¡Viva la Línea Correcta!

Submitted by libcom on July 29, 2005

¡Viva la Línea Correcta!

John Holloway

Close to the house in Puebla there is a slogan daubed on a wall that says '¡Viva la linea correcta!' What can it mean?

Is it the work of some old Leninist convinced that he (more likely he than she) knows the correct line? Is it ironic? Is it a subtle commentary on philosophical truth? Is there an organisation called 'La Linea Correcta"? An organisation that makes explicit what so many Marxist organisations simply assume - that they have the correct line? Or is it just a sophisticated joke?


The problem of the correct line is deeply and disastrously embedded in the Marxist tradition. It is indeed inseparable from the Engelsian notion that Marxism is scientific. For Engels, scientific socialism, as he explained in his enormously influential pamphlet, "Socialism, Scientific and Utopian", is the claim that Marxism has correctly understood the laws of motion of history. The notion of Marxism as scientific socialism has two aspects. Marxism is objective, certain, 'scientific' knowledge of an objective, inevitable process. Marxism is understood as scientific in the sense that it has understood correctly the laws of motion of a historical process taking place independently of men's will.

The attraction of the conception of Marxism as a scientifically objective theory of revolution for those who were dedicating their lives to struggle against capitalism is obvious. It provided not just a coherent conception of historical movement, but also enormous moral support: whatever reverses might be suffered, history was on our side. The enormous force of the Engelsian conception and the importance of its role in the struggles of that time should not be overlooked. At the same time, however, both aspects of the concept of scientific socialism (objective knowledge, objective process) pose enormous problems for the development of Marxism as a theory of struggle.

The notion that society develops according to objective laws, poses obvious problems for a theory of struggle. If there is an objective movement of history which is independent of human volition, then what is the role of struggle? Are those who struggle simply carrying out a human destiny which they do not control? Or is struggle important simply in the interstices of the objective movements, filling in the smaller or larger gaps left open by the clash of forces and relations of production? The notion of objective laws opens up a separation between structure and struggle: it suggests a duality between an objective structural movement of history independent of people's will, on the one hand, and the subjective struggles for a better world, on the other. Engels' conception tells us that the two movements coincide, that the former gives support to the latter, but they do not cease to be separate. This duality is the source of endless theoretical and political problems in the Marxist tradition.

It is, however, the other aspect of the claim that Marxism is scientific that concerns us more directly here. If Marxism is understood as the correct, objective, scientific knowledge of history, then this begs the question, 'who says so?' Who holds the correct knowledge and how did they gain that knowledge? Who is the subject of the knowledge? The notion of Marxism as 'science' implies a distinction between those who know and those who do not know, a distinction between those who have true consciousness and those who have false consciousness.

This distinction immediately poses both epistemological and organisational problems. Political debate becomes focussed on the question of 'correctness' and the 'correct line'. But how do we know (and how do they know) that the knowledge of 'those who know' is correct? How can the knowers (party, intellectuals or whatever) be said to have transcended the conditions of their social time and place in such a way as to have gained a privileged knowledge of historical movement? Perhaps even more important politically: if a distinction is to be made between those who know and those who do not, and if understanding or knowledge is seen as important in guiding the political struggle, then what is to be the organisational relation between the knowers and the others (the masses)? Are those in the know to lead and educate the masses (as in the concept of the vanguard party)? And what is to be done with those who refuse to acknowledge the knowledge of the Knowers? Are they to be purged?

The problem with scientific Marxism, as it is traditionally understood, is that it overlooks the question of the knower. It unhooks the question of knowledge from the problem of the knower who knows. Alternatively, and this is the same thing, if the knower is mentioned at all, he (?) is deified: Marx knows, the working class knows, (most of all) the Party knows. Whether the knower is deified or simply ignored, the social character of knowing is denied. Knowledge is fetishised It is forgotten that knowing is always the knowing of some person in some social situation, that knowing is a social relation. In other words the starting point of the traditional notion of scientific Marxism is the separation of subject and object. Since capitalism is the daily repeated separation of subject and object, it follows that 'scientific Marxism' bases itself upon that which it is supposedly struggling against.

The traditional understanding of Marxism as scientific socialism is thus both inherently authoritarian and theoretically unsustainable.

Does that mean that Marxism is not scientific? Not at all. Let us go back to the beginning.


Rage is the starting point of Marxism: the starting point and the only point. Rage against the inhumanity and oppression of capitalism. The rage necessarily includes an ec-static element, a projection of what the world might be, but the starting point is negative, the rejection of an untrue world, of an alienated world.

In a world that is untrue, scientific knowledge can only be negative. Knowledge is scientific only in so far as it struggles against the untruth of the world. Science in an untrue world is critique.

The social world is a world of social relations which exists in the form of its denial, as a world of relations between things. This is the central point of Marx's criticism of capitalism, the central theme of Capital. The struggle against capitalism is the struggle to break the domination of things, the struggle for humanity. Scientific activity is quite simply part of this struggle, part of the struggle against the domination of things. In a world in which social relations exist in the form of relations between things, scientific work is the struggle to recover that which is denied by its form of existence, that is to say, social relations. Since social relations are the relations between active human beings, the relations between doers, we can say that scientific work is the struggle to recover the social doing which is negated by the form in which it exists.

This is surely what Marx meant by critique. The critique of religion is the theoretical recuperation of the social doing of humans who create a god which denies the human doing which created it. 'The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man.' (MECW 3, p. 175) Similarly the critique of political economy is the theoretical recuperation of the social doing (work) which creates a world of fetishes (value, money, capital) which deny the human doing which created them.

This theoretical recuperation is in the first place a song to the exclusive power of human creation. But in the second place, it is necessarily also an inquiry into why human creation negates itself, into why it is that the products of human doing exist in the form of things which deny the human doing that created them. The combination of these two steps, both part of the struggle for the practical emancipation of the human social doing, is what Marx means by the scientific method. 'It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than conversely, it is to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of these relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one' (Marx, 1965, p. 372).

Scientific knowledge, therefore, cannot be direct knowledge of reality, as the Engelsian notion of 'scientific Marxism' supposes. It cannot be direct knowledge of reality simply because reality (the power of social doing) is refracted through its negation (the power of things). The realist idea of knowledge is quite simply a fiction, a pretence that social relations do not exist in the form of their negation. Knowledge can only be critical knowledge, the critique of the world of things that denies the power of our social doing. Scientific knowledge can only be part of the struggle against the world of things, the struggle for the recuperation of our own power.


What then of correctness? If our method is scientific, does this give us correct knowledge?

Even if it did, we would not know. There is no god to tell us if we are right or wrong, no god-party that looks out from the perspective of totality. We are caught in a world of untruths, a world in which relations between people exist as relations between things. All we can do is criticise, try to pierce the forms in which social doing really exists. Our 'correctness', if the word makes any sense at all in this context, can only be a negative correctness, a negation of falseness. Our truth, if the word makes any sense at all in this context, can only be the negation of untruth. That negation is the negation of that which denies our social doing, and makes sense and gathers force and validity only as part of the general struggle for the creation of a world that is based not on our negation but on the mutual recognition of ourselves as doers, a world based on dignity.

Certainty is not on our side. Certainty can not be on our side, certainty can only be against us. Certainty implies death, the world of relations between things. It is only in a world of things that there can be certainty, and then, of course, it is a totally false certainty because it is constructed upon the denial of the social doing which makes those things. In a world of doing, the world which we struggle to emancipate from the fetishism which denies its existence, there can be no certainty.

Does that mean that all is relative, that there is nothing firm to hold on to? No. What we are sure of is our rage, our NO to the world of oppression that exists, our refusal to accept capitalism. Negativity is our foundation. And that negativity includes, inevitably, a projection beyond, a projection beyond that is nothing more and nothing less than our socially shaped dreams of today, nothing more and nothing less than the ever-changing utopian star that we follow.