The science of Marxism

Is scientific objectivity compromised by a subordination to the interests of the international working class? Chris Knight examines the issues

"Science," according to Trotsky, "is knowledge that endows us with power." In the natural sciences, Trotsky continued, the search has been for power over natural forces and processes. Astronomy made possible the earliest calendars, predictions of eclipses, accurate marine navigation. The development of medical science permitted an increasing freedom from and conquest of disease. The modern advances of physics, chemistry and the other natural sciences have today given humanity an immense power to harness natural forces of all kinds and have utterly transformed the world in which we live.

Potentially at least, the resulting power belongs to all of us - the entire human species. Science is the self-knowledge and power of humanity at this stage of our evolution on this planet - and not merely the political power of one group of human beings over others. To Trotsky, as for Marx before him, it is this intrinsic internationalism of science - the global, species-wide nature of the power it represents - which is its strength, and which distinguishes science from mere local, national, territorial or class?based (ie, religious, political, etc) forms of consciousness. Ideologies express only the power of certain sections of society; science belongs to the human species as such.

By this yardstick, social science has always been a paradox: on the one hand, supposedly scientific, on the other, funded by the bourgeoisie in the hope of buttressing its political and social control. Even the development of natural science itself - although intrinsically international and of value to humanity - has necessarily taken place within this limited and limiting social context. It has always been torn between two conflicting demands - between human needs on the one hand and those of particular corporations, business interests and ruling elites on the other.

Sectional interests and species interests - science has always oscillated between these conflicting forces. Between the two extremes, the various forms of knowledge have formed a continuum. At one end have been the sciences least directly concerned with social issues - mathematics, astronomy and physics, for example. At the other have been fields such as history, politics and (relatively recently) sociology - fields whose social implications have been immediate and direct. The more direct the social implications of a field, the more direct and inescapable have been the political pressures upon it. And, wherever such pressures have prevailed, knowledge has been distorted and blown off course.

Social conditions of scientific objectivity

Is Marxism ideology? Or is it science? In an intense attack penned at the height of the 'cold war', Karl Wittfogel - author of Oriental despotism - denounced Marx as an ideologist. He conceded that Marx would have indignantly rejected that description of himself, and would have been outraged at the use made of his work by Stalin and his followers. The Soviet authorities, wrote Wittfogel in 1953, always cited Lenin's concept of "par­tisanship" (partiinost) to justify 'bending' science - even to the point of falsifying data - in order to render it more suitable for political use. This idea of "utility" or "manipulation" seemed to follow naturally, according to Wittfogel, from Marx's initial premise that all knowledge was socially conditioned - produced by social classes only to suit their economic and political needs. To the Soviet authorities, scientific truth was always something to be manipulated for political ends. But Wittfogel continues:

"Marx, however, did not hold this view. He not only empha­sised that a member of a given class might espouse ideas that were disadvantageous to his class - this is not denied by Lenin and his followers - but he also demanded that a genuine scholar be oriented toward the interests of mankind as a whole and seek the truth in accordance with the immanent needs of science, no matter how this affected the fate of any particular class, capitalists, landowners or workers. Marx praised Ricardo for taking this attitude, which he called 'not only scientifically honest, but scientifically required'. For the same reason, he condemned as 'mean' a person who subor­dinated scientific objectivity to extraneous purposes: '... a man who tries to accommodate science to a standpoint which is not derived from its own interests, however erroneous, but from outside, alien and extraneous interests, I call mean (gemein)'.

"Marx was entirely consistent when he called the refusal to accommodate science to the interests of any class - the workers included - 'stoic, objective, scientific'. And he was equally consistent when he branded the reverse behaviour a 'sin against science'.

"These are strong words. They show Marx determined to maintain the proud tradition which characterised independent scholarship throughout the ages. True, the author of Das Capital did not always - and particularly not in his political writings - live up to his scientific standards. His attitude, nevertheless, remains extremely significant. The camp followers of 'partisan' science can hardly be blamed for disregarding principles of scientific objectivity which they do not profess. But Marx, who accepted these principles without reservation, may be legitimately criticised for violating them."

Karl Marx, writes Wittfogel, played two mutually incompatible roles. He was a great scientist, but he was also a political revolutionary. He championed - as every scientist must do - "the interests of mankind as a whole", but he also championed the interests of the international working class. The self-evident incompatibility (as Wittfogel sees it) of these two activities meant that "Marx's own theories ... are, at decisive points, affected by what he himself called 'extraneous interests'".

Wittfogel is cited by the social anthropologist Marvin Harris, whose views on this issue appear to be quite similar. Harris counterposes Marxism's "scientific" component against its "dialectical and revolutionary" aspect, his aim being to render the former serviceable by decontaminating it of all traces of the latter. According to Harris, "Marx himself took pains to elevate scientific responsibility over class interests." But this was only in his scientific work. Much of Marx's work was political, and here, science was subordinated to political ends - and therefore misused. If science is championed for political reasons, this must lead to the betrayal of science's own objectivity and aims, says Harris: "If the point is to change the world, rather than to interpret it, the Marxist sociologist ought not to hesitate to falsify data in order to make it more useful."

Wittfogel's point that Marx tried to base his science on "the interests of mankind as a whole" is a valuable one. We may also agree with Harris that Marx "took pains to elevate scientific responsibility over class interests" - if by "class interests" we mean sectional, as opposed to universal human, interests. But the difficulty lies precisely here. Like Einstein, and like all great scientists down through the ages, Marx believed that it was his responsibility as a scientist to place before all sectional interests the general interests of humanity. The question he faced is the one which still faces us today: in what concrete form, in the modern world, are these general interests expressed?

Marx came to the conclusion, on the basis of his scientific studies, that the general interests of humanity were not represented by the various ruling classes of 19th century Europe. These interests conflicted not only with one another, but also with those of the human species as such. They could not, therefore, form the social basis for a genuinely objective social science.

The weakness in the position of both Wittfogel and Harris is that they have nothing to say on this issue. They are in the peculiar position of both agreeing with Marx's basic premises and yet refusing even to discuss the possibility that his conclusions might have been correct. They fully agree that science must base itself upon general human interests. Marx, basing himself on this idea, reached the conclusions (a) that science was itself politically revolutionary to the extent that it was genuinely true to itself and universal; (b) that it was this kind of 'politics' (ie, the politics of science itself) that the modern revolutionary movement required; and (c) that the only possible social basis for such a science-inspired politics was the one class in society which was itself a product of science, which was already as intrinsically international as scientific development and whose interests countered all existing sectional interests. But neither Wittfogel nor Harris mount any argument on all this. They simply take it as self?evident that the interests of humankind are one thing, whereas working class interests are another.

Karl Marx knew - and every Marxist worthy of the name knows - that it is not worth committing oneself to a social force unless it genuinely does represent by its own very existence the wider interests of humanity. And every Marxist worthy of the name knows that it is only real science - the real discoveries of scientists working independently and for science's own autonomous ends - which can be utilised by humanity as a means to self-enlightenment and emancipation. From this standpoint we can see the absurdity of Harris's argument that if the point is to change the world the Marxist sociologist "ought not to hesitate to falsify data in order to make it more useful". How can 'falsified data' conceivably be of value to humankind? How can it be useful to anyone interested in changing the world?

Harris is right to insist that when a sectional political interest - be it 'Marxist' or not - takes hold of scientific work, science itself will suffer. A particular national and therefore limited political party or a particular group ruling a particular state (as, for example, the Soviet bureaucracy and 'communist' apparatus during the 'cold war') may well feel itself to have particular interests of its own, which it sets above the wider interests it claims to represent. In that case, to the extent that scientists are involved, science will certainly be distorted. But a distortion of science (ie, its partial transformation into ideology) can only involve a limitation of its long?term ultimate appeal and human usefulness. Wherever such things happen, therefore, the particular group concerned reduces rather than enhances its power to "change the world".

All distortions, falsifications or mystifications express the power only of sectional social interests in opposition to wider ones. Marx at no time advocated tailoring science to suit the felt needs of this, that or the other sectional interest - whether working class or not: "It is not a matter of knowing what this or that proletarian, or even the proletariat as a whole, conceives as its aims at any particular moment. It is a question of knowing what the proletariat is, and what it must historically accomplish in accordance with its nature".

For Marx, to know "what the proletariat is" constituted a scientific question, which could only be given a scientific answer in complete independence of any immediate political pressures or concerns. Far from arguing for the subordination of science to politics, Marx insisted on the subordination of politics to science.

Autonomy and class interest

Engels wrote: ".... the more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests of the workers." We can be confident that this accurately expressed Marx's own views. Science, as humanity's only universal, international, species?unifying form of knowledge, had to come first. If it had to be rooted in the interests of the working class, this was only in the sense that all science has to be rooted in the interests of the human species as a whole, the international working class embodying these interests in the modern epoch just as the requirements of production have always embodied these interests in previous periods.

There was no question here of any subordination to sectional needs. In being placed first, science was destined to cut across sectional divisions and become the medium of expression for a new form of political consciousness. In this sense, science was even destined to create 'the international working class' itself. Without science, there can only be sectional working class political movements; only through scientific analysis can our general interests be laid bare.

Admittedly, science - as itself a social product "“ cannot (in Marx's view) add anything to the strength of the working class which is not already there. It cannot impose itself upon the workers' movement as if from outside. It is in and through science alone that workers internationally can become aware of the global, species-wide strength which is already theirs. And it is only in becoming aware of its own power that the 'international working class' can politically exist. There is no question, therefore, of science being subordinated to a pre-existing political force. The political force is science's own and cannot exist without it. The previously prevailing relationships between science and politics are reversed.

For Marx, social science - including his own "“ is as much a product of class relationships as any other form of social consciousness. His general formulation is well?known: "The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material action at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that in consequence the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are, in general, subject to it. The dominant ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant relationships grasped as ideas, and thus of the relationships which make one class the ruling one; they are consequently the ideas of its dominance."

For this reason, Marx did not consider it possible to change the prevailing ideas of society - or to produce a universally agreed science of society - without breaking the material power of those forces which distorted science. It was because Marx saw social contradictions as the source of mythological and ideological contradictions that he was able to insist that only the removal of the social contradictions themselves could remove their expressions in ideology and science.

This is what Marx meant when he wrote: "All social life is essentially practical. All the mysteries which lead theory towards mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice".10  Or again: "The resolution of theoretical contradictions is possible only through practical means, only through the practical energy of man. Their resolution is by no means, therefore, the task only of the understanding, but is a real task of life, a task which philosophy was unable to accomplish precisely because it saw there a purely theoretical problem."11 

So from the standpoint of Marx and Engels it was in order to remain true to the interests of science - to solve its internal theoretical contradictions - that they felt obliged, as scientists, (a) to identify with a material social force which could remove the "extraneous interests" distorting the objectivity of science and (b) to take up the leadership of this material force themselves. Their idea was not that science is inadequate, and that politics must be added to it.12  Their idea was that science - when true to itself - is intrinsically revolutionary, and that it must recognise no political implications but its own.

Marx and Engels believed science could acquire this unprecedented political autonomy for a social reason: there had come into existence within society for the first time - and as a direct result of scientific development itself - a 'class' which was not really a class at all, which had no traditional status or vested interests to protect, no power to dispense patronage, no power to divide man from man and therefore no power to distort science in any way. "Here," wrote Engels of the working class, "there is no concern for careers, for profit?making or for gracious patronage from above."13  Only here could science be true to itself, for only here was a social force of a truly universal kind, capable of uniting the species as a whole.

This was the condition for a truly independent, truly autonomous, truly universal science of humankind - the existence of "a class in civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal, and which does not claim a particular redress because the wrong which is done to it is not a political wrong, but wrong in general". "There must be formed", Marx continued, "a sphere of society which claims no traditional status but only a human status, a sphere which is not opposed to particular consequences but is totally opposed to the assumptions of the ... political system, a sphere finally which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society, without therefore emancipating all these other spheres, which is, in short, a total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity."14 

Validation of Marxism

Much of the preceding argument may itself seem tendentious. Almost any political or social philosopher will claim, after all, that their theory expresses general human interests rather than narrow sectional ones. To use 'fidelity to the interests of humanity' as a yardstick by which to measure the scientific value of a conceptual system is therefore not possible - unless some objective test for this can be found. But what kind of test could this possibly be?

In the final analysis, no doubt, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What happens when we try out a new hypothesis? Does it prove to be empowering? Does it lessen mental effort in solving intellectual problems? In other words, does the hypothesis add to the power - be it purely intellectual or practical as well - of scientists in the relevant field?

If it does, then everyone should ultimately come to recognise the fact. Assuming intellectual efficiency to be our criterion (and we will not be scientists otherwise), support for the theory will spread. Internal coherence (agreement between the theory's parts) will find expression in widespread social agreement. Such a capacity to produce agreement is the ultimate social test of science.15 

In the long term, for Marxism or for social science, a similar test must be undergone. Science differs from mere ad hoc knowledge, technique or common sense by virtue of its abstract, symbolic, formal characteristics. Science is a symbolic system. Like any such system, its meaning depends on agreement. The figure '2' means 'two' only because we all say it does. It could equally well mean 'nine'. All symbolic systems - including myths and ideologies - depend in this sense upon social agreement. But, in the case of myths and ideologies, the scope of agreement extends only so far. A point is reached at which disagreement arises - a disagreement rooted in social contradictions. And, when this happens, the need to reconcile incompatible meanings leads to contradictions of an internal kind - within the symbolic system itself.

Mythology and ideology are expressions of social division. This is the essential feature which distinguishes these forms of knowledge from science. Science expresses the power and the unity of the human species - a power which, in class?divided societies, human beings have increasingly possessed in relation to nature even though not in relation to their own social world. A science of society, in order to prove itself as science, would have to prove that it was without internal contradictions, and that it was consistent with natural science and with science as a whole. In the long term, it could only prove this practically. It would have to demonstrate its internal consistency by demon­strating its roots in social agreement of a kind uniting the human race. It would have to demonstrate in practice, in other words, that it formed part of a symbolic system - a global 'language' woven out of the concepts of science - which was capable in practice of embracing and ultimately politically­ unifying the globe.16 

Yet this is not the only test. In the case of every scientific advance, the first test is theoretical. Copernicus knew that the earth moved. And he knew it long before this fact had been proven to the satisfaction of others and universally agreed. Einstein knew that light was subject to gravitational laws. And he knew this long before it was demonstrated in 1919 during an eclipse watched from observatories in Cambridge and Greenwich (when it was shown that light?rays from a star were deflected by the gravitational pull of the sun). In scientific discovery it has always been the same. A scientific revolution is validated on the level of pure theory long before passing the final test of practice.

The only ultimate validation of Marxism as science would be the demonstration of its power to produce agreement on a global scale - its power to unify humanity. But if Marxism is genuine science, it ought to be possible to demonstrate this potential in purely theoretical terms in advance. The question arises: how? I shall examine this problem in the second part of this article.