Marxism and Science


In his recent article "A Party of Socialism in the 21st Century," Sam Webb made the following seemingly innocent and obvious statement:

"Marxism is a scientifically grounded mode of analysis, compass of struggle, and legitimate (and necessary) current within the working class and people’s movement."

But what does it mean? There are essentially three claims presented in this single sentence: 1) Marxism is "scientifically grounded," 2) it combines both analysis and political action, and 3) it is a dynamic political, cultural, and theoretical "current" in the movement for democracy and working-class power. Here, I propose elaborating on the first of these.

What does it mean to describe Marxism as "scientifically grounded"? Further, what does it mean to ask working-class people – many of whom, if they are like me, struggle to help their 11 year olds with basic algebra – learn science? Even more fundamentally, do appeals to science (i.e. empirical, objective method, dialectics, etc.) remain valid ways to explain Marxism itself?

Author, authority, authoritarianism

As to the first question, it is easy to promote divisions and distinctions between trained intellectuals who have spent years studying specific scientific questions and everyday working people who are almost always intellectually curious but usually find themselves with a shortage of time – between work, family, and political activism – to focus on luxuries like science.

On top of these barriers, science writers add to the problem when they make their own subjects painful to follow with difficult writing that can create feelings of alienation in the under-trained reader. Ask a teacher how many times they've heard a student who, after difficult reading, says something like, "It hurts to read this" or "This author is trying to make me feel stupid."

This artificial division between trained intellectuals and their working-class constituency can create an undemocratic result. It becomes easier to rely on trained intellectual to explain things – the true nature of things, systems, society – to everyday people. Professional thinkers become leading voices in the publications and websites of working-class movements. These leading voices sometimes become organizational leaders, as they seemingly are best able to understand, explain, and interpret in writing real experience as abstractions. Through this process of ungrounded theoretical development, the author – a producer of written statements – is transformed into the original Latin meaning of the word: master or leader.

This literary phenomenon has a social consequence also. Leading voices become authority figures who dictate the lessons of science to the tabula rasa (the erroneous metaphor established by some European philosophers suggesting people are empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge produced by the great minds of advanced civilization) of the working-class mind.

The relationship between author and authority is a question that holds special importance for a working-class movement in a capitalist society that neither values education nor actually provides it on a meaningful scale to the vast sections of working-class people. The social relationship between the author (authority) and the reader (working class) is, then, a question of class domination, one that the working-class movement within its own independent organizational structures tries to be mindful of. Authorship can, thus, lead to authoritarianism.

Working-class authorship

As one scholar of the works of both the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire has noted, despite best intentions "authoritarianism is authoritarianism." [1] To counter this, both Gramsci and Freire posed important interventions in the traditional author-reader social relationship. In addition, American intellectuals like the great W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as more contemporary thinkers like Victor Villanueva and bell hooks in our modern setting, too, have offered important ways to think about these questions. Some post-structuralist philosophers have even urged the metaphorical death of the author. [2]

Gramsci highlighted the need for a working-class movement, like a communist party, to make a special effort to develop the intellectual capabilities of working-class people, which they all possess. [3] He praised the work of the party's press in organizing discussion groups that built up a "new intellectualism" among their participants. This new intellectualism consisted of moving from oral agitation to the systemic expertise in everyday "practical life." The working-class intellectual was "a builder, an organizer," an expert both in the nature of work and in the political activity of the class. Gramsci also emphasized the interconnectedness of the new intellectual and new stages in the development of social production (technology, work, social relationships, etc.) To transform this reality into a tool of liberation, schools, generally, should emphasize creativity, independence, and above all active and experiential learning.

Rather than the traditional author-reader social relationship, teachers should see themselves as allies of the student, Freire continued the point. If the relationship of intellectual to non-intellectual began as something like the priest and the supplicant, in today's education system, especially in the universities, the expectation is that teachers are like employees waiting on the needs of the university's clientele, the student. Students feel empowered as consumers, but like consumption in capitalism generally, the products consumed produce desire without satisfaction. Boundless desire is contradicted by the reality that the education system's role is confined to transforming unsocialized children into functioning workers in a service-oriented economy shackled by student loan debt peonage – not the liberation of the working class or full development of human potential.

Such a corporate model of education replicates the so-called business model of government in which the rulers count on appeals to consumers, taxpayers and voters to side-step the realities of structures of class, racism, and gender inequity. Freire asserted that this relationship between classroom structure and society was no accident. The goal of education is, above all, to provide the student with practice at obedience, accepting authority of the intellectual standing up in the classroom.

By contrast, the working-class intellectual sits down and sees herself in alliance with the student-reader-coworker. The working-class intellectual doesn't say things like you must know this and articulate it that way in order to be a real Marxist. She doesn't say, if you don't accept this or that point of view then you are a social democrat and unworthy of full inclusion in the Marxist party. Freire argued that a dynamic continuity exists between the classroom and the dominant social relations of production. The intellectual and the knowledge produced is also – always, already – situated in that continuum.

Both Gramsci and Freire also noted that even the liberated, critically conscious, working-class organic intellectual, Marxist (or however you want to label this person) must live with the contradiction of being of – a part of and apart from – the system they work to explain and transform. Villanueva and hooks describe this individual as being in a process of becoming something more than the socially mandated limits placed on her rather than something "other," a fiction. The resolution of this internal contradiction would likely mirror a larger social transformation towards working-class liberation.

Marx was also such an intellectual. Rather than living and producing knowledge outside of history, Marx was a product of the European Enlightenment and its contradiction, Romanticism. Notably, the Enlightenment, a class and imperialist-oriented system of thought and practice, was Euro-centric and privileged its science and rationalism, human primacy over nature. It was in this period of the development of historical capitalism, as noted Egyptian theorist Samir Amin describes it, that Marx developed an analysis of capitalism. [4] Marx may have held affinities with the Enlightenment's Romantic other, but in the end, it is a rational discourse of dialectics and materialism that Marx would affirm.

Soft science

Because of this context, Marx located his critique within the most authoritative discourse of the time: science. This wasn't an act of sheer will, however. Political economy and philosophy had been organized under the category of science before him. He could either pursue the Socratic method of negation through dialogue, that is, showing simply how everyone was wrong without providing an image or idea or formula for the correct steps, or he could work through the contradictions of being and becoming, as a dialectician should. He chose the latter. There is no doubt, however, that his science, or the science attributed to him, lies within history itself, and is, in its own process of becoming more, a product of that system of knowledge and production itself.

Simply put, science, regardless of label (Marxism, physics, social sciences), has no special claim to authority or to mastery over history (or the historic development of humanity on Earth). Knowledge (languages, meanings, disciplines) produced by science cannot lie outside of history, despite its claims to the universal, the objective and the empirical. Marxists, for our part, have long understood or sought to explain interconnectedness and dialectical relations of science, technology and capitalist development. [5] But the continued belief in, as Althusser would have it, the new historical subject constituted by the self-organizational working class revolutionary figure represented a break with dominant ideologies, epistemologies, and habits of thought constructed by and reproduced under the social relations of capitalist production is mere belief in trope, metaphor, a discourse itself unable to reflect on its own position within a historical context. This imagined historical subject (not to be confused with individual, but something closer to working-class movement or communist party or Marxism as a historical current of political philosophy) through a radical critique of historicism and human produced, within a definite set of social relations of production, little more than the belief in a science outside of the social relations of production, their future and their past. [6]

This is not to reject the objective reality that exists apart from our knowledge of it or theories about it. [7] The ability to prove or refute hypothesis with repeatable experiments and creation of a record of experience has helped prove theories of evolution and the Big Bang; it has provided important stepping stones for human progress from the eradication of some disease to the potential for for erasing social distinctions of any oppressive sort. But no such thorough research agenda or record exists for the dialectics of human history, a fact that results partially from the lack of systematic effort in capitalist societies to do so and failed, partial, or ideologically driven efforts in former socialist societies. Failed efforts at the production of a systematic science of human history, however, are not the only explanation for its non-existence.

Marx's Capital is the most well known attempt at such an inventory. It is focused on a place within a hypothetical framework that provided important lessons and glimpses at the nature of the "reality" that exist objectively apart from humanity's own socially mediated awareness of itself. While it carefully records the specific development of capitalism in a particular place and time, it does not (cannot?) quantify the subjective impact of human activity, motives, organization, activism, (as well as inaction and silence) that propelled that development (or lack of it). Nor can Marx's monumental effort account for developments adequately outside that definite geo-political set of social relationships, hence reductive and stereotypical assertions about the "Asiatic mode of production." As the Marxist political scientist Bertell Ollman notes in his book Dance of the Dialectic, dialectical thinking (the underlying "science" of Marxism) provides no guarantee to a discernment of truth about the nature of social reality. As he notes "relative change" is emphasized and conclusions drawn – a product of the nature of the "science" – while "relative stability" is downplayed as meaningless to the overall analysis. [8] It is important to note that this isn't a subjective consequence of bad thinking; it is a product of the structure and nature of dialectics – hence the dialectical materialist's ease with such terms as "laws" – in which motion, change and transformation are always the necessary and inevitable ingredients. [9] To some extent, science's objective powers, its method, and its concepts serve more as metaphor for Marxism's subjective aims rather than as techniques for analysis, experiment and testing or, ultimately, theory and explanation.

So, to return to the starting point of this argument, Marxism is scientifically grounded by virtue of its historical relations to the scientific project's claim to produce knowledge about the nature of objective reality. It is scientifically grounded in that it seeks to discern and decipher dialectics of technology, science and human development (like those that now exist under capitalism, for example, or those that might exist under a new system of social relationships that give more power to working-class people). It is grounded also in its political and ideological alliance with science as a field of human liberation from lack, inequality, fear, or alienation. Will it ever produce a formula that would allow us to quantify the needed human inputs to force a change in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union policies or to win a particular election? No. Will there ever be an objective reality in which such conditions exist that allow humans discover such formulas to make such predictions? That galaxy may not be too far away.


[1] Victor Villanueva, Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color, NCTE, 1993, 61.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 is nothing if not a narrative explanation of the unity of thought and action of African Americans who sought to free themselves from slavery and white supremacy during and after the Civil War. For example, the general strikes and exodus of African American slaves during the war that caused the collapse of the slave system was not the brain child of intellectuals or thinkers. After the war, though trained African American professionals and thinkers poured their hearts and souls into the education programs and schools that spread throughout the South, it was the aspiration for freedom and equality of millions of African American farmers, sharecroppers, and workers that drove the education movement. See also, bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters, 24-27; Foucault "What is an Author" in Language, Counter-memory, Practice, 113-138. Still others sought to locate the production of meaning and knowledge – simultaneously the product of and developer of consciousness – outside of texts, away from authors and producers and into the hands of readers/viewers/consumers primarily. Robin D.G. Kelley, "Notes on Deconstructing "The Folk," American Historical Review, December 1992, 1401-1402; Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford university Press, 2001, 45ff; Michael Ryan, "The Politics of Film: Discourse, Psychoanalysis, Ideology," in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 477-488.

[3] Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings, International Publishers, 121.

[4] Samir Amin, The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation, Monthly Review,; See also Edward Said, Orientalism, Vintage, 1978, especially its introduction.

[5] See for example, Nick Dyer-Witherford Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism, University of Illinois Press, 1999.

[6] See for example Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, Verso, 1997, 119 ff.

[7] Meera Nanda, "Against Social De(con)struction of Science," in In Defense of History, Monthly Review Press, 1997, 74-96.

[8] Bertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic, University of Illinois Press, 2003, 19.

[9] See for example John Somerville, The Philosophy of Marxism: An Exposition, Nature, Society and Thought, Vol 1. 18, no. 1, 2005.

Photo by Argonne National Laboratory, cc by 2.0/Flickr

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  • Marxism-Leninism produces peace science while capitalism and imperialism produce war and destruction science.
    Marxism's advocates,in natural history,a development of the communists,side by side the entire working people,the international working class,this peace science.
    This scientific fight for peace,has been a hot fight of bullets,bombs,muskets,strikes,and boycotts.
    It has combined strikes and boycotts with non-violent passive resistance struggle technologies,and other forms of massive political and economic resistance to advance the needs of the modern working class.
    Natural history produces the working class,the new proponents of science. Marxism-Leninism gave this struggle new order and revolutionized all previous fields of science,while some of the most profound thinkers and activists embraced it as the most advanced useful science. These thinkers were activists like V.I.Lenin,W.E.B. Du Bois,(it is essential to note that Du Bois's Black Reconstruction narrates the unity and thought of action of all the American working class,see his also monumental John Brown,the international working class,with Karl Marx himself in the lead)Elizabeth Flynn and many,many more,by name,deed or both. Their peace activity covered vast areas of human inquiry,from women's rights,human rights,social science,anthropological science,historiography,mirroring and continuing the activities of Karl Marx,the polymath.
    Individuals and their relationships with groups and groups and their relationships with individuals were also revolutionized with the manifestation of Marxism.
    Both peace and freedom were re-defined,reaching a new synthesis in order to protect the well-being of the working class,as groups and individuals.
    Just as the American Bill of Rights and its Declaration of Independence deal with promoting human rights,Marxism re-establishes them on a foundation of science,which uses the scientific method to progress human affairs.
    After giants like Locke,Leibniz and Hegel,Marx showed us that the way to human liberation,flowing from natural history,had scientific foundations in materialist development in human affairs. The inheritors of the earth and all its wonders and riches would be the meek,powerful laborer who would not only take these from nature,but return these riches to the earth through advanced technologies.
    This would only come with the self consciousness of these communists,with no interests,no activities separate from the earth's workers. This would only come as workers controlled and owned capital and public resources for their own well-being as workers and scientists.
    Prime,among resources,would be the workers' labor power.
    Today,as struggles like the class struggle in Wisconsin unfold,we must fight to assure that labor power,(the source of all value and capital) of Wisconsinites and all national and international labor is protected by governments,local,state,national and international. It is extremely positive that Joel Wendland mentions the real and current Wisconsin struggle. In general,we do have a formula for victory there: UNITY.
    Now,the working class is advanced enough to know that the way to assure peace,is to protect and expand collective bargaining rights,within the context of the Bill of Rights and the Life Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness in the Declaration of Independence.
    This is also in perfect agreement with Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations : "Every one has the right to life,liberty, and security of person."
    This,Marxism,is the science of human rights,the science of lasting peace.

    Posted by E.E.W.Clay, 03/09/2011 12:45pm (8 years ago)

  • Joel:

    1. On Sam's formulation, "Marxism is a scientifically grounded mode of analysis":

    What is a scientifically grounded mode of analysis? One whose propositions are held to be testable, to be subject to proof. Or, conversely, to be negated, and the negation proven to be false.

    What is a proof? It's a "good argment". Over time the scientific and mathematical communities have achieved considerable success rating the strength of arguments from very strong to probable to weak to fallacious. Mathematical proofs (always assuming premises!) of deduction, contradiction and induction are very strong. A hypothesis whose predicted outcome can be repeated with reproducible -- if possible, laboratory -- controls and constraints has a very strong argument.

    A statistical argument from a data set can vary from strong to weak depending on the robustness and composition of the data, its constraints and integrity over time.

    Marx was a social scientist and an important researcher and thinker in the evolution of economic science.

    Marxism, wherever it emulates Marx in the rigor and depth of its thinking, subjects itself unreservedly to criticism and testability (aka 'falsification'), as Marx did, then the label "scientific" is justified.

    However, the historical record of a scientific mentality guiding either political or intellectual "Marxist" trends after Marx, is decidedly mixed.

    Sam's statement is -- well, 'optimistic' in the scientific sense!

    2. Your parenthetical remark that "dialectical thinking [is] the underlying 'science' of Marxism":

    That, it seems to me, is an unfalsifiable proposition. The 'quotes' seem to imply you have your own doubts. To be true, or meaningful, it has to explain why un-dialectical thinking has not robbed the liberal scientist, or libertarian one, of their 'science' along with the any Marxist who might be un-dialectical.

    Dialectics suffers greatly in its claim to being scientific from not having generated (AFAIK) a formal logic. Genetic algorithms used in computer optimizing programs comes closest to embracing both Marx's, and Darwin's, attempt to devise modes of thought and analysis that can model change, reproduction and transformation, better than earlier logics.

    3. There are a vast number of working class occupations that require substantial technical skill. The speed with which entire trades appear and fade has made many of these folks master 3-4 technical skills, often requiring familiarity with the scientific foundation of the technologies they are using. Once this level of culture is achieved for all, natural curiosity and creativity will unleash a new hurricane of world-changing and transforming and democratizing trends. Your picture of distinctions between intellectual and worker seems a bit dated.

    4. I think the expression "scientific socialism" arose in debates with "Utopian" socialists over the need for an economically sound foundation for replacing capitalist relations, rather than just attempting to separate oneself and friends from them. It might still be useful. But to begin it would have to begin by firmly separating itself from "unscientific" socialism, an impossible task if the test is "dialectical vs undialectical" thinking.

    5. Undertaking a serious review of what might be scientific, more or less, or not, in socialist thinking, by the most respected peer standings, compared and contrasted with ones own thinking, and even upstart thinking, is a thing Marx would regularly do. But one does not have to be a "Marxist" to do as Marx, or any scientist, would do. I say drop "Marxist" -- be a scientist and persuade us with good arguments that the socialist direction serves the best and most democratic interests of the working people of the United States, and the world.



    Posted by John Case, 03/08/2011 11:47am (8 years ago)

  • I half-agree with you, which I guess is a way of saying that we disagree, although I'm very sympathetic to your general point.

    I despise intellectual high-handing of any kind - in fact it prevented me from wanting to have anything to do with what is known as "higher education" in this country. So as far as the bourgeois educational apparatus attaches itself with a particular ferocity to "science," your bete noir, I agree that it should be looked at with care - most especially, of course, the "science" of economics.

    But what attracted Marx to science was something greater than you give him credit for - science is the systematic exploration of reality that capitalism is forced into, despite whatever other intentions it may have. Even economics must attempt to contend with the reality of the economy, albeit within firmly delimited parameters.

    In the academy, science is unquestionably the least ideological of all pursuits. So, unfortunately, while your gut objection to high-handing is doubtless admirable, if it moves away from science - that is to say, testable hypothesis - it moves against an equal intellectual footing for working-class folks.

    See what I'm saying?

    Posted by followingsylvis, 03/07/2011 2:40pm (8 years ago)

  • You mention "The goal of education is, above all, to provide the student with practice at obedience, accepting authority..." Just add classism and racism in the blassroom and you can look at a recent incident in the news -- a fifth -grade social studies teacher tried to make a 10-year-old black boy play a slave in a slave-auction simulation or role-play. The young student refused:

    A previous incident also involved a white social studies teacher who bound two 7th-grade girls with duct tape and made them crawl on the floor under desks -- in a slave ship simulation:

    Posted by , 03/06/2011 8:42pm (8 years ago)

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