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The Strength of Marxism

The strength of marxism does not lie in the personal beliefs of Marx and Engels but in the scientific method they theorized and gave to the revolutionary masses as a weapon.  For some reason, the most facile critics of marxism don't seem to recognize that this, more than anything else, why those of us who "should know better" still call ourselves communists despite the fact that, yes, Marx and Engels might have been wont to make problematic statements about the world outside of Europe.  For those points of possible chauvinism can also be critiqued––and have been critiqued––by the very method Marx and Engels initiated.  Thus, as I have argued elsewhere, when we speak of marxism we also mean something that is open to the future that extends beyond Marx and each successive moment of important theoretical crystallization.  Indeed, this is part of what makes historical materialism a science: no science is closed to the future and, once it is treated as such, vanishes into the realm of dogma.

Moreover, those who would argue that marxism is antiquated because it fails to account for world history, that it necessarily excludes peoples outside of Europe (as Marx and Engels themselves seemed to do at points), cannot themselves explain why the most revolutionary movements in the past and present have placed themselves squarely in the communist tradition.  You don't see peasant revolutionaries in places such as India picking up post-colonial literature as the theoretical foundation for their struggles.  Such theory, alienated as it is from concrete struggle, provides nothing for revolutionary praxis, but the tradition of marxism, despite its problems, remains the weapon of the oppressed masses.  Nor does it help when these critics attempt to argue that this marxism is applied from above, that the subaltern in these movements are being duped by clever marxist intellectuals, when these critics are themselves the very clever intellectuals, mainly without any connection to the subaltern they like to write about.  Yes I know I am generalizing… And though I do believe that post-colonial theory has produced important and useful insights, I still think this general point needs to be made.

On the other hand, however, perhaps in response to these criticisms levelled at marxism, more than a few marxist academics have attempted to defend marxism by fleeing into dogmatism and searching down obscure and contradictory points in the collected works of Marx and Engels that will vindicate the saints of historical materialism from the charge of chauvinism.  Kevin B. Anderson's Marx at the Margins is a recent example of an attempt to historically exonerate Marx from the charge of eurocentrism: Anderson argues that Marx's views about regions such as India changed over time, that they were not purely "eurocentric", and that critics tend to focus on his earlier and cruder views rather than his more sophisticated and non-eurocentric views.  While I think it is worthwhile to take Anderson's argument seriously, and agree that he has a point about the transformation of some of Marx's views, I also feel that these kinds of books are wrong-headed because they often fail to thoroughly demonstrate what they have set out to prove.  Furthermore, they are besides the point.

For one thing, Marx's "more sophisticated" arguments uncovered by Anderson are still eurocentric in that many of them are about the "Asiatic Mode of Production", a concept that every significant revolutionary theorist and historian in the third world has rejected as eurocentric.  In the case of India, for example, Marx's later "non-eurocentric" analysis might be acceptable to revisionist "communist" organizations like the CPI(Marxist), currently an upper-caste party that collaborates with neo-colonialism and actively supports the state repression of the Indian Peoples War, it is not acceptable to the theorists of the organically produced revolutionary communist movement that has an entirely different historical materialist analysis of India and class struggle.  And despite all this, these revolutionary movements still declare themselves in the tradition of Marx; they don't need someone to try and exonerate Marx and Engels from whatever chauvinist ideas they might or might not have possessed.  This is because, as aforementioned, for these movements the strength of marxism is not traceable to the personal beliefs and misunderstandings of the science's progenitors.

Again, none of this is to say that these close readings of Marx are entirely worthless, or that they do not possibly disprove some of the infantile charges about Marx's unsophisticated views regarding the world outside of Europe, but they should never be treated as if they have exonerated marxism by exonerating Marx.  Marxism has already been exonerated by revolutionary struggle––it is still being exonerated by revolutionary struggle––and we don't need to reconstruct Marx or Engels as angels existing outside of history in order to make this point.  In fact, we can even use the historical materialist method to critique Marx and Engels, to demonstrate the reasons for their short-comings, and we should not be afraid of doing so.

Personally I don't really give a shit whether Marx and Engels were affected by eurocentric notions about the world beyond Europe––indeed, I'm quite willing to argue that this was the case because, as even Marx argues, social being tends to determine social consciousness. My interest in marxism is the method of revolutionary science, the core axioms that make this science a weapon, and the way it has unfolded through world revolutions.  If it hadn't been open the future, if it was not marked by these great moments of rupture and continuity, then it would be worthless regardless of its progenitors' eurocentrism or lack of… Indeed, Marx could have been the perfect anti-racist who knew all of the complex details outside of Europe and was not at all affected by eurocentric historiographies (seems kind of impossible considering the state of Europe and communications technology at the time, but let's just assume), but if he did not initiate the science of revolution then he would have been little more than a humane and thoughtful thinker.


  1. Hi again after a long break,

    I'm almost always happy to read what you post here, and I apologize for only piping up when I feel there's a problem, instead of engaging with your thought more consistently. (..."But")

    I have to ask why you write so clearly about the open-endedness of Marxism and how it lives and breaths and has surpassed Marx himself while at the same time using the word 'science' in the nineteenth century sense of the word that Marx, Engels, and Dietzgen would have used. I believe it may be different in languages other than English, but in Anglophone 2012 that word refers pretty exclusively to the natural sciences. From my perspective, talking about Leninism as a science is misleading given the present usage.

    You could say that our politics are based on our understanding of the way our world is changing today, or that dialectics is a way of getting clear about our ideas in order to put them in to action, or that we have to try to be deliberate and be ready to alter our course if we determine that we should do so. But to say that Marxism is scientific either conjures up images of lab coats and complicated instruments, or makes us sound like we don't know what science is and are therefor a little dotty.

    I don't mean to pick a fight or come up with a gotcha question. I just want us to be able to speak plainly, and in a register that people will get. Not to patronize them, or dilute the strength of our thought, but so that the people with whom we are speaking will know what we mean.

    Best always,

    Marq Dyeth

    1. First of all, please read the back posts where I discuss this very thing.

      Secondly, I use this original definition of science because, philosophically, it is the only good definition of science that exists. Later definitions are positivist and/or come from another philosophical definition that was designed by Karl Popper (not a natural scientist, by the way) in order to argue why marxism was not "scientific". Definitions of science and the like aren't produced by scientists but by theorists and philosophers; I think that the only salient philosophical definition is the one understood by Marx and Engels and in the terrain of the philosophy of science, this is the position I take along with Althusser and others. In other words, the reason why that word has become misleading is primarily because of backwards anti-communist philosophizing. I prefer that we use definitions accurately.

      Thirdly, based on the definition of science I think is the only possible definition of science (for how else would you define it in a way that would fit all the branches of even the natural sciences?––physics and biology and mathematics all have different definitions of what make them science but, more to the point, physicists and biologists and mathematicians don't waste time defining science... again, this is what philosophers do and I refuse to except a reactionary definition that was imported by a liberal anti-communist and is really not all that old), the only way to make sense of revolutionary communism as a theory that is open to the future [and this is PART of a definition of science, again read the back links] and that is cognizable through universal applicability is to use the term "science". Otherwise it is meaningless, it is not applicable, abstraction from the concrete and the universalization in particular instances is garbage, and there is no reason of speaking of this theory as any different than another theory. But it is different because it is the science of history, end of story. If we do not begin from this position then all we are admitting is that there is complexity, that nothing can be proven by history or established as universal moments of theoretical importance, and we might as well be post-modernists.


    2. [cont.]

      Where do you think the strength of living communism comes from? The fact that it just sounds good as a theory or the fact that it has developed in proven moments of world historical revolution. That it represents the laws of history and in this sense is "open to the future" as sciences are open to the future (that definition, which you seem to have misunderstood, is hallmark to the definition of a science and nothing else because nothing else is open to the future in this way... non-sciences, as Althusser has pointed, out, lack history and so they cannot be open to the future). And once you say this you are speaking of something more than just a fun theory concocted for the hell of it to talk about life. You're talking about a science. Period.

      Now do I go out organizing in a way that says to the working class: this is a science so jump on board the communist train? No, that is ludicrous. But on the theoretical level, in order to make philosophical sense of historical materialism, we have to speak of it according to what it is and it *is* a science in the full properly philosophical definition of the term. (This means very important things, and again I would suggest you read Althusser on this because he probably did the most philosophical work on this.) Theoretical struggle is important but it is not the same as practical struggle. Do you speak of the labour theory of value and the theories of surplus, even though they are correct, when you're organizing amongst people who are still confused by communism? Of course not. But does this mean you throw those concrete theories (again, *scientific* theories) out the window when they are correct? That is also pretty dumb.

      So no, I am unwilling on giving up on proper definitions of things because as a philosopher I think that we have to begin with proper definitions if we are to speak of theory otherwise we're being imprecise. Does this have anything to do with organizing? Yes in the sense that I know there are important organizational facts established by history, but that yes need to be creatively articulated in particular circumstances; it also demonstrates precisely what I mean by being open to the future: open to the future past what has already been established, meaning that if you accept a type of communism pre Lenin and pre Mao then, and here I'm close to the RIM position from 1993, you're probably a revisionist. Much like being a Newtonian in the post-Einstein era.

      So yes it helps organizing, but I don't go out there and say "hey you should join us and work towards this because we're revolutionary scientists"––that's just ludicrous. But, once more, it would also be ludicrous to say to an exploited worker who has never encountered *Capital* "the problem is that surplus value is being exploited from your labour" and this does not mean we throw Capital in the garbage or that that insight is not extremely important.

  2. Right. Well, I think therein lies our difficulty. I think Althusser's definition of science was mostly wrong (although Althusser's thought is very important in lots of ways.) You are I'm sure aware that Althusser was hugely influenced by the philosophy of science of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canghuilhem. I think there is a lot to be learned from all of these writers. I also agree with you that Popper didn't really know much about the practice of science and had a big philosophical axe to grind.

    But I do not believe that philosophers define what science is. Or, they do so all the time, but this is folly. Science is what scientists do, and philosophers act as arbiters of science at their peril if they do their thinking at a distance from the actual practice of science. Scientists might not spend much of their working hours defining what 'science' is but they surely do spend time thinking and talking about what 'good science' is within their field of practice. I think Mao would have agreed with this given what he wrote in On Practice and Where Do Correct Ideas Come From.

    You wrote:

    "But it is different because it is the science of history, end of story. If we do not begin from this position then all we are admitting is that there is complexity, that nothing can be proven by history or established as universal moments of theoretical importance, and we might as well be post-modernists."

    I salute your work, but I do not support this position that you take. There is no "end of story." There is no "period." This is epistemological closure, and we cannot win by declaring victory, in philosophy as in other fields of struggle. We cannot allow ourselves to depend on Science! to lend us its prestige and its air of certainty. The truth of our thought and our work does not lie in whether we say it is science or not. The proof of that pudding, as Engels said, is always in the eating. In this period we appear to be pretty clumsy with a knife and fork.

    Interestingly, it occurs to me that actually my problem with using the term science in this way is less about common parlance than I thought when I started to write this comment. I think it's a good idea to talk about Liberalism from our perspective instead of according to common usage, so maybe I contradict myself here, but I think that we just need to be careful about looking for shortcuts, and calling something science that few others think is science strikes me as looking for a shortcut. This is clearly a bit of a hobby-horse for me. I'm probably showing my academic training.

    Hoping that this will be taken in the interested and comradely manner in which it is meant,


    1. Nowhere did I say that my use of the term "end of story", which was primarily rhetorical, meant the epistemological closure in the sense you indicated. But science isn't epistemologically closed either. Nor did I say this definition of "science" was SCIENCE as you put it. There is a period when it comes to what things theoretically mean, however, and this was my point.

      This has nothing to do with short-cuts but theoretical accuracy. I did not necessarily say that philosophers were the arbiters of science, but when it comes to definitions of science this is where they come from. They don't come from anywhere else. Because when you say scientists is what scientists do then you have reduced the definition to one of an invisible college. So if only scientists know what scientists do, then who is to say what counts as a science and if someone knows they are doing it to begin with? This is a bit like T.S. Eliot's definition of poetry being something that only poets know and damn the critics... Becomes something of a tautology with know definition behind some secret known by initiates and who the hell can say who these initiates are in the first place... This is what the definition you seem to be working with implies, which is a non-definition, and definitions are important.

      It is not philosophy intervening in the practice of science that I am talking about but the mere fact of philosophy which is that which explains the whys, the questions of meaning about given circumstances and/or terrains.

      If the proof is in the pudding then what use is marxism if it does not possess a meaning beyond mere theory? You really didn't respond to my main points except say: you don't like Althusser (but Althusser still remains Althusser), you don't like the way science is defined when it comes to organization, and some things about epistemological closure that had nothing to do with what i was actually saying. Do you mean to say that important universal understandings established by revolution don't matter and that to suggest so is epistemological closure? No, in fact I would argue that it is a more dangerous form of epistemological closure to ignore this understanding of revolution because it closes the door on history. And to admit an historical unfolding that happens according to universalization, which science *is* more than anything else, is to actually admit that there is no full epistemological closure but still truths within this process, and it is only a definition that approaches science that explains this. Although I don't care if it's named something else: again I think the definitions are important and yes I go back to when definitions first fully emerged to make sense of them in order to avoid the clutter filled by common sense assumptions, etc.

      Again, I don't think it makes sense to talk about science in an organizational framework, but I do think it is important to talk about in a theoretical setting. And, as I pointed out above, the definitions of theory and science you're working with seem to be non-definitions and terribly imprecise.

    2. Strange, but I always thought that things like sociology were considered "Social Sciences" by all universities in Canada. Certainly in my former university (Carleton) we have the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The Institute of Cognative Science, Computer Science, and of course the Department of Political Science. Unlike what was stated by the anonomous contributor, the term science is used quite broadly in our society, well beyond the paramiters of old men wearing glasses, a white coat, handling vials of strange liquid.

    3. Yes, but people in the natural sciences often reject the notion that the "social sciences" or "political science" count as science-proper. And I would argue (as I have in that article I wrote specifically on what marxists mean by science a while back) that sometimes they have good reason to complain. Often what passes as "scientific" in these disciplines is simply the use of positivistic research methods imported from the natural sciences, a methodology that rests uneasily with the requirements of these disciplines.

      (Also, the contributor above isn't technically "anonymous" – they sign off with the name "Marq Dyeth" to identify themselves – they just don't use a blogger account.)

  3. In general a good essay: Marx and Darwin: Two misinterpreted pioneers of the modern scientific view


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