The verve of Martin Shaw’s critique in nlr 70 of my book The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology derives largely from his effort to safeguard something he calls ‘Marxism’ from subversion by something called ‘Radical Sociology.’ It is on this issue, a matter of some substance, that I believe his analysis loses its way, and it is concerning this that some brief comment is in order.
Shaw’s analysis falters here, I would suggest, for two reasons: first, because it overideologizes academic sociology and, secondly, because it underideologizes Marxism. Let me clarify. Shaw totally rejects the possibility that academic sociology has any enduring rational and liberative kernel that deserves rescue. He adopts the manifestly unconvincing position that sociology’s decades of labour have been in vain, totally. He argues that academic sociology is completely reactionary, indeed, hopelessly so, and that there is nothing at all in its more than fifty years of research and theory-making that retains any serious value for the human race. In my view, this judgment is in error on both logical and empirical grounds.
Shaw’s standpoint on the hoplessness of sociology is strangely in contradiction with the Hegelianizing, Lukácsian Marxism, from whose standpoint he more generally views matters. As he makes quite clear, at the very start of his review, Shaw adopts an Hegelian view of ideology-critique; from this standpoint, of course, ideologists are not merely apologists, as he tells us, and ideologies have some rational dimension. From the standpoint of an Hegelian ‘ideology-critique,’ ideologies are not totally false and, therefore, not simply to be ununmasked. Rather, their rational dimension is to be separated out from their false consciousness and is to be transmitted into and sublated by the next, higher theoretical synthesis. Yet, after acknowledging essentially this conception of ‘ideology-critique’ in the beginning of his review, Shaw then proceeds to argue exactly the opposite way, so far as sociology is concerned, in the central part of his review. That is, he holds it to be wrong (illegitimate, in his words) to compare presentday sociology with Hegelianism (before Marx ‘stood it on its feet’), maintaining that Hegelianism once had a revolutionary kernel that sociology never possessed. From the standpoint of an Hegelian ideology critique, however, it is not incumbent on sociology to have a ‘revolutionary’ component, it is rather incumbent on Shaw to clarify sociology’s rational kernel (which need not be revolutionary to be rational). It would seem rather remarkable, from this standpoint,
Quite apart from the logic, Shaw’s judgment on this matter—that is, the totally reactionary character of sociology—is also unsatisfactory on empirical and historical grounds. For even classical sociological positivism, at its crassest, was not a totally reactionary standpoint. In its opposition to the proliferation of metaphysical invisibles, positivism placed itself in abrasive opposition to conventional established religions and, in this, even positivism had its own rational kernel. We might also remember that, at least in their beginnings, positivists were commonly suspect, frequently despised, and occasionally prosecuted and jailed. The early 19th century positivists were, after all, the preachers of a humanitarian socialism—they were Saint-Simonians! And as such they were one of the main sources of Marx’s own socialism. Here one would detail the roles of Ludwig Gall, the Baron von Westphalen, and possibly Eduard Gans. No Marxist can conceivably regard (at least) classical positivism as unambivalently reactionary and totally devoid of rational substance.
But the matter does not end with early positivism. There is a liberative tendency in positivism, even today, manifested by its attraction for many radicals and even Marxists. For example, it is evident that radicals such as Maurice Zeitlin or Richard Flacks have a manifest attraction toward positivism, Zeitlin having gone off to study the Cuban revolution, questionnaires in hand, and Flacks studying the student revolt with essentially the same methodological assumptions. French radicals, too, have long been attracted to positivism; one may regard Louis Althusser as simply the most current in a long line of this sort. Bear in mind, though it is hard to credit, that Althusser actually regards Auguste Comte as ‘the only mind worthy of interest’ produced by French philosophy ‘in the 130 years following the Revolution of 1789 . . .’!footnote1 If even a positivistic sociology had some rational, conceivably revolutionary but, in any event, emancipatory, dimension, it would seem that matters were even more hopeful for other, more reflective, sociologies.