Why must social science be critical, and why must doing social science be difficult?

Raju J Das

Now-a-days, we hear the word ‘critical’ everywhere. It is there even in business schools: there is indeed such a thing as critical business or management studies. Conscious (=conscientious) capitalism, capitalism with a humane face, is presumably born out of such things as critical business studies. If business schools can be critical, can others be far behind? There is critical sociology. There is critical human geography? There is critical anthropology, and so on. Not to be critical almost means stupidity.

What does ‘critical’ really mean? It means being critical of the world, i.e. its social relations and inequalities. It means critical of ideas about the world, the ideas that sustain those inequalities and the ideas that do not conform to (conceptually-laden) empirical evidence. If one says that the place of women is in the kitchen or that people have a natural tendency to be only selfish and to buy and sell for a profit, there is clearly something here to be critical of, because these false ideas have an influence on people’s actual behavior. One must be critical because one cannot assume that what exists = what can exist. Uncritical work, as Alex Callinicos has said, equates what can exist with what does exist, and thus becomes status quo-ist. We must be critical because as Marx says, what appears to be true may not be true, so we need to dig underneath the surface appearances which represent inadequately partial truth and we must be critical of ideas which reflect the surface appearances.

Marx said that one should be ruthlessly critical of everything that exists, of the existing order, ruthless in that one will not be scared of the results of one’s research, nor of the powerful people.

Intellectually speaking, one can become critical of existing ideas about society by asking a series of questions of a piece of work. For example:

  1. Does a piece of work merely describe an event/process or does it explain it as necessarily caused by specific processes?
  2. Does a piece of work give more powers to things/processes than they can possibly bear/have?
  3. Does a piece of work naturalize a phenomenon by treating it as universal when it is in fact historically and geographically specific?
  4. Does a piece of work stress the cultural/ideational at the expense of the material/economic?
  5. Does a piece of work distinguish between necessary causes/conditions from contingent causes/conditions for something to happen?
  6. Does a piece of work treat an event/process as a mass of contingencies or does it treat it as a manifestation/expression/effect of a more general process?
  7. Does a piece of work conceptualize/treat/ analyze an event/process in terms of its necessary conditions and necessary effects (which may change over time)?
  8. Does a piece of work stress harmony and stability at the expense of tension and contradiction?
  9. Does a piece of work ignore connections between things and how their connections form a system which influence the parts or does it stress the difference and disconnection between things at the expense of the connections and similarities?
  10. Does a piece of work stress the individual thoughts and actions as being more important than structural conditions of individual actions/thoughts?

But what is the practical point of being critical? What happens if a professorial colleague makes criticisms of another colleague? One could say that by making (polite) criticisms of the existing ideas of scholars, we can change their viewpoints.  Many people hold the idea that: there are interstices of capitalism which can be used in the interest of ordinary people, and that is a way of fighting against the system and that, more particularly, things such as co-ops, labour unions, NGOs, identity politics, and social-democratic type parties can be used to significantly mitigate or eradicate humanity’s problems. Now: one can critique this idea hoping that the person in question will change her/his existing idea into a more radical idea, and that this will have an impact on radical social change in the world itself.

But this assumption is, more or less, wrong, for the idea underlying the assumption is that radical social change depends on merely change of ideas and that the change of ideas of the professoriate is crucial to radical social change (=transcendence of global capitalism and installment of global economic and political democracy = socialism).

My several years in academia now tell me that it is very difficult to radically change the ideas of colleagues (and most students), although one tries! It is very difficult to make them understand that, for example, the global capitalist class relation is at the root of major social-ecological problems in different localities and in the world at large, and it must therefore be gotten rid of.

A few of these individuals may change their ideas. However, the academic stratum as such will not. As the ideological representative of the petty bourgeois and bourgeois forces, this stratum cannot relinquish its job of defending and protecting the sanctity of private property and capitalist private property. The places the academia occupies within the bourgeois ideological system define their class-role. This or that capitalist can support the cause of socialism by changing her/his side. Engels did. But the capitalist class as a whole cannot commit mass suicide. This applies to the professoriate as well. Consciously or not, they stick to their roles. Their being critical stops at the door of capitalism. At best, they may be critical of the time- and place-specific excesses of the system, of its anti-democratic nature, but not the system as such. They are critical of e-m-c (everything minus capitalism). Besides, for a large part of the professorate (the movers and shakers of the academic world, who are also often the gatekeepers of knowledge), the ideas are material because they have gripped the minds of the professoriate masses: that is, they have invested in their ideas and have made a career out of their existing ideas (e.g. professor X says that ‘labourers – and not just businesses – have an agency in making changes happen in society’ and has a large following with which come many material-cultural benefits), so why will they so easily change their ideas?

And, even if one is able to change their views, the fate of radical social change does not critically depend on what views are held by professors, although their views are not entirely immaterial. The reason is that: they are not the revolutionary class. Only the working class is that class, given proper ideological and political preparation. This is the class which must sell its ability to work for some compensation and which has very little power to decide the conditions of work and how regularly it will be employed. This class produces the source of profit, rent and interest and this class can stop its production. Genuine Marxists critique the capitalist world and ideas about capitalism which the academia holds, from the standpoint of the material suffering and political power of this class, which is an international class. A more correct understanding of society than it has is in line with its class-instinct, its material life situation, both what it is and what it can be.

The main – rather ultimate – practical reason why Marxists should be critical of existing ideas is to contribute to the raising of consciousness of this class, and not the raising of consciousness of professors. The working class (I am including the semi-proletarians in this category) is constantly being ‘deceived’: its thinking is characterized by partial truths and sometimes complete falsehood. This is a most important reason – apart from blatant coercion – why capitalism still continues. The working class takes capitalism as a natural form in which life has to be lived. This class does suffer from false consciousness, bourgeois consciousness. This is why the working class remains politically weak and the capitalist class, strong.

False consciousness is constantly being produced. It is produced for many reasons. These have got to do with two aspects of one mechanism: ‘control’. It is produced because the objective reality of the capitalist society creates falsehood (as Marx indicates in chapter 1 of Capital vol 1). Let us call it the Capital 1 Model. Because of the absence of direct control by working-subjects, over the way in which useful things are produced, because people are having to exchange the things they need for what they have, because they are having to enter market relations to satisfy their need for food and other things, they therefore think that these things by nature have a price tag, that we must always buy the things that are produced for profit in order to satisfy their need. Every person needs food. That is a universal and natural fact. But that food has to be produced capitalistically, by agribusiness or capitalist farmers, is not natural. People think it is. This idea of naturalizing something that is not natural needs critique.

False consciousness is also produced because of the presence of control of the ruling class over the working subjects’ ideas (as Marx explains in German Ideology). Let us call it the German Ideology Model. The ruling class, directly or indirectly, through the state or through civil society agencies (which are the darling of ex-Marxists dressed up as post-Marxists), controls the ideas of ordinary people and makes them believe that, for example, austerity is good, user-fees increase the quality of service, and so on. That this mechanism of control does not always work is a different matter. It is a different matter that coercion is often used to put people in their place, if after having correctly understood the reality they take action to remedy it. Force was used against even mildly anti-capitalist Wall Street occupiers in New York.

False consciousness is also produced because all kinds of petty bourgeois forces and their academic spokespersons come up with strategies which bind the working class with the bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces (e.g. join bourgeois trade unions; vote for social-democratic and even liberal type parties). The working class thinks that following these forces will bring lasting benefits. Let us call this the Lenin model (which insists on the independent political mobilization of the working class).

Because false consciousness is constantly created, there is a need for critiquing the ways in which this is created, who furthers its creation, and who disseminates it. The professors, even when they espouse some critical thought, are, at best, speaking the language of the petty bourgeoisie and left factions of the bourgeoisie (e.g. the enlightened elite who can think about the long-term and are willing to make short-term or localized and reversible sacrifices). The petty bourgeoisie has some hatred for capitalism because large producers crush them but they do not like the property-less workers either. Ideas do not hang in the air. Ideas are ultimately, if not immediately, ideas of classes and class-fractions. Critique of ideas is ultimately a critique of class and class-fractional interests therefore. Since the academia have a class-role to play – defend capitalist property with or without some reforms—their ideas reflect that function and therefore the interests of the class which they defend.

When one critiques the ideas of the academia, one really critiques the class interests they defend. Since their role is to defend these interests, whether by choice or not (and usually a combination of choice and coercion), any amount of criticism of their ideas is not going to bear much fruit. Therefore, the aim of criticism is not to change these people. The aim should be to clarify to the working class the true nature of the society and of the forces that stop the society from being changed. The point is to remove the layers of misconception from the working class which reflect bourgeois and petty bourgeois (including union bureaucracy) interests, which are ideologically produced by the academia, and which are disseminated through media (new and old), and through family, friends, and sometimes even by professors themselves. Consider the professors selling micro-credit, co-ops, ethical trade, unions, democratic revolution, or even ‘socialism in one country’, as solutions to problems of the humanity; and some of them also win prizes and grant money for knowledge mobilization and community engagements. A genuine critique of the ideas held by the academia will therefore be – can only be – from the standpoint of the interests of the proletarians. Capitalism is critiqued by many people. A proletarian critique is a different critique. It is a ‘critique of everything that exists’ type that Marx had advocated. By critiquing the ideas of the academia, genuine Marxists create conditions for the self-realization of the working class as a class, the realization of its own power and of what needs to be changed and how.

If what is said above is true and to the extent that this is true, this has implications not only for what topic one researches but how one researches it. The implication is quite precisely this: research has to be difficult labor. This is so because research has to be critical. It has to be critical for the reasons discussed at the outset (namely: it must uncover things which are not easily seen or felt; it has to be critical of various forms of exploitation and inequality, which are causes of many events/processes we observe, and so on). And, to critique – the labour of critique – is not easy – this is indicated by the 10 questions earlier provided as a sample of questions one must ask in order to be critical.

There is another reason, which is related to what is just said, why research must be difficult. Consider the following five statements.

  1. We research existing conditions (generally speaking).
  2. Existing conditions are present because forces to fight these conditions are absent.
  3. These forces are absent because it is not easy for these forces (e.g. revolutionary leadership; revolutionary ideas, etc.) to be present.
  4. So: our research presupposes difficult conditions, the difficulty of conditions. Difficulty can be thought of as an ontological condition: x wants to be but x cannot be, because of barriers to x’s existence. The current conditions exist because the future conditions cannot exist. Researching the presence of the current conditions is indirectly researching the absence of the future conditions (= the opposite of the current conditions), the absence which is caused by difficult factors.
  5. Therefore: research must be difficult. Dialectics demands this.

The vast majority of the global population, the working men, women and children, live in conditions of barbarism, the barbarism, which is described by the massive un- and under-employment, peasant dispossession, food insecurity, ecological devastation, constant threat of war, aggression and violence, and so on.  If transcending the present conditions of barbarism is a difficult affair, if intellectual and political preparation for this transcendence is a difficult affair, then researching the current conditions need to be – must be – a difficult affair. After all ideas more or less reflect the conditions which ideas purport to describe. Research must ask: why are the current conditions present? What forces support these conditions? What forces are undermining – and can completely undermine – the current conditions? Clearly, the cause of the current conditions and of their reproduction has deep roots. Ideas have to help us grasp the matter (=barbarism) by its roots. And when these ideas catch the imagination of the masses, then these ideas act like a piece of iron. Ideas do indeed matter, if we want to replace barbarism with civilization and sanity. But the ideas, not of any group or class, but of the class which potentially has the power to transcend the present barbaric condition.

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.


  1. Mwamba Anthony Kasongamulilo says:

    In the wake of modernity, the institution of commence has invaded every fabric of society. The modern bourgeoisie / capitalist are characterized by a limited and narrow principle of excessive consumption and immediate profits. It stands out in painful contrast to demands of the working class who owns no tools and does not participate in the profit of his labor. The conflict between the modern bourgeoisie and the working class will be fought out along party lines, but also upon the basis of economic and ethical principles.
    Nothing is more significant than a critical view and analysis of society.

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