Historical materialism asserts that human consciousness arises from the material social relations in which human beings engage.
If these relations were complementary and harmonious, then human beings could achieve a unified consciousness, including a common understanding of the universe, of what is true, and what is right or wrong for people to do.
However, social relations in actually existing society contain contradictions that generate irresolvable antagonisms. Therefore, the forms of consciousness they engender also contain contradictions and antagonisms.
People’s understanding of the universe – their ideology, in a broad and non-pejorative sense of that term – varies according to their location in these contradictory social relations.
Complicating this process is the fact that dominant groups always try to impose their ideology on the groups they dominate — or, more precisely, a version of their ideology suitable for motivating the dominated groups to cooperate with the status quo.
So there is an ideological struggle between the dominated and dominant groups, and this struggle is reproduced within the dominated groups themselves as a struggle between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary consciousness.
In sum, no knowledge of the world is innocent. All knowledge, all thought, all ideas, and of course all social theories or theoretical claims are politically implicated. They all emerge from some definite position and direction of movement within some definite social struggle.
Struggle, therefore, provides the ultimate criteria of validity for contesting ideas. What makes an idea valid is not its objective correspondence to some neutral reality, but its efficacy, the work it does, within a process of social contestation.
So far, I agree entirely. And so far, some version of this is common sense for radical left activists, whether the struggle one treats as crucial is the class struggle against capitalism (as for Marxists) or the sexual struggle against patriarchy (as for radical feminists) or the struggle against all forms of state sovereignty (as for anarchists) or something else.
However, there is a certain problem that comes up if we take this framework for our guide.
If the ultimate ground of validity is struggle, then our ultimate criteria for evaluating competing knowledge-claims — that is, our ultimate criteria for resolving epistemic difference — is struggle. A revolutionary movement working to develop a body of knowledge appropriate to its struggle must differentiate between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary knowledge-claims.
The problem is that it is easy to descend from this understanding into a situation in which we all accuse each other of being counter-revolutionaries every time we disagree about anything – in other words, a situation in which we are all threatening to exclude each other from the movement every time we encounter epistemic difference.
How do we escape this trap?