[Marxism] One more on "bourgeois" sociology

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Tue Aug 17 16:03:44 MDT 2004

James wrote:

"This is where the understanding of sociology as bourgeois ideology comes
The idea of a sociology separate from economics, politics, history and
ethics is a bourgeois ideology. Marx wrote in the economic and philosophical
manuscripts that in an emancipated future "there would be one science"."

The problem realistically considered is, however, that there is no "one
science" or unitary theory in this world of ever-increasing specialisations
and proliferation of knowledges, and that is what we have to really deal
with, scientifically and politically.


If sociology becomes bourgeois, because it is "separated from economics,
politics, history and ethics" then the real challenge is to overcome this
separation. That is what Bukharin certainly sought to do in his (flawed)
treatise Historical Materialism: a System of Sociology (I say flawed because
I dissent from his analysis of societal equilibrium and his definition of
some key concepts). The promise of Marx's approach is, that it offers a
method for understanding social existence in its totality, with a rich stock
of concepts and categories, and a method of investigating social reality in
all its facets.

But we cannot very well overcome that separation, by "ruling sociology out
of the realm of valid scientific inquiry" by calling it "bourgeois". This is
a bureaucratic strategy, which rules out the validity of a practice, because
it does not conform to a category which the bureaucrat has devised to order
reality, instead of providing a critique of the practice within its own
terms through practical involvement.

We overcome the separation better by attempting to enrich sociology, by
integrating economics, politics, history and ethics into the discipline and
showing how it is to be done. Obviously, it is impossible to make a critique
of sociological practice, if we haven't created a space for ourselves to
make that critique, and we do not make that space, by ruling sociology out
of the universe of valid scientific inquiries. That is a bit like sitting on
the branch of a tree, while sawing through the trunk of the tree below it, a
rather Quixotic activity. A old friend of mine did that, and to his surprise
found he didn't get the job in sociology which he wanted and was previously


At least two classic critiques were made by wellknown Marxists of academic
disciplines. One was by Trotsky, the other by Althusser. Trotsky's concern,
in his talk on "Dialectical materialism and science" is with the carving up
of academic disciplines in a way which fragments knowledge, and creates
professional cretinism. Trotsky's argument is that the way disciplinary
boundaries develop or are drawn, conforms to a specific pattern: namely to
justify or disguise the nature of the class hierarchy.

The result of that is, that every specialised discipline somehow lacks a
vital component which is necessary to truly understand the object of the
discipline, or even that there is no consensus about what that object is.
The outcome then is the reproduction of an ideologically distorted knowledge
and consciousness, because each discipline poses problems which cannot truly
be solved without venturing into other disciplines, or else is uncertain
about what the problems really are.

The solution Trotsky offered is "dialectical materialism" as an overarching
philosophy, which can orient all disciplines, give them their appropriate
place, and provide guidance in how problems should be framed, and how they
could be solved. It sounds like a marvellous idea, except that a physicist
isn't particularly helped by the knowledge that the world is full of
contradictions, that quantitative changes are transformed into qualitative
changes, and so forth. These are generalities, the physicist requires
specifics. Unless you are God or superman, it is not possible to direct the
pursuit of all the sciences from one perspective, and autonomy of inquiry is
an essential prerequisite to create new solutions.

Trotsky thus confuses the organisation of sciences in line with the
achievement of certain goals, with the direct provision of theoretical
guidance to scientists. It's one thing to say "we should aim for these
results", quite another to say "this is how you should go about achieving
those results." In the second case, you're trying to discipline the

What in fact happened in the Soviet Union was, that free inquiry was curbed
or permitted in line with the diktats of the nomenklatura, and that
"dialectical materialism" functioned as a kind of pseudo-justification for
permitting or ruling out scientific inquiries as legitimate. In other words,
the nomenklatura pretended to direct the scientific endeavour on scientific
grounds, but in reality directed it on the basis of perceived political
interests, and its own self-interest. The result of that was the severe
restriction of free inquiry, especially in those areas where the bureaucracy
was vulnerable to criticism. Soviet scientists might invent marvellous
computers, but even their use was severely restricted, so that the
bureaucracy retained control over information flows.

In the case of Althusser, his idea is really that frequently academic
endeavours involve theorising without a real object, and it is this which
makes them ideological. Now obviously all theorising does have an object,
but in this case, Althusser argues that what is involved is a "theoretical
object", i.e. a way of categorisation or conceptualising which is in some
sense false and therefore ideological, i.e. it cannot produce results which
are either valid or solve problems right from the start. Althusser's claim
is then that historical materialism provides the approach and the method
which can deliver the results.

But this involves a double confusion. Firstly, what a critique means is that
you take a given way of thinking, and show that it raises problems which
cannot be solved in terms of the framework within which they are posed, and
that this way of thinking leads to consequences which the proponents of it
could not accept, if they thought it through to the end; this then provides
reason for reframing the problem using different theoretical tools. Simply
dismissing a way of theorising on the ground that it has no legitimate
object (or because it is ""bourgeois") is not a critique, at least not a
rational one.

Secondly, there is no one "scientific method" which is a masterkey to
solving all scientific problems, and it is an illusion to think that
historical materialism as such can provide it. Marx himself never talked
about "historical materialism" even once, a label accepted by Engels which
suggests a definite doctrine -  rather Marx talked about a "materialistische
Auffassung" (materialist approach, conception or interpretation, a way of
seeing) of history which provided a guide ("Leitfaden", literally guiding
thread) to orient research. This is not a rigid doctrine or theoretical
system. The theoretical system, if anything, was the theory of Capital,
which Marx considered an application of the materialist conception of
history and proof of its validity (cf. Johan Witt-Hansen, Historical
Materialism: The method, the theories).

To insist on historical materialism as the only valid approach, really means
advancing and imposing an a priori doctrine about how a subject should be
viewed. But the point is that this doctrine cannot be imposed, it must be
defended, and the best way to defend it is by applying it, and showing that
it can produce superior results. Anything else would mean trying to supply a
proof, before substantively proving anything.


Antonio Gramsci quite pertinently remarked that there is no one scientific
method, because the method has to be appropriate to the object of inquiry,
and developed from the object of inquiry - and this presupposes a specific
practical relation with the object of inquiry. To attempt to impose or
introduce a method from a vantage point external to this relation, has
little in common with scientific practice.

Setting the standards and rules of scientific discourse is therefore
properly speaking a matter internal to the discipline, basically because
that discipline is actually devoted to a particular subjectmatter which
gives it its rationale. The real problem is different: the loss of any valid
criteria by which to judge a rational relationship between means and ends in
the pursuit of inquiry, such that inquiries become means to rationalise
those inquiries, as a self-justifying procedure.

In saying this, I am of course well aware of academic wars, and the attempt
to rig academia to perform certain social, economic and political functions.
Those who control the research budget, control to a great extent what may be
researched. But the point is that in order to win a war, you have to
actually participate in the fight, and if your chosen method of
participation is simply to plant a red banner with "Marxism" or "historical
materialism" written on it, and appealing to people to rally to the banner,
you might be blown off the academic stage by the opposition, before you can
say "organic composition of capital".

Obviously, you have to enter into a meaningful dialogue which recognise a
plurality of views, and that dialogue cannot occur, if you start off by
saying that the inquiries of others are not legitimate or valid. Most times
the difficulty which revolutionary thinkers face, is the other way round:
they have to gain acceptance for their own inquiries as legitimate and
valid. And the best way to accomplish that, is through an immanent critique
of the ruling ideas, and the application of one's own method in a way which
produces at least acceptable, if not superior results.


When I feel heavy metal
And I'm pins and I'm needles
Well I lie and I'm easy
All of the time
but I'm never sure
when I need you
Pleased to meet you
I got my head done
When I was young
It's not my problem
It's not my problem

- Song 2 by "Blur""

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