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The Science of History (Part 3)

[continued from previous post]

III - science

One of the “logical” criticisms leveled against historical materialism claims that, since historical materialism is itself a theory it falls victim to its own critique. In other words, the historical materialist asserts that ideas are produced/created by humans, but historical materialism is also an idea––a philosophy––created by humans. Thus historical materialism is logically contradictory. Such a critique, while seemingly attractive, is nothing more than sophistry.

Being a methodology, historical materialism is akin to a science. I believe it is important to highlight this notion because there is tendency these days, even amongst Marxists, to ignore the fact that Marx and Engels frequently used this analogy. Since critics of Marxism have often drawn a faulty connection between what Marx and Engels meant by science (and economy, for that matter) and the vulgar Stalinist or Trotskyist mobilization of this notion, many Marxists as well have tried to distance themselves from this claim. There are important reasons, though, why Marx and Engels used this analogy and these reasons were not simply, as our critics suggest, because Marx and Engels were a product of nineteenth century thinking. I will discuss the importance of this analogy––of seeing historical materialism as science––below.

If the criticism with which we started this section, that historical materialism is itself an idea created by humans, was leveled at the empirical method intrinsic to the sciences, it is doubtful that we would conclude that the scientific endeavours and what it has achieved were illogical and thus untrue. Moreover, the basic method of mathematics which leads to complex mathematical theories and logarithms is a methodology which is not the same as a nebulous human idea. This not to say that the empirical method and arithmetic exist outside of space and time––only a Platonist would assert such an idiocy. Rather, this is to say that such facts are historical discoveries that are immanent rather than transcendent of the natural world. They have been discovered through human practice. One could even go further and say that the empirical method itself is a practice; it is definitely not a nebulous idea.

The analogy here is important because historical materialism is intrinsically connected to human practice. Marx and Engels methodology developed through their involvement in mass movements. The further development of Marxist theory and analysis, therefore, cannot be divorced from one’s practical activity with the social community. Similarly, scientific theory is one’s basic work in a laboratory or in the field. From this basic insight and comparison we can also understand how theory can be either “good” or “bad”, in a non-moral sense. Bad science results from either the lack of laboratory practice or bad laboratory practice. The history of science is rife with examples of sciences that were bad in this way (phrenology, for example). At the same time, though, the history of science is a history in development. Bad theories can possibly be overcome by further practice. Technological innovations lead to more precise laboratories, theory remains in flux, and further empirical work changes the terrain. And this is the point of historical materialism and why Marx and Engels likened it to science.

I know I am simplifying, here, in reference to “bad” science. I am doing so, however, for the sake of analogy. The basic comments I’ve made about the scientific method have been general in order to give an equally general description of the historical materialist method. There are, of course, other reasons why scientific theories are “bad” that are not simply because of the lack of proper lab data. Racial science, for example, was not simply the product of bad laboratory data but also the result of racists doing science. I would suggest that these other reasons are also the result of bad practice. Bad practice because any uncritical ideology was the starting point and theory the result. As discussed earlier in this paper, an understanding of how ideology functions is one of the most important aspects of historical materialism.

Furthermore, historical materialism was called science by Marx and Engels because they wanted to highlight the fact that their demand for revolution was not utopian––was not based on idealist conceptions of human nature or society––but a scientific necessity:
[I]f the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions. On this tangible, material fact, which is impressing itself in a more or less clear form, but with insuperable necessity, on the minds of the exploited proletarians––on this fact, and not on the conceptions of justice and injustice held by any armchair philosopher, is modern socialism’s confidence in victory founded. (Engels, Anti-Duhring, p. 146)


  1. I am not sure I understand the distinction between 'idea' and 'methodology'. It seems you want to distinguish between ideas which are produced/created by humans and methodology which is discovered immanently through human practice. As such, the 'logical criticism' does not hold: historical materialism only asserts that ideas are produced by humans, and as historical materialism is a methodology immanently discovered through human practice, it does not follow that it is subject to the same particularism or subjectivism.
    However, it seems that there are some problems. How can one properly distinguish between methodology and idea? It seems ideas are immanent to human practice as well. The key distinguishing factor is then the word 'discover' which seems to lend an objectivity to what could otherwise be critcized as subjectivist. Subjectivism is only a problem for the study of society, I feel, insofar as it leads to particularism - to the notion of truth which is always particular and local to the human practice it is attached to. This is, however, the second problem. How is the discovery of this methodology immanently in human practice a universal discovery?
    I ask not to assert a relativistic, particularistic, or subjectivistic notion of truth - but because I genuinely see the logical criticism that you open with as a legitimate problem for those that wish to hold to some notion of universal objective truths (I say this as a defender of science and historical materialism - and math).


  2. But Amrit, cutting through all of the jargon of immanence, etc., look back at the analogy I used. How is the discovery of medical science, immanently a human practice, "universal"? Scientific methodology in some senses is an "idea" but it is an idea produced through praxis. You're schisming ideas from practice when the two exist. Scientific method comes from human praxis and the ideas we produce.

    This was barely edited, though, so there is some fluidity between terms I used...


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