prof. Levy concludes this section with the statement that society is cut apart by a terrific, internal struggle of classes.
Still another dialogue with a representative of the physical sciences, not only stresses the fact that science is a product of society, integrally tied up with its fate, but also exhorts the modern scientist to work for the establishment of a classless society in which science will, for the first time become free.
Marxists, naturally, welcome the expression of these familiar views by so eminent a scientist. Nevertheless there are certain pertinent criticisms which must be made, not only as a caution to Prof. Levy but – and this is more important – in the name of Marxism and its serious traditions of scrupulous scientific investigation.
Prof. Levy informs us that he nowhere wishes to intrude his own point of view, but rather to change his own beliefs in accordance with the facts provided by his various interlocutors. In reality, it is evident from the very beginning that he has a very decided point of view which he has no intention of putting aside. In fact, he attempts either to wheedle or force those recalcitrant scientists or men of action – if they happen to disagree with him – to accept his own position – for example, the dialogues with the economist, the religious man, and the politician. We deeply dislike such a pretense at “impartiality” or “non-bias”, of letting the facts speak for themselves, for it hits at Marxism. Yet Prof. Levy reads us a lecture on the subject of impartiality whose meaning he identifies with “neutrality”, the refusal to take sides.
There is no doubt that the meaning of “impartiality” has this established significance for many scientists. But it also has another meaning; and it might even be the duty of Marxists to restore the word to its original place of honor, if “partiality” should continue to be so abused. “Impartiality” also has the meaning we always give to the word “objectivity”, i.e., of judgments based wholly upon the facts and tested by an objective, independent criterion or standard; of interpretations not distorted by private desires and concealed wishes. “Impartiality”, in this sense does not mean a refusal to take a position or to act, but to take only that one which is in accord with the facts; it means bringing into the sunlight all our hidden desires, fears, hopes and biases so that they can be weighed and tested in the balance of action. The refusal to examine such aspects as might destroy our hopes would be just the opposite of “impartial”. It would be to allow prejudice, false fears, false hopes and false loyalties to play havoc with our thinking. It would be to dethrone science and Marxism.
The Marxian attack against “impartiality” has been founded upon social considerations, because those who have used the word most frequently have used it to prevent “impartiality”; they have allowed prejudice and concealed interests to disguise themselves in its dignified vestments. We, therefore, have the more fiercely defended our naked espousal of a “cause”, our own deep-rooted “partiality”, the more glaringly to reveal the “partiality”, the superstitious, unscientific, apologetic character of bourgeois social science, and the impartiality, the strictly scientific character of Marxism.
We repeat, when “partiality” is presented in such a form as to give the unfortunate impression of prejudice, of non-objectivity, then it does harm to Marxism as a science and as a goal; and it would have been much better for Prof. Levy to have shown less “partiality”.
There is another and even more serious criticism to be brought against Prof. Levy.
It is obvious, of course, that we certainly do not disagree with the basic pre-suppositions of his philosophy. Rather we desire them to be presented as convincingly and illuminatingly as possible. But how can he expect in such extremely short dialogues to have proven anything which would appear plausible to anyone not already convinced? And how does he expect dialogues which in many instances digress from one point to another, without any agreement being reached, to make even the point of the author clear?
The Marxist takes his scientific function seriously. He does not attempt to prove anything in a short space, when he knows a laborious sifting and organization of considerable data are absolutely necessary. It seems unfortunate to read so well known a scientist like Prof. Levy, who ought to know better, such a sermon. Unfortunately he needs it. We do not mean to say thereby that the dialogues are not interesting, but what we do insist upon is that a defense of the fundamental theses of dialectical materialism requires a laborious accumulation of facts and a thorough analysis of contending theoretical positions. Such a book obviously would not be popular, but it would be a contribution to Marxism. It would compel bourgeois philosophers and scientists to take our philosophy seriously. Our social theories, of course, are taken seriously enough, since the Soviet Union exists as the crucial laboratory test of Marxian principles. But our philosophy, our basic world conception, is not, simply because it is the Rudases and Mitins who defend it. The Levys waste their professional knowledge and native talents writing a superficial book like The Web of Thought and Action.
Last updated on 31.7.2006