Very often in political discussions, particularly within certain kinds of socialism, the superiority of the objective mode of reasoning over the subjective is proposed. By this ‘objective mode of reasoning’ I mean the way of speaking in which it is argued that the actual, concrete effect of someone’s action counts more strongly than the intent that person had with that action or the subjective attitude that person had towards that same action. Here it is said that what counts is the ‘objective’ effect, not the ‘subjective’ aspects of it. The argument in defense of this particular way of reasoning is usually that it is the objective effect that actually exists in the external world, and that has causative power, rather than the subjective intentionality of the actor, which has only relevance for himself.
This issue often appears, for example, when it comes to questions of Party loyalty, and was for this reason often used by the orthodox Comintern parties and their leaders to ensure discipline among Party members in undertaking unpopular directives, or instructions considered to be contrary or even treasonous to the ideology that drew those people to such Parties in the first place. This went in particular during the period of Stalin’s government in the USSR, when many a Party Communist was appalled by instructions such as those aimed at combating social-democracy more than fascism, or, and I have personal experience with people burdened by this historical event, the forced repatriation of Communists who had fled the Hitler-governed Germany; in this latter case Communists were instructed not to subvert foreign governments’ efforts in sending these people back to Germany (and almost certain death or horror), because the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, guaranteeing the safety of the USSR, might be endangered by anti-German activities. The idea here was that although such directives might not subjectively have appeared becoming of a Communist Party, it was nonetheless necessary because the ‘objective’ effects of such actions were positive to the cause of Communism (which was then identified entirely with the USSR, but that is another issue which I will not go into here).
Nonetheless, the ‘objective’ mode of reasoning is seriously flawed. In particular, it suffers from an extreme vulnerability to reductio ad absurdum. Indeed, one may argue that at certain times it is more important what the objective effect of an action is for the actor than his subjective will or experience of it – all organized political activity depends on this, as otherwise every movement or party would split into as many parts as there are members, when nobody would be willing to pay heed to the effects of their actions, and only be concerned with their individual ideas of what should be done. Not even the most liberal party can operate on this basis – in fact, not even the anarchists, fierce opponents of all authority, allowed it when push came to shove in the past. But the risk lies on the other end. Say, one believes that capitalism suffers from inherent flaws, that will appear the more capitalism develops, so that the fullest development of capitalism will cause it to “create its own gravediggers” and lead to its overthrow, and that such overthrow is desirable. Under those conditions, a partisan of the ‘objective’ mode of reasoning could argue that any attempt whatever to impede capitalism only slows its development, and thereby the inevitable eventual overthrow of the system. Indeed, it would then be, ‘objectively’ necessary for Communists to support capitalism as much as possible in its development, because otherwise it would take longer for it to disappear! This might well be what Marx had in mind when he argued in his Speech on Free Trade that although workers have no particular benefit by either protectionism or free trade in Britain, free trade develops capitalist contradictions more fully, and thereby helps communism. But what an ultra-Trotskyist position this ‘objectively’ leads to, one that not even most Trotskyists would endorse! A similar result appears when one argues from a Third Worldist perspective that the overwhelming majority of First Worlders are parasites living at the expense of the Third World, and that this imperialist relation is the primary contradiction (as the Maoist terminology has it) of the world today. Under such circumstances, it can be said that it is incumbent on a Third Worldist living in the West to cause as much destruction and misery as possible in his environment, because regardless of what subjectively he may think of this, this would ‘objectively’ weaken the First World (if ever so little) and make the parasites less comfortable on their stolen thrones. In fact, one might even from this perspective argue ‘objectively’ for suicide of First Worlders who understand such contradictions, as this will also make the First World weaker and eliminate parasites.
Of course these examples may appear far-fetched or unfairly neglecting alternatives, but this kind of Modest Proposal-like ‘logic’ is precisely that which can be applied to any kind of situation, as long as one is willing to carry the ‘objective’ mode of reasoning to its extreme. We must recognize therefore, if we are not to be self-destructive in the extreme, that the scale of objectivity versus subjective experience is a sliding scale, where even if the truth is not necessarily found in the middle, then certainly at least some moderation must be sought rather than to seek certainty on either end. A lot of the infighting and internal strife between various Communist factions and sects, one would almost say denominations, of the past century has been the result of inability of the participants to see this particular phenomenon as a tension inherent in their reasoning, something which goes in particular for the various Leninists (tending toward the ‘objective’ end) and the anarchists & friends (tending toward the ‘subjective’ end). There are countless examples of situations where different positions on the scale of ‘objectivity’ have clashed within the left, leading often to dramatic results: Kronstadt, Molotov-Ribbentrop, Trotsky vs. Stalin, not to mention the numerous disputes over egalitarianism on the one hand and the need to promote specialists for planning and development purposes on the other hand, and many more. Yet socialists of all sorts do not cease haughtily berating each other either for lack of ideological commitment, or lack of sober, ‘objective’ thinking, causing much recrimination and little advancement.
I believe it is time we recognize this sliding scale for what it is, and accept that different people can take up different positions (even at different times) as to which should have the upper hand, without this leading necessarily to giving up any rooting in reality, or any seriousness about the idealistic content of socialist thought. If we do so, we will better be able to stick to factual and theoretical matters in discussions about policy and positions, rather than having to resort to arguing who is a ‘true’ committed Communist and who isn’t, based on differences on this normative scale.