The Leftist Case For Objectivity

The left is mistaken to embrace relativism and abandon notions of objectivity. It is time to understand how we can insist on objectivity and truth, while also paying attention to the ways identity and power influence knowledge.

Objectivity by Sol LeWitt — Photo By Cliff

The relationship between the left and notions of objectivity and truth is a complicated and fraught relationship. Within the heterogeneous milieu that is leftist thought and practice, there are unresolved debates as to whether the left ought to embrace objectivity and truth, or abandon these notions as regressive enlightenment ideals which mask power and inequality.

Recent criticism of “postmodernism” within leftist organizing circles is indicative of the contentious nature of these debates. On the one hand, Marxists have consistently argued for an approach to theory which see’s the world as material, concrete, and capable of being objectively analyzed. For Marxists, we must be able to objectively analyze material conditions in order to produce a correct and true path forward. The concern that these activists and theorists have is that without the ability to make appeals to objectivity, we will lose the ability to have unified struggle, the ability to criticize incorrect actions, and the ability to deliberate about what actions are correct for overcoming capitalism.

On the other hand, feminist scholars (often labeled postmodern by Marxists) have forwarded critiques of objectivity which express concern with how we think about truth and its relationship to objective assessment of reality. Feminist standpoint theorists have argued that the standpoint of a theorist or analyst will always be shaped by their identity and lived experiences, which means they will read and interpret data and information through their standpoint. Furthermore, these same theorists have argued that the insistence of objective analysis among male theorists and thinkers obscures the particularity of their own position and universalizes their own identity and standpoint as an apolitical and neutral starting point for gaining knowledge.

A quick assessment of these concerns reveals the importance of what is at stake in these discussion. Both sides raise concerns that are immediately pressing for leftists who want to not only criticize capitalism and patriarchy, but also develop a path forward towards toppling capitalism and patriarchy. Given the pressing nature of this debate, I hope to put forward an argument in favor of objectivity and truth as notions, which refuses to do a disservice to feminist concerns by brushing them off with dismissive terms like “identity politics” or “postmodernism.” Rather, I will argue that a critical engagement with the concerns of standpoint theory and so called “postmodern” theory can allow us to appropriate useful aspects of these critiques that would lead to a strengthening, not a weakening, of the Marxist claim to objective analysis.

It is worth noting that Marxist criticism of those who question both the possibility and the desirability of objectivity often relies upon a reductionist and dismissive approach to these thinkers. “Postmodernism” and “identity politics” have become shorthand for complex and heterogeneous traditions within feminist theory, literary criticism, critical race studies, post colonial studies, decolonial theory, etc.

I (and many others) have serious concerns about the grouping of such diverse thinkers and theories together into a simple shorthand. I do not hold that “postmodernism” constitutes a discrete or unified set of ideas, but rather is a shorthand term which refers to a broad and contradictory set of theorists who call into question the possibility for human inquirers to have access to objective knowledge, and who question the idea of truth as an objectively graspable ideal. These theorists have focused on the contingency of knowledge, the way knowledge is produced in certain contexts, the uninterrogated assumptions which go into the production of knowledge, and the complex relationship between knowledge and power.

Despite my concern, for the sake of argument, I will assume that there is some real and meaningful socio-theoretical phenomena or trend which Marxist critiques refer to when they speak of postmodernism and identity politics. My goal will be to demonstrate that within this trend, there are useful ideas which do not preclude the possibility of objective truth, but rather complicate our understandings of how we could get to it. My central claim is that these complications do not mean we ought to abandon objectivity, but rather that we must be more thorough in how we pursue it.

I turn to standpoint theory as an exemplar of this trend because it embodies many of the concerns Marxists have with “postmodernism”: a skepticism towards objectivity and universality, and emphasis on the individual who produces knowledge and makes inquiries, focus on identity, and an emphasis on the contingency of knowledge. One could easily contest the idea that standpoint theory is postmodern, but again, the use of postmodern in these contexts is frequently sloppy in the first place.

Marxism And Objectivity

The first problem that I want to tackle is the relationship between Marxism and objectivity. My hope is to demonstrate that Marxism can make a compelling claim to objectivity, and ought to frame its analysis through the lens of objectivity.

As a materialist philosophy, Marxism attempts to understand historical development and contemporary political and social phenomena through an economic and material lens. Marxists contend that history is not forwarded by ideals, values, concepts, great thinkers, or shifts in belief. Rather, Marxists argue that history is moved forward by shifts in economic relations, through material struggle between classes, and through dialectical resolution of contradictions which result from a concrete and material base.

While idealist thinkers might explain the emergence of capitalism as resulting from the development of new idea such as social contract theory, republicanism, and emerging ideals such as freedom and liberty, Marxists would contend that these theories and ideals are in fact ideological products of material changes and the emergence of the Bourgeoisie as a class. For Marxists, the economic conditions created by the Bourgeoisie and their revolutions against the feudal monarchical powers of Europe are the primary factors moving history, and the ideals of republicanism, social contract, and values of liberty or freedom are justifications for and reflections of the material conditions of capitalist economics. The world is not divided in to laborers and owners because we first subscribed to ideas which argued in favor of this social formation, but because this formation is a product of concrete and economic class struggle and domination.

In The German Ideology, Marx lays out starting premises for this materialist approach to history and political analysis. Marx begins by boldly asserting:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

There are several striking features of Marx’s claim. The first is that the choice to begin with an analysis of “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live” is not an arbitrary choice, but is the only choice which begins with a concrete reality. For Marx, we cannot start with the theoretical and then turn to the real and material. Rather, we must begin with the real and material in order to develop the theoretical. The second important feature is that these starting points are empirically verifiable. That is to say, they can be investigated through experience and inquiry, and our theories about them can be verified or dismissed on the basis of this investigation.

Marx continues by exploring exactly what the real starting point is. If we are to explore how humans live, how they interact with the environment around them, how they reproduce their existence through material interaction with that environment, we must have a theory of human action. He explains:

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part

Thus, when we look to the material conditions of society, we look not only to the natural resources which exist, but also to the concrete and observable actions of humans. Marx continues:

As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production

Thus, in order to understand society and the types of people who live within it, we have to understand the production of specific forms of human life, which is an objectively observable phenomena. We are capable of empirically investigating not only the material and concrete conditions upon which society is based, but also the ways that these conditions shape and produce human life and the resulting superstructure of values, ideas, and beliefs.

It is obvious that Marx believes we can make an objective investigation into the material conditions upon which a society is built, but what is unique and crucial for Marxism is the ability to provide an understanding of Human conduct itself as an objective and observable subject of inquiry. In Theses On Feuerbauch, Marx tackles the issue of objectivity head on. Marx critiques Feuerbauch precisely because of his inability to understand human conduct and action as an objective phenomena. Marx laments that, “Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.” For Marx, Feuerbach is merely interested in the ability for humans to have objective knowledge of abstract objects. Marx suggests that we have to understand objective knowledge as pertaining not merely to abstract objects but to human activity. In opposition to Feuerbach, Marx suggests that:

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.

Here, Marx reformulates the question of objectivity from an abstract question about the ability for humans to obtain truth about abstract objective facts, to a question about the ability for humans to objectively demonstrate the truth of their ideas through demonstrating that their ideas work in the real world. For Marx, the question of objectivity is important not merely because a universal theory of truth is important, but because knowledge is only valuable insofar as it is objectively applicable to the world. Ideas can be objective, and must be, inasmuch as they correspond with reality enough to enact meaningful and useful change upon it. Objectivity is proven not in the abstract, but through human practice and political struggle.

This reformulation leads Marx to conclude that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Objectivity is irrelevant if it is merely an abstract question of the human capacity for knowledge. Objectivity becomes relevant, because without it, we would not have sufficient grounds for changing the world.

When we understand the Marxist conception of objectivity, we can understand better what is at stake in leftist debates about objectivity. For Marxists, a threat to the possibility of objective knowledge is not merely and abstract philosophical criticism; rather, it is an attack against the very possibility of producing theory which would enable us to change the world. The cost of losing objectivity is not simply humility and an injured ego, it is the loss of the possibility for meaningful political struggle altogether. As such, I think it is obvious that the Marxist concerns about objectivity are not simply (or not entirely) bad faith attempts at dismissing contemporary philosophical perspectives, but are an ardent defense of objectivity as central to Marxist theories of struggle.

Standpoint Theory and Marxist Critique

While Marxist defenders of objectivity tend to refer to the threat against which they defend as identity politics and postmodernism, many hint towards a critique of standpoint epistemology. Feminist theorists who have called attention to the ways individual standpoints frame knowledge have been a particular source of ire for Marxists. Generally, Marxists express a fear that standpoint epistemology would remove the ability for objectivity. They are concerned that the endpoint of standpoint theory is a relativism which holds that universal knowledge and objective truth are impossible, and that truth is merely a product of individual inquiry which cannot be universalized. These Marxists argue that this endpoint would create a world where we could only pursue knowledge which our particular identity gave us access to.

In this section, my goal is to demonstrate that standpoint epistemology does not undermine the Marxist need for objectivity, but rather can strengthen the Marxist claim to it.

While standpoint theory is a broad set of ideas, which are not all in line with each other, there are general trends which we can isolate. Standpoint theory tends to be skeptical of claims to universal and objective truth which do not carefully account for the identity of the claimant. Feminist standpoint theorists such as Genevieve Lloyd have focused on the way that male theorists have allowed their own assumptions as men (ideals and values derived from their experiences as men) to go uninterrogated in their inquiry and analysis, and have thus painted masculinist notions emotionless and abstract rationality as apolitical and objective. These male theorists have favored rationality over emotions because masculinity favors rationality over emotions. Unfortunately, these men have not been able to recognize how their own standpoint as men has shaped their assumptions, and thus conflate objectivity with emotionless rationality.

While we might assume that these theorists are ultimately making an argument for the impossibility of objectivity, we can also interpret their criticism differently. The concern these critics raise is not with the idea of objectivity itself, but with the way that specific socially dominant standpoints universalize themselves by masking as objectivity. The problem with the male theorist who values rationality over emotions and conflates this value with objectivity is not that he cares about objectivity, but that he takes the specificity of his own social location for granted and conflates it with objectivity itself. As such, we might interpret this criticism not as a rejection of objectivity, but as a rejection of subjectivity masking itself as objectivity.

This notion gets taken up explicitly in the work Sandra Harding. In “Strong Objectivity” And Socially Situated Knowledge, Harding asks whether “feminist standpoint theory really abandoned objectivity and embraced relativism?” In order to answer this question, Harding attempts to delineate between weak objectivity and strong objectivity.

Harding argues that the weak conception of objectivity, “results only in semi science when it turns away from the task of critically identifying all those broad, historical social desires, interests, and values that have shaped the agendas, contents, and results of the sciences much as they shape the rest of human affairs.” This approach to objectivity is precisely the approach which feminist standpoint theorists critique. It is the type of objectivity which ignores and obfuscates history and social location, and in the process conflates the specific experiences and values of the socially dominant with universality. This type of objectivity conflates the values of the powerful with value neutrality.

Additionally, Harding argues that the weak conception of objectivity “requires the elimination of all social values and interests from the research process and the results of research.” For Harding, the problem is that not all social values or interests are equally detrimental to inquiry. Additionally, it refuses to acknowledge the way that important scientific and theoretical advances have been produced precisely as a result of specific interests and values.

From a Marxist perspective, we might also add that this view of objectivity misses the point. The Marxist notion of objectivity holds that knowledge is produce with interests in mind, and is verified and tested based on its ability to serve those interests. Thus, weak objectivity misses the point, it favors abstraction over change, analysis over praxis. Additionally, weak objectivity frames out the most important factors in the development of ideas and knowledge: the material interests and actions of concrete classes. It is a concept that obfuscates the material and historical factors (which are objective factors) in the production of knowledge. Harding explains that:

Weak objectivity… offers hope that scientists and science institutions, themselves admittedly historically located, can produce claims that will be regarded as objectively valid without their having to examine critically their own historical commitments, from which — intentionally or not- they actively construct their scientific research.

All that is to say that weak objectivity understands knowledge not as a practice of social creatures reproducing their life in a material context, and interacting with the various ideological lenses that concrete and objective material realities produce, but rather as an abstract and apolitical undertaking free of values and interests. This form of objectivity is obviously untenable for a Marxist.

Thus, Harding advocates a strong objectivity which takes the cultural, class, political, and historical standpoint of thinkers into account, not as an embrace of relativism, but as a recognition that these are objective phenomena which shape the production of knowledge. In defense of this position she writes:

Cultural agendas and assumptions are part of the background assumptions and auxiliary hypotheses that philosophers have identified. If the goal is to make available for critical scrutiny all the evidence marshaled for or against a scientific hypothesis, then this evidence too requires critical examination within scientific processes.

This form of objectivity must take these factors into account precisely because ignoring them is ignoring important and objective factors in the production of knowledge. Rather than arriving at relativism, this strong objectivity brings us to a more thorough and more nuanced account of truth and objectivity.And so, Harding argues that, “we can think of strong objectivity as extending the notion of scientific research to include systematic examinations of such powerful background beliefs. It must do so in order to be competent at maximizing objectivity”

This approach to standpoint theory is not only compatible with Marxist commitments to objectivity, but is strengthened by this commitment. Marxism is uniquely capable of providing an account of where these “background beliefs” emerge from. The Marxist theory of superstructure and ideology allows us to understand how social values and ideals are produced as a result of a specific material base. These background beliefs justify and naturalize the economic conditions of a given society. Liberalism and notions of individualist freedoms, for example, are a naturalization of capitalist destruction of social cohesion and emphasis on individual competition among workers. Marxism can give us an account of how these background beliefs are a part of a bigger picture. It can contextualize them within materialism.

Additionally, the standpoint theorist emphasis on attention to identity need not get in our way, because materialist analysis can explain where identity comes from. It can recognize that identity is not an individualist notion, but is constructed based on the material interests of concrete and real classes. We can be attentive to identity by explaining where it emerges from. We do not need to fear this attentiveness.

Given Harding’s reading of standpoint theory, it becomes obvious that we do not need to see feminist attention to standpoint as a turn to relativism and individualistic idealism. Rather, we can see it as a deepened commitment to objectivity, which dislodges the naturalization of ideology by calling the beliefs and historically and socially specific background values of theorists into account. Standpoint theory can make objectivity stronger, and Marxism can make standpoint theory materialist.

Why This All Matters

Having undertaken the task of understanding the Marxist commitment to objectivity, as well as understanding the feminist standpoint theory’s fears of false universality, we can see that both sides in the debate about objectivity have reasonable concerns and fears. I hope that I have demonstrated that there is not a necessary incompatibility between standpoint theory which pays attention to the specificity of a given thinkers standpoint, and Marxist theory which understands objectivity as crucial to creating political change. We ought not allow reductionist thinkers to on either side of the debate to insist that standpoint theory requires relativism and removes the ability for unified struggle. We also ought not allow critics of objectivity as a false universality to throw out the notion of objectivity altogether. We can make a strong leftist case for objectivity which does not require dismissing its critics.

These debates matter because what is at stake is our ability to organize, theorize, struggle, and overcome. Capitalism rages on every day, and its death toll continues to rise. The stakes are huge, and we are in a pressing situation. Action is needed, and we need theories that can give objective accounts of the world which would verify themselves through their ability to create meaningful action. We need to be able to pay attention to identity and standpoint because identity and standpoint are produced by material conditions the same way all ideas are. Marxism need not flee from these concepts, rather it must explain them in materialist terms. This means we must take the useful parts of “identity politics” and “postmodernism” like strong objectivity, while rejecting the idealist parts like weak objectivity. In doing so, we not only demonstrate the insufficiency of idealist approaches, but we demonstrate the superiority of a material approach which defends the notion of objectivity.

We should continue to denounce those who do not want to change the world, but rather endlessly analyze abstract specificities of identity and standpoint, but we should also show them how a commitment to objectivity allows us to account for, explain, and address the underlying causes of those specificities.

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