From the May 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socrates taught that all men desire the truth. If they do not, it is because they do not know the truth; once it is told to them, their eyes are opened and they will naturally pursue it.
The briefest look at history and current events makes plain that Socrates was wrong. In all kinds of situations men learn the truth and then act as if it were an unfounded rumour. Indeed, the simple dicta about truth are turned by everyday experience into untruths themselves: “honesty is the best policy” (well, IS it?) and “the unrighteous never prosper” (manifestly, they do). Three public figures have recently said this should not be so, and that truth should prevail in politics. Because most readers of their statements would agree, and at the same time not dream of acting accordingly, it is worth examining what they said to see where the fallacy is.
On 11th March The Times published an article by Enoch Powell on why he did not stand in the General Election. He wrote:
. . . the assumption so widely, even unquestioningly prevalent now, that any correspondence between the proclaimed intentions and policies of political parties and their actions in office cannot, and perhaps even should not, be expected, is certainly unhealthy; for if accepted, it reduces elections and Parliament to a charade.
Powell instanced his own Conservative Party in 1972 introducing a wage-control policy “which at the 1970 election it renounced and repudiated in the most thorough manner”, and pointed out that this required Conservative candidates to be liars:
What is more, it was universally expected (so far as I could tell) that come an election, the same member would find no problem in presenting himself to the electors as the official candidate of a party seeking support and approval for the actual policies he had consistently denounced.
It seems strange that Powell in the 1974 election supported Labour, whose policies he had “consistently denounced”; and who did exactly the same thing in reverse, introducing a wage-control policy in 1966 and then repudiating it. Powell’s support was given because of one over-riding reason, the belief that a Labour government would get Britain out of the Common Market. But this highlights the whole question of political practicality, and why leaders eat their words. Necessity drives. One of the most famous lies of modern times was put down to a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, in 1949 when he affirmed repeatedly that the government was not going to devalue the pound — right up to the moment when the government did so. The pious Cripps, of whom Churchill said “there but for the grace of God goes God”, simply did not believe it would be done and was left with the consequences of his own utterances.
Looking for an Honest Man
A different version of Powell’s plaint was given in an article on Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, by the Financial Times Ottawa correspondent on 4th January. Trudeau, it was said, had “undergone a change in his thinking about politics”:
He said that he used to think it would be sufficient to put ‘a reasonable proposition to a person for that person to look at it reasonably, without passion’. He had now learned that this is not true. Nine-tenths of politics . . . appeals to emotions rather than to reason. He said he was sorry about that, but had accepted it as a way of life.
The article also described how Trudeau’s minority Liberal government responded to policies which might have affronted their principles but were successful:
The Tories were astounded at how far Mr. Trudeau had gone . . . Some Liberals concede privately that the PM went further than they would have gone, but they are not complaining. They won the confidence vote . . .
The third condemnation was made by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in a statement to foreign journalists before he left Russia. Answering the question “How can your compatriots and youth show their support for you?” he said:
Everyone must decisively stop co-operating with the lie everywhere he sees it himself-: where they force him to speak, write, quote or sign, or even simply to vote or even to read.
In our country the lie has become not just a moral category, but a pillar of the state.
In breaking with the lie, we are performing a moral act, not a political one and not one that can be punished by criminal law — but an act that would immediately have an effect on our way of life.(The Times, 22nd January)
The attack on Russian state-capitalist politics may be accurate, but the inference here and elsewhere in Solzhenitsyn’s speech that “truth” holds sway in western countries is very naive. Possibly the foreign journalists he addressed included some whose business in the last war was to show Russia as a land of freedom and warm hearts, Russia then being an ally against Germany. And there are those who think Solzhenitsyn (like Pasternak, who was awarded a Nobel Prize) is a not-much-more-than-mediocre novelist being declared a “great” one for propagandist purposes. What then of truth and lies?
It is easy to assume that irrationality and cynicism rule the world and this is what man is like. Further examples could fill many pages. The politicians who, on retirement, publish memoirs revealing “all” (yes, I knew MacDonald was a fraud — I was his right-hand man). The getting young men to die horribly for “peace and honour” when only trade and profits at at stake. The idiotic religious beliefs still clogging people’s minds (talking of truth, the Catholic Truth Society and the Protestant Truth Society spend most of their lives calling each other liars, and both do the same to other religious “truths”). The fact that most people want to hear not what is logical but what is gratifying.
But in fact it is rational. The talk about truth is equally misleading as the lies and distortions. It can be said that all truths are relative — this view is what separates the scientist from the religious philosopher who sees them as absolute and eternal. However, despite their lofty language it is the relative, practical view which Powell, Trudeau and Solzhenitsyn are expounding. They want "truths” which will lead, respectively, to the Conservative Party adopting different policies; to the Canadian Liberals getting firmer support; and to the overthrow of the regime in Russia. Their policies are going to be continued anyway, and it is justification on logical or moral grounds that is being sought.
What is pursued in a class-divided society is not truth or reason, but interests. If that is understood, the prevarications and sleights-of-hand are not unnecessary departures but rational actions towards certain ends. It is commonly — and mistakenly — believed that politicians know the truth about the economy and what is going on, and choose not to reveal it or use it to feather their own nests: most people will have read into Enoch Powell’s statement that we need honest men in Parliament.
That is altogether irrelevant. Some politicians are Horatio Bottomleys, but there is no substantial difference between their running of capitalism and that of others whose love of fair play is a byword. Of course there have been honest politicians. At least one leader of the Communist Party has had the reputation of being personally a thoroughly decent fellow — but he told the same whopping and self-contradictory lies as if he had been a rogue.
The contrary statement “all men are liars” is as meaningless as Socrates’ axiom that they seek the truth. Statements about the nature of “all men” — or individual “man” — see human beings stripped of their social conditioning and motivation. As Marx pointed out:
Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.(Grundrisse, p. 265)
Within those relations the individuals rationally follow their interests as members of a particular class. It is Powell, Trudeau and Solzhenitsyn who depart from rationality in their statements by proposing that it can be otherwise. Powell’s article says he found that to ask for consistency and truthfulness was “supposed a subtle and tortuous machination for self-advancement”. No doubt it can be — but what is more to the point is that it machinates to conceal the class division and class interests in society.
As for Solzhenitsyn, the belief that people will adopt policies of non-cooperation against the Russian state in the cause of truth alone is pitiful. Undoubtedly working people do and will seek change in Russia — for almost any reason but that, and specifically to defend or further their material interests. It is always possible to imagine revolts there against poor living standards and lack of democratic expression, but not as “a moral act” against the iniquity of lying.
Capitalist society is corrupt from the viewpoint of its pretended morality, dressing up property-protecting laws as high ethics and at the same time making trust between man and man improbable. This is part of the degradation it imposes: what kind of world is it that calls its own going-to-work everyday activity “the RAT race”? We have the paradox of knowing it should not be thus but having like Trudeau to accept — and practise — it “as a way of life”.
The alternative is to establish Socialism. This can and will be done when the majority decide they have had enough of capitalism. The movement for Socialism does not commit the irrationality of seeking truth; what it represents instead is the material interest of the working class. However, it is a fact that the Socialist Party does not have to tell lies to exist, because its object is not domination of one section by another but the emancipation of all mankind. And in the same way, truth will be not debated under Socialism — but will characterize all relationships in society.