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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why is Marxism a “Science”?

The claim that Marxism is a science is particularly pertinent in light of the same, but dubious claim made on behalf of modern economics. The economics taught in most universities, alongside physics, chemistry and biology, surely has only a loose claim on that honorific title after its abysmal performance explaining and taming our tenacious economic crisis. Despite all of the formalisms, quantifications, models, and theorems (the trappings of modern science) bloating the books and papers of academic economics, the discipline has a rather weak record in steering economic life towards rationality, efficiency, and, of course, justice. If physics were as mired in conventionality as economics, we would still be searching for phlogiston. Despite the wealth of new data, computational tools, and economic experience, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the conceptual toolbox collected by the Classical Economists –Adam Smith and David Ricardo – would have served us as well in understanding and addressing the current economic storm.

But the failing of economics, or sociology, or social psychology, in no way proves that an alternative approach – for example, Marxism - is superior or more scientific.

I was reminded of what makes good science by reading a recent opinion piece written by Richard Dawkins, the distinguished evolutionary biologist, and appearing in The Wall Street Journal (“Evolution leaves God with Nothing to Do”, 9-12/13-09). Though Dawkins ostensible target was the existence of God, I was drawn to his splendid defense of Darwinism and the scientific world-view. We would do well to reflect upon one particular passage:

The laws of physics, before Darwinian evolution bursts out from their midst, can make rocks and sand, gas clouds and stars, whirlpools and waves, whirl-pool shaped galaxies and light that travels as waves while behaving like particles… But now enter life. Look through the eyes of a physicist, at a bounding kangaroo, a swooping bat, a leaping dolphin, a soaring Redwood. There never was a rock that bound like a kangaroo, never a pebble that crawled like a beetle seeking a mate… Not once do any of these creatures disobey the laws of physics. Far from violating the laws of thermodynamics (as is often so ignorantly alleged) they are relentlessly driven by them. Far from violating the laws of motion, animals exploit them to their advantage as they walk. Run, dodge and jink, leap and fly, pounce on prey or spring to safety.

Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? …Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information.

This passionate defense and crystal clear exposition of the place of Darwinian evolution in the body of science could equally serve as a defense and exposition – with the replacement of a few key words – of Marxism as science. Society, like life, shows a vast array of forms with distinctive patterns of development. Society, like life, changes over time in adaptive ways that spring from seemingly random factors. At the heart of both processes – biological evolution and societal transformation – is the struggle to survive and thrive, a natural process that separates the rocks, gas clouds, and whirlpools that Dawkins mentions from amoeba and social institutions. It was Marx and Engels’ great insight in 1845 and 1846 (in writing The German Ideology) to view social change as an evolutionary pattern generated by this struggle. It was Darwin’s great insight in 1859 (with The Origin of the Species) to see the vast, diverse mass of living things as the result of an intelligible evolutionary process. Where Darwin’s great insight drew upon an enormous survey of the diversity of life, Marx and Engels drew upon an enormous wealth of social and historical data. Both investigations revealed patterns: species evolution in the former case, societal evolution in the other.

This common insight, a centerpiece of all biological sciences, but largely scorned by the social science establishment, stands as the pillar of Marxism’s claim for scientific stature. Before Darwin’s landmark work was published, Marx and Engels identified a social evolution that mapped the continuous development of humans and their social organizations, driven - as with biological evolution - by a struggle with nature. In order to better meet the challenges of nature – climate, scarcity, security, disease, etc. – humans created more and more complex social relations that improved humanity’s chances in the battle for survival. The dramatic increase in the life expectancy of humans from pre-historic times demonstrates vividly this process, a success unmatched by any other biological organism. The biological development of consciousness, self-awareness, and symbolic representation birthed the construction of community and social relations, accounting for this distinct advantage accruing to humans in the survival of the fittest.

For Marx and Engels, the fittest social organizations survived and thrived just as the fittest biological organisms survived over their less adapted rivals. They saw the creation of an economic surplus – a reserve of the means of sustenance - as determinative of a society’s edge in the struggle against nature and rival social organizations. The more that a community could accumulate the material means of survival, the more it could take steps to accumulate even more of these material means and further advance in the struggle for survival. But accumulation is slow and limited in a community lacking both domination and privilege; early egalitarian, peaceful societies tended to seek little more than enough to overcome pangs of hunger, avoid pain and mortality and reproduce. In this regard, they mirrored the behavior of other species. But thanks to the unique features evolved by humans, communities emerged with an evolutionary advantage: they took to plundering and domination. With the material advantages gained by these survival adaptive activities, these societies were able to both expand and protect their privileges; new social structures emerged that elevated the material means – the adaptive sustainability – of a few by dominating the many.

It was this engine of domination and primitive exploitation (little different in the beginning from what we now call “thievery”) that Marx and Engels placed at the center of social evolution. As social scientists, they viewed this coldly as an essential process of social transformation (though as humans, they could not help but vividly paint the pain and degradation of the process). Moreover, they saw this social process as the basis for the creation of divisions of labor – workers, soldiers, etc. – and class differentiation (insofar as this process may mirror a society of bees, it must be remembered that humans generated these divisions socially and not genetically).

Just as with species evolution, some paths of social transformation were unsuccessful or preserved by natural boundaries or isolation, leaving societies sustainable, but frozen in time. But the mechanisms of exploitation and class dominance marched on in others, producing greater and greater accumulated surpluses. Marx and Engels identified the patterns of exploitation – slavery, serfdom, and the purchase of the power of free labor – that established distinct markers in the social evolution of humans. Drawing upon their careful studies of these previous changes, Marx and Engels foresaw a time when the mechanism of exploitation would not only outlive its usefulness in driving social development, but, indeed, become a restraint upon human survival. I would argue that we are well into a period where that projection is a reality. The dominant form of social organization – capitalism – now threatens human survivability on so many fronts – war, environmental chaos, extreme poverty, declining living standards, cultural degradation, loss of community, hollow values – that further transformation is not only desirable, but necessary.

On a final note, Dawkins makes passing, casual reference to the laws of thermodynamics, noting that those who see a conflict between these laws and Darwinism are ignorant. He is referring, with this aside, principally to the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the irreversible increase in entropy within closed systems. Increasing entropy - crudely, the tendency of order to dissolve into disorder – represents a unique law that introduces directionality into physical processes. Where most processes are reversible – water into steam and back into water – the Second Law posits a process that will, in the long run, reduce what we perceive as order or organization into a bland, random disorder: our shoes wear out, our sandcastles deteriorate, our mountains erode, and our muscles weaken. But this randomizing often generates interesting new combinations, such as life itself. This fascinating organic accident bears an equally interesting feature: though life has a fragile hold on its advantage, it succeeds by harnessing random changes to improve its survivability. The evolution of new species has managed to stay a step, a tenuous step, ahead of the increasing entropy in our closed system. All but the ignorant recognize this as both consistent with and dependent upon the Second Law.

Like Darwinian evolution, the Marxist theory of social transformation – commonly called “Historical Materialism” – embraces the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but in this case, by the persistent re-organization of society to battle entropy’s infinite challenges to human survival: disease, starvation, environmental calamities, and self-destruction. As with biological evolution, social evolution is a fragile process that, under the best of conditions, stays a step ahead of the dissolving forces of nature. But in the case of society, it is not random changes selected by fitness to survive, but conscious human constructions selected in their resistance to the challenges of nature and human folly that is determinative.

Engels, writing in the Introduction to the Dialectics of Nature, acknowledged the science of Darwin while foreseeing the enormous possibilities unleashed by an understanding of the science of society:

Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world as regards the social aspect, in the same way that production in general has done this for men in their aspect as species. Historical evolution makes such an organisation daily more indispensable, but also with every day more possible. From it will date a new epoch of history, in which mankind itself, and with mankind all branches of its activity, and especially natural science, will experience an advance that will put everything preceding it in the deepest shade.

It is this deeper search for an understanding of societal evolution that Marx and Engels brought to science. It is this science that is so sorely needed to address the problems of our times.

Zoltan Zigedy


Peter McL said...

Zoltan. I find what you have to say about marxism and science to be interesting, but flawed. Certainly, you find some very interesting parallels between marxism and darwin's theories of evolution, as well as the second law of thermodynamics; however I feel that these parallels are insufficient to consider marxism a science. Science is based on using observations of a phenomena to objectively predict the outcome of future events based on well-defined variables. While marxism certainly does try to predict future events, I would argue that it does not do so objectively enough, or with the additional scientific elements of reproducibility and repeatability which also prove important. As a result of this, I would argue that while Marxism may be predictive in nature, it should consequently not be considered on the same level as a natural science.

zoltan zigedy said...

Peter, you make an interesting and provocative comment. Experimental reproducibility or repeatability are indeed features of the "hard" sciences -- physics, chemistry, etc. -- but they are not shared with the "soft" natural sciences like evolutionary biology and anthropology. One cannot repeat the evolutionary events of 1,000,000 years ago, but only evaluate and re-evaluate the evidential traces of those events. In the sense that other scientists re-consider the evidence or discover new traces, existing theories are open to challenge or dispute. This is the accepted and well regarded method of the "soft" sciences that deal with understanding unique events and not physically reproducible events.

Likewise, Marxism (as a science) involves accumulating masses of historical data to uncover and project patterns and theories of social development. Those theories are tested by challenging the data, finding new data, showing that patterns are accidental and not law-like, breaking the chain of cause and effect and many other strategies of disconfirmation.

Admittedly, the laboratory for social phenomena is different from the physics laboratory-- you cannot reproduce the French Revolution-- but it does have its own principles of testability, principles that bring us closer and closer to a scientific understanding. By studying history for law-like social relations, we can contribute to that understanding.

Alan Woodcraft said...

Breifly, there is a sense in which the physical sciences are not scientific. The best is that not all variables can be tken into account,ie the colour of room in which experiments zre performed, but in the case of radio waves, the shape of the room is important. Sciece has explanatory variables. Marxism has forces of production and means of production, as important explanatory variables. Alan.