Marxism as science

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Sat Apr 15 20:34:38 MDT 1995

I don't understand what all the hoo-ha is about about whether Marxism is
science. If we understand by that a research tradition in the business of
proposing empirically testible causal hypothesis about phenomena in its
domian, here, roughly, society and history, Marxism certainly involves
such a tradition. (It's also a trdaitionof moral philosophy, philosophical
speculation, literary and aestheic theory, and a number of of other
things.) The Analytical Marxist tendency in Marxist theory to which I
subscribe has been particularly interested in what Daniel Little calls
"the scientific Marx': reformulating the hypotheses sharply, testesting
them for logical coherence, and then for empirical adequacy. I don't see,
on the basis of this (AM) and other reserach that Marxist theory is worse
on than any tradition in the social sciences and I think it's better off
than many.

The qualification limiting the field of comnparison to social science is
necessary. The logical positivists started a bad habit of holding theories
to be scientific insofar as they approached the positivists' ideal of
physics (mind you, the early positivists included a lot of practicing
physicists and at least one genuine Nobel Prize Winner [Percy Bridgeman]).
I'm probably more sympathetic than many to somne suitably qualified and
weakened version of the LP ideal of a unified science, including social
science, but still, social science is not goiung to look like physics no
matter what you do to it. It is too complex, with too many variables;l the
domain is too open, with influences from lots of other areas, and it is
too contested in tgerms of conflicxting interests. That means that one
needs a suitably modest level of expectation about what degree of
precision and explanatory and predictive power (not the same thing) we can
hope for from any social science.

That said, these limitations do not seem to me to preclude making and
testing causal and descriptive hypothesis about, e.g., the nature and
basic tendencies of capitalism, the behavioir of social classes, the
psychology of social conflict, and other matters of traditional concern to

Of course to say that Marxism is scientific in this sense doesn't tell us
that Marxist hypotheses are any good. But in fact I think we have reason
to think that they are--not all of them, of course, and not to same
degree. But consider the following, which I regard as explanatorily
interesting and reasonably well confirmed:

1. Capitalism is exploitative in the sense that it involves nonvoluntary
transfer of surplus value from workers to capitalists, and exploitation
explains a basic dynamic of capitalism.

2. Capitalist exploitation explains the character of work under
capitalism, viz. that it involves domination and denies workers the
ability to participate in the range of activities necessary for
self-realization (development of their capacities).

3. The dynamics of capitalist markets are fundamentally unstable in ways
that prevent anything like neoclassical fantasies about equilibrium from
emerging or the satisfaction of the conditions necesasry for
Pareto-optimality from obtaining.

5. Class conflicxt is a pervasive anf ineradicable part of capitalist
society and complains a good deal of the political charcater of capitalist
societies. In particular, for instance, the state in capitalist societies
is first and foremost a capitalist state, committed to preserving and
extending the power of the capitalist class to exploit.

These will do for starters.

Fans of a certain more or less value free conceptoion of science will
object that some of these hypothesis contain irreducibly moral terms. Two
responses suggest themselves. One is that they do so no more than any
other social science, inasuch as in doing social science our research is
directed into morally relevant areas. A second is that with some work the
hypotheses may be framed (or "operationalized," as I aws taught to say in
the macho-quantitative Michigan political science dept.) in austerele
behavioralist terms which hide the value commitments as much as is
necessary to get the results published in mainstream journals of
economics, political science, and sociology. (Examples provided on request.)

It's true, of course, that some Marxists approach their favorite Marxian
hnypotheses like defense lawyers. This is, needless to say, not a wholly
scientific attitude--but even then, we might invoke Kuhn on the "the
function of dogma in science" or Lakatos on the "hard core" of a research
program. The point of these references is that any science requires a
certain amount of background held provisionally as more or less a priori
true so that one can get on with the business of solving specific "normal
science" problems or anomalies that wrise when you use that framework. You
can't always be tearing everything up at once, at that goes for physics as
well as for MNaexism. Still, there is a tendency that goes beyond this
(one sees it sometim,es onm this list) to treat Marxism as religion. That
must nbe disapproved, but it's not restricted to Marxism,a s anyone who
has experience with mainstream economics can testify.

The long and short of it is is that if we hope to understand the world we
live in we cannot avoid making causal-explanatory hypotheses; that if we
are sane we want these to be justified by the best available evidence and
to be logically coherent; and that I think, as do most people on this
list, that enough of the core hypotheses of Marxism are reasonable
candidates for being thus justified and coherent to call myself a Marxist.
So whjat's the fuss? Let's get on wiuth the business of debating which of
the hypotheses will stand and how how they can be formulated and applied
to concrete cases.

--Justin Schwartz

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