The Ethic of Knowledge and the Socialist Ideal

concluding paragraphs from Chance and Necessity – Published on the Marxists Internet Archive, 1970. (Source: Chance and Necessity,  by Jacques Monod, publ. Collins, 1970. Part of final Chapter reproduced here).

the need for an explanation:

  • For hundreds of thousands of years a man’s lot was identical with that of the group, of the tribe he belonged to, and outside which he could not survive. The tribe, for its part, could only survive and defend itself through its cohesion … // 

… the breakdown of the old covenant and the modern soul’s distress:

  • If there is an innate need for a complete explanation whose absence causes a deep inner anxiety; if the only form of explanation which can ease the soul is that of a total history which reveals the significance of man by assigning him a necessary place in nature’s scheme; if, to appear genuine, meaningful, soothing, the ‘explanation’ must be fused with the long animist tradition, then we understand why so many thousand years passed before the appearance, in the realm of ideas, of those presenting objective knowledge as the only source real truth.
  • Cold and austere, proposing no explanation but imposing an ascetic renunciation of all other spiritual fare, this idea could not allay anxiety; it aggravated it instead. It claimed to sweep away at a stroke the tradition of a hundred thousand years, which had become assimilated in human nature itself. It ended the ancient animist covenant between man and nature, leaving nothing in place of that precious bond but an anxious quest in a world of icy solitude. With nothing to recommend it but a certain puritan arrogance, how could such an idea be accepted? It was not; it still is not. if it has commanded recognition, this is solely because of its prodigious powers of performance.
  • In the course of three centuries, science, founded upon the postulate of objectivity, has won its place in society – in men’s practice, but not in their hearts. Modern societies are built upon science. To it they owe their wealth, their power, and the certitude that tomorrow even greater wealth and power will be ours if we so wish. But there is this too: just as an initial ‘choice’ in the biological evolution of a species can be binding upon its entire future, so the choice of scientific practice (an unconscious choice in the beginning) has launched the evolution of culture on a one-way path; on to a track which nineteenth-century scientism saw leading infallibly on to a vast blossoming for mankind, whereas what we see before us today is an abyss of darkness … //

… the ethic of knowledge and the socialist ideal:

  • Finally, the ethic of knowledge is, in my view, the only attitude which is both rational and resolutely idealistic, and on which a real socialism might be built. For the young in spirit that great vision of the nineteenth century still persists with grievous intensity. Grievous because of the betrayals this ideal has suffered, and because of the crimes committed in its name. it is tragic, but was perhaps inevitable, that this profound aspiration had to find its philosophical doctrine in the form of an animist ideology. Looking back, it is easy to see that, from the time of its birth, historical messianism based on dialectical materialism contained the seeds of all the dangers later encountered. Perhaps more than the other animisms, historical materialism is based on a total confusion of the categories of value and knowledge. This very confusion permits it, in a travesty of authentic discourse, to proclaim that it has ’scientifically’ established the laws of history, which man has no choice or duty but to obey if he does not wish to sink into oblivion.
  • This illusion, which is merely puerile when it is not fatal, must be given up once and for all. How can an authentic socialism ever be built on an essentially inauthentic ideology, a caricature of that very science whose support it claims (most sincerely, in the minds of its followers)? Socialism’s one hope is not in a ‘revision’ of the ideology that has been dominating it for over a century, but in completely abandoning that ideology.
  • Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism? Only, we suggest, in the sources of science itself, in the ethic upon which knowledge is founded, and which by free choice makes knowledge the supreme value – the measure and guarantee for all other values. An ethic which bases moral responsibility upon the very freedom of that axiomatic choice. Accepted as the foundation for social and political institutions, and as the measure of their authenticity and their value, only the ethic of knowledge could lead to socialism. It prescribes institutions dedicated to the defence, the extension, the enrichment of the transcendent kingdom of ideas, of knowledge, and of creation – a kingdom which is within man, where progressively freed both from material constraints and from the misleading servitudes of animism, man could at last live authentically; there he would be protected by institutions which, seeing him as both the subject of the kingdom and its creator, would serve him in his unique and precious essence.
  • This is perhaps a utopia. But it is not an incoherent dream. It is an idea that owes its strength to its logical coherence alone. It is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.

(full very long text).


Jacques Monod on en.wikipedia;

Homepage of the Marxists Internet Archive (in some 48 worldwide languages); Sitemap in english; Encyclopedia of Marxism;

Marxist theory
on en.wikipedia/Category.

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