All social critique is founded upon some idea of the better. It is only in comparison with this idea that any existing society may seem good, tolerable, bad, or unbearable. But the idea of the better does not emerge from nothing: it is conceived of by actual men, members of the same society they criticize. If we consider that the mindset of these men is entirely a “product” of society, then, only one of two alternatives is true: either they themselves fall into the evil they denounce, or society, having given these men the idea of the better, cannot be as evil as they say it is.
Therefore, all social critique that claims to have any foundation at all can only be based upon the premise that in man’s consciousness there is a dimension which somehow transcends any present society and to which he can transport himself in thought in order to judge that society from the outside, or from above.
It is evident, however, that a simple verbal appeal to a legitimating authority is not enough to validate any critique. A critique must not only allege but must also prove its logical affiliation with a superior authority.
Social critiques, therefore, can be hierarchized on a scale of strictly objective validity, in accordance with (a) the intrinsic legitimacy of the authority called upon to legitimize them; (b) the degree of logical consistency of the nexus between the legitimizing authority and the content of the critique. In other words: (a) The authority of the superior authority summoned to legitimize a critique may be false or deficient in itself, as in the case of the critic who condemns society based upon a pure Utopian model of his own invention. (b) If the alleged authority is valid in itself, there is also the risk that the deduction which the critic draws from it in order to validate a specific critique of a specific society is not a logically valid inference.
A history of social critique from antiquity to the present day would easily demonstrate that, over time, the social critiques formulated in the West have been progressively losing their validity as they have grown in virulence and in the number of their adherents. In other words: as time goes on, social critics lose in intrinsic authority what they gain in pretension and audience.
I know that this is a lamentable observation and that some people, without having ever studied the subject, or even become minimally aware of it before reading this article, will reject it in limine and will seek refuge from it behind all sorts of subterfuge. The only thing I have to say to these people is: don’t bother me; go study. As to other people, that is, those for whom the enunciation of a hypothesis arouses curiosity instead of tears, I suggest they compare, for example, the Socratic critique to the Marxist one. The latter has far more adherents and is much more ferocious than the former, but, in declaring that men’s consciousness is a “product” of history, the Marxist critique cannot allege any legitimizing authority other than history itself; however, since history does not provide models for its own judgment, but rather the simple reporting of faits accomplis, the Marxist critic is left with no other alternative than to infer from past history a hypothesis for a future development and to take it at once as the legitimizing authority for the critique of the present. Nothing proves that the predicted development is inevitable, nor that the state of affairs that results from it will have to be better than the present state of affairs; all this is nothing but hypothesis and has no other legitimizing authority than that of a hypothesis. On the other hand, Socrates’ critique, which did not gain many adherents, except in a very limited circle, had a much more solid foundation, since the authorities to which he appealed were the certainty of death and the intrinsic authority of reason, which no man can reject.
Marxism stands at an even greater disadvantage when compared to the social critique of the Hebrew prophets, who draw their authority from the fulfillment of prophecies. Moses’ critique of the state of affairs in Egypt was founded upon his foreknowledge of the concrete means of leading the Jewish people to a better situation; and the success of his undertaking provided full proof of his claims. This is an argument that no Marxist can allege in support of his criticism of capitalism. Quite to the contrary, the historical achievements of the socialist model in USSR and China were so disappointing that, nowadays, Marxists, after having proclaimed and defended them as the purest and most typical expressions of how Marxism overcomes capitalism, strive to explain them ex post facto as accidental deviations and to purge Marxism of any commitment to such obvious failures.
Translated from the Portuguese by Alessandro Cota and revised by Donald Hank.
Originally published in Jornal da Tarde on October 11, 2001.
The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.