Truth and Pretext

by Olavo de Carvalho

O Globo, Rio de Janeiro, May 27th. 2000

Translated by Daniel Brilhante de Brito (

Sceptics, relativists and pragmatists, who champion the idea that knowledge is something merely functional, operational have the grandest of pretences, namely that in a democracy rigorous, proven truth will undermine the health of the body politic. They suggest that if you claim to know the truth it is because you are utterly intolerant of adverse opinion. Such is their point. They then set out to argue that you can prove nothing whatever; and will go on to claim that the world will not be happy until all the theories have cancelled out one another, and mankind has finally acknowledged that there is no such thing as truth; that whatever goes under this name are just figments. These, again, are only provisional, if useful in nature. Once you have abolished the test of truth, all ideas have just about the same value. At this stage, you will have perfect democracy.

People used to judging ideas by their face value, and this means nearly the whole of the human race, will not think twice before jumping to this conclusion, if only because from their standpoint they are flattered to find out that their opinions being as useful and as provisional as any other these can justifiably be ranked beside those of Aristotle and Leibnitz.

But this persuasive set of appearances leaves out the plain, brutal fact that neither of this century’s major brands of totalitarianism – Communism or Nazism – accepted the existence of an objective truth; much to the contrary their tenet was that ideas, rather than instrumental to the knowledge of the real world were just tools that could be used to change it. Karl Marx was explicit on his head in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach”. One odd peculiarity of the Marxist view is the notion that History cannot be approached ‘from the outside’; nor for that matter can its unfathomable depths be explored theoretically other than by a subject who as a preliminary step has himself joined the cause of the proletariat; for not until the subject is personally engaged in the working class struggle is he expected to grasp the revolutionary process from within, in other words, the dialectic process itself through which this process evolves. When he claimed that class war was inextricably both a scientific theory and the rule of thumb for the revolutionary praxis, Marx distorted the very idea of ‘scientific theory’. Stripped of its role as an intellectual synthesis of objective findings, scientific theory was no more than a means of producing or modifying these findings in retrospect to fit the theory.

Nobody grasped this notion so thoroughly as did Lenin when he found that a proletarian revolution was conceivable in a nation where no proletariat existed; all that was needed was for a self-appointed élite of future proletarians to take over, and once in power to set about creating a proletariat.

Even more blatantly instrumental and pragmatic was Adolf Hitler’s idea of truth. As reported by Hermann Rauschning in his “Conversations with Hitler”(1940), he said, “I am quite aware that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as ‘races’. But as a politician I must have a concept to justify the destruction of the existing order to give place to a new one.” This is as though the ghost of Karl Marx were haunting his surroundings – the world, after all, is not meant to be described, but changed.

He who would believe an objective truth will look for one and put it to the test of proof. Conversely, he who will reduce the truth to a tool of change for the world cannot abide the onus of proof, all he has to do is to eliminate whoever stands in the way as an obstacle to change.





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