How should the philosophies of crisis be combated? For some time, Communists have had to pay rather more systematic attention to a number of ideological themes whose contemporary weight cannot be put down to chance. In the economic field, the phenomenon involves such notions as ‘the limits of growth’, ‘zero growth’, and the ‘risks’ and ‘harmful effects’ (for ‘man’ and ‘nature’) of intensive industrialization. At the social level, it involves a renewal of anarchist arguments directed against ‘institutions’ and ‘power’, and proclaiming the necessity of immediate ‘abolition’ of the Family, the School, Medicine and the Courts. On the philosophical plane, it involves yet another challenge to ‘the value of science’ as a mode of knowledge and source of social progress—be it in favour of religious (Ilich) or mystic-naturalist (‘Princeton Gnosticism’) themes, or be it in favour of nihilist and irrationalist ones (Deleuze-Guattari). It need hardly be stressed that, for us, the problem is not whether these themes have to be combated at a practical and ideological level, but how, from what point of view, the struggle should be waged. It is a philosophical question. It is a political question.
A number of points can be made at once. However diverse they may be, all these ideological themes shore up the attempts of the big bourgeoisie to ‘solve’ the crisis in its own way and to its own advantage. They do this by presenting the crisis as inevitable, by proclaiming the need for austerity, and by substituting for the real social causes such imaginary ones as Technology and Science—abstractions held to blame for all manner of evils. Furthermore, of course, a considerable part of this offensive is preconcerted and articulated to immediate objectives (whose possible effects on manual and intellectual workers have to be concealed): namely, the ‘restructuring’ of capitalist production and, perhaps, the beginning of a displacement of the centres of capital accumulation towards other, formerly ‘underdeveloped’ regions of the world that appear, by virtue of their cheap labour force and ‘strong’ régimes, as the new paradise of free enterprise. Hence the accompanying curtailment or selective limitation of expenditure on education and scientific and technological research.footnote1 Folk wisdom puts it very well: He who wishes to drown his dog, first makes it out to be rabid.
To an important degree, these ideological themes are simply a mechanical inversion of those which used to be put forward in the previous period, often by the very same professional ideologues. Thus, the myth of ‘growth’ as the ideal of modern times becomes that of ‘zero growth’; the myth of the power and intrinsic value of science and technology passes into that of their impotence and harmfulness. The very same notions—‘industrial civilization’, ‘consumer society’, ‘automation’, etc.—are now given a minus sign instead of a plus.
Finally, beside the ‘right-wing’ variant of these ideological themes, a ‘left’ version can also be advanced, through which part of the opposition to the present régime is ‘recuperated’ or deflected, at least at this level. The objective result is to weaken the workers’ struggles and multiply the obstacles to the fighting unity of workers, other employees, peasants and intellectuals. If responsibility for the danger posed by atomic power-stations lies with nuclear physics, then it is the latter that must be denounced, rather than the complete subordination of industrial and energy policy to a few domestic or American monopolies. If any medicine other than the ‘barefoot’ kind is the social or ‘psycho-social’ ‘cause’ of illness, then medicine itself must be attacked, rather than discriminatory treatment, the wretched inadequacy of hospitals and dispensaries, or the all-powerful drug trusts. If growth, extended education, scientific research and technical progress are inherently contradictory and
In the light of these facts and of the experiences of the past, Communists have set themselves the urgent task of uncompromising struggle against such ideological themes. They see this as an integral part of their fight against austerity policies and big capital’s attempts to exploit the crisis, as well as for the development of the popular movement. This communist response often attaches considerable importance to the idea of irrationalism, arguing that this is being fostered in a more or less deliberate manner, or that at any rate the ruling (bourgeois) ideology is tending to slide towards irrationalism. The following schema might, therefore, be advanced: whereas, throughout the historical period of its economic rise and political dominance, the bourgeoisie above all developed rationalist ideology and philosophies, exalting the advance of knowledge or advance through knowledge, this tendency is inverted in the epoch of its crisis and decay. Whether it likes it or not, the bourgeoisie now falls prey to irrationalism. By contrast, the working class, which represents the future of human society, appears henceforth as the bearer and defender of philosophical rationalism, enabling it to make progress and enter a new field of action. Thus, today, the working class situates itself within a tradition that has been shown to be correct by past struggles (notably those in the epoch of fascism; in France, for example, Georges Politzer, Maurice Thorez and others already combated fascism under the banner of Descartes).
Without doubt, then, this question is of both theoretical and practical importance. But we also know that it is crucial gradually to refine our ideas and theses: for, with regard to ideological struggle just as on any other political terrain, no position is ever spontaneously one hundred per cent correct and effective. It is the combination of concrete analysis of the present with the theoretical lessons of Marxism that will allow us to refine our positions, through discussion and comparison of experiences. In this spirit, I offer the following reflections on the question of rationalism and irrationalism.
In a certain sense, irrationalism evades by internal necessity any unified, systematic definition. Its significance and influence are not based on a coherent system, capable of providing ideological and institutional armour to the whole of society. To speak of irrationalism is to designate an ensemble of diverse tendencies that react against, or present themselves as ‘critiques’ of, scientific, political, economic Reason or rationality, drawing upon an ideological past and thereby testifying to its persistence. It is of the highest importance, however, not to confuse the essentially modern phenomenon of irrationalism with the ideologies that preceded rationalism—especially with the dominant ideology of pre-capitalist feudal societies: religion. What must be understood is the relationship between contemporary irrationalism and the profoundly altered forms of myth and religion that ‘survive’ today. The relationship is very unequal and calls in turn for distinctions of great practical consequence.