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More Reflections on Historical Materialism as a "Science"

Several weeks ago an interested reader emailed me about my entry on Charlie Post's review of Zak Cope in order to ask for clarification about my complaints of "crude empiricism".  Generally speaking, s/he wanted me to expand on my claim that historical materialism, and indeed all science, was not reducible to positivist empiricism (i.e. the simple mobilization of statistics and quantitative data) and why this sort of positivist exercise was actually, as I implied, contrary to a materialist understanding of the empirical method.  This question made me consider my usage of the concept of science in connection to marxism and how, in this day and age where the term "science" has now been reduced to being synonymous with the hard and "natural" sciences.  Thus, my initial attempt to explain why it is important to accept that Marx and Engels initiated a scientific methodology––to reclaim this language despite its unpopularity amongst academics (some "proper" scientists do not believe it applies to Marxism, some philosophers and literary theorists do not like the concept at all, least of all its application to a social theory)––seems to require more discussion.

(Since I am not going to summarize the claims I made in the above linked entry regarding science, and am instead going to assume its definitions of science in general and historical materialism in particular, I urge the interested reader to read or reread that article.  I still maintain what I argued there; this entry is intended to be a companion piece.)

This question about "crude empiricism" provides an entry-point into a further discussion about what I mean by "science", specifically historical materialism as science, for a variety of reasons.  First of all, by rejecting the positivist obsession with quantitative data gathering as being reducible to science I am arguing that a given science requires a qualitative dimension that is capable, often with recourse to statistical or mathematical models, of providing a proper and thorough explanation of a given phenomenon according to its own terms. (Again, this is explained in my previous entry.)  The level of quantitative appearance can explain nothing except the fact that it is number; the meanings of the numbers are explained by recourse to a concrete analysis of the phenomenon under investigation.  Thus, the theory of mass-energy equivalence is not reducible to E=MC2 anymore than a language is reducible to its syntax (here it is useful to recall John Searle's "Chinese Room" analogy), though obviously the equation is necessary for a mathematical model and for the full development of the science of physics.  If Einstein simply wrote "E=MC2" without explaining the phenomena he was investigating, without examining what he was trying to find a model to elucidate, then we wouldn't think it was very important.

Scientific models, after all, need to be based on something that requires explanation and, at the same time, contribute to this explanation.  One should not fetishize numerical abstractions, though they are scientifically necessary, or one is in danger of becoming a Pythagorean who believes that reality is number.  The empirical method, therefore, is not about imagining that reality is reducible to number but about investigating complex and concrete phenomena and using models, connected to a qualitative theoretical apparatus, to explain this phenomena.  And those models that cannot explain this phenomena should be abandoned, but they cannot be abandoned if we separate the model from a qualitative explanation and imagine that the model itself is the theory.  Hence my reason for accusing Post of a crude empiricism: his models "prove" his positions, just as much as Cope's models "prove" Cope's position, but they cannot account for the phenomena he is attempting to explain––and I pointed out, in reference to his own alternate explanations, why his approach was missing a materialist foundation and could not account for what it imagined it could account for.

In any case, every branch of science is defined by a history of competing models.  Sometimes the adoption of one model over another might seem spurious, but that is another issue, often examined in the philosophy of science, that is somewhat tangental to this post.  Suffice to say, historical materialism is also a branch of science with a truth process defined by competing models; indeed, those of us who are marxist, can easily imagine historical periods where it could have developed in a different direction and, even now, various models are in competition.  Elsewhere I have argued that Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is the proper development of revolutionary science, but the fact that some of my readers disagree only highlights my point that, like physics or biology, there is a theoretical struggle within this scientific terrain.

Beyond this problem of competing models, however, is the fact that historical materialism, perhaps even more so than the "hard" sciences, is definitely opposed to the crude empiricism that reduces the science to the idealist level of number-mongering.  As the People's War Group [one of the organizations that would unite with other parties to form the Communist Party India (Maoist) that is now leading a People's War] once wrote in a study guide for its cadre: "bourgeois political economists always made their analysis in the form of a relation between things… Marx however showed that economics deals not with things but with relations between persons, and in the last resort between classes."  Imagining that historical materialism breaks down to numerical relations, then, places it on the level of relations between things––bourgeois economists, after all, ignore people living in given societies divided by classes and instead focused on quantifying the flows of commodities and market relations––rather than the relations between people.  To this we can add Louis Althusser's point in his essay "On Theoretical Work" where he speaks of how "the specificity of [marxist] theoretical language… and of the theoretical object is reduced and destroyed by the intervention of familiar 'obvious facts': those of 'everyday' ideology––i.e., of empiricist ideology."  Reactionary economists, such as Steven Levitt (who somehow marketed himself as "rogue" when in fact he is a devotee of Friedman and thus not at all very "rogue"), used the "obvious facts" of crime statistics in racialized ghettos to make an argument for eugenics––I'm sure he thought, just like a phrenologist, that his racism was "scientific".

Since authors such as Levitt are incapable of providing a scientific analysis of social phenomena because they reject historical materialism (much like a Six Day Creationist is incapable of providing a scientific analysis of biological phenomena), we would be well advised to avoid their methods of crude empiricism.  Unfortunately, since it is often easier to be caught up in the "everyday" ideology of common sense, we often do tumble down the rabbit whole of empiricist ideology.

The larger problem, however, is a tendency in historical marxism to not only misconceive of the meaning of its science on this micro-scale but to misconceive of it in a macro sense.  We might escape the appeal of crude empiricism, but sometimes in our desire to proudly militate for the scientific veracity of historical materialism we make the mistake of imagining that it is the queen of the sciences that qualifies us to act as experts of every field of science.  Let's be clear: this is not simply a problem that has hampered historical materialism; it has been a problem for every field of science––physicists, for example, are sometimes wont to intervene on problems in the biological terrain, imposing alien models upon phenomena that resist this kind of explanation.  And yet historical materialists, though we like to complain if an evolutionary biologist uses some biological theory to "disprove" our science, can be rather pompous in our interventions.

None of this is to say that historical materialists cannot intervene in the fields of other sciences, but only that our interventions must be in those areas where there is a clear intersection––and these intersections do exist because the sciences do emerge from concrete moments in a concrete history––but we have to be careful that our intervention is precise and is about the objects we understand.  For example, as historical materialists we are able to understand the problem with Darwin's theory of natural selection because it is clear that, according to his own words, he simply lifted the model from Malthus' theory of populations––here is a clear-cut case of a social model being adapted to a biological model and something we can shed some light upon.  But to imagine that we are the prime experts on the entire theory of Darwinian evolution, and all of his examinations of biological phenomena, not to mention the truth process that developed from his theory, simply because we are historical materialists is somewhat ludicrous.

There is a very depressing history of marxists claiming that, because historical materialism is the science and the only "true" science (taken, of course, from a throwaway footnote in The German Ideology that was more rhetorical than axiomatic and that, like the rest of this book, remained unedited and was left to "the judgment of the mice") that any marxist, regardless of hir qualifications, is better equipped to explain other sciences than a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, etc.  Hence the sometimes hilarious (and rather depressing) books written by marxists who, after reading a few popular accounts of scientific theory, believe they can argue that Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, or what have you, is "wrong" because is is somehow contrary to historical materialism.

We also have the history of science in the Soviet Union where it was argued that science could be classified as either essentially bourgeois or essentially proletarian, and that only the science produced in socialist countries could be proletarian and therefore real science.  Hence, Lysenkoism.  (Which is not to say, I should be clear, that Lysenko was entirely wrong and that everything produced by Lysenkoism is garbage.)  While it is correct for a historical materialist to point out that capitalist social relations and bourgeois ideology condition a given science––often going so far as to hold it back, keep it limited to a capitalist framework––it is somewhat religious to claim that, beyond the social relations that condition scientific investigation, there is a bourgeois physics and a proletarian physics.  Most amusing, and again worthy of innumerable face-palms, is when a marxist rejects a claim made by Einstein or Hawking in favour of a view of the world that is intensely Newtonian, as if falling back on a scientist from the mercantile period is somehow progressive!

The mighty inventions only possible through Lysenkoism!

All of this is to say that if we are to reclaim the mantle of "science" for the marxist project, doing away with all of the post-modern attempts to relegate this claim to the dustbin of history, we should also understand it in the sense that it was intended.  While it is true that Marx and Engels were occasionally wont to write some pretty bold proclamations about historical materialism's scientific scope (Engels more so, especially with the [intentionally] unpublished Dialectics of Nature), they were also products, however critical they might have been, of a period where scientists of every field were known to claim that their specific discipline could explain all aspects of reality.  We know now that science is total within the scope of its respective branches but that the objects of each of these branches have become so different that there is no longer a single science that has the power to speak a totality of meaning into every field.

Historical materialism, however, concerns the science of history and so it can possibly produce a totality of meaning within the given field of society and history.  In this way it is a science that has something to say about the possibility in which all sciences are produced, because every scientist is a human living in a given social and historical context, which is important but still limited.  Just as we demand that biologists stop venturing into the arena of the social––which they cannot help because we are social animals––and passing off their banal social theories as biology (i.e. biological determinism, such as Dawkins' theory of the "selfish gene" which is far more of a social theory than a biological theory), we also need to stop doing the same and yet still, with this qualification in mind, be able to speak of the scientific basis of marxism.


  1. Thanks for writing on this subject, I find that many arguments I have with non-marxists(and many "marxists"!) boil down to essentially this issue. In the past I have tried to read up on the philosophy of science so that I can effectively argue for historical materialism as a science, but unfortunately I have no training in philosophy and can't understand the arguments. Do you know of any books, articles, etc. I can read that don't require a strong background in philosophy to understand? I realize this may be impossible because of the nature of the subject, but I'm uncomfortable just accepting something because ______ marxist I respect says it is so.

    1. One accessible text on the philosophy of science, specifically biology, is Robert M. Young's "Darwin's Metaphor". Thomas Kuhn's *The Structure of Scientific Revolutions* is also, from what I recall, an accessible text––and though I do not agree completely with Kuhn (who seems to argue that scientific paradigms completely and utterly rupture from previous scientific paradigms, which feels decidedly reductionist and one-sided) he does do a good job of examining various positions within the philosophy of science as well as putting forward his own. Kuhn is not a marxist, so that might be what you're looking for.

    2. Thanks for the recommendation, I'll check those out.

    3. Kuhn doesn't argue they entirely rupture; the point is that the new comes from within the old. So Copernicus overcomes Ptolemy after geocentric cosmology becomes unmanageable in its complexity. But the Copernican system maintained many features of earlier models.

      Cam H

      PS. My comrade Ben Campbell did an interview on this subject you might find interesting:

    4. Cam: I agree that Kuhn *should* be read in a sense that there is not a complete rupture, but what I said above was that sometimes he seems like he is indeed arguing for complete rupture––not that he necessarily was, the distinction though is important. There is an entire and vibrant debate in the philosophy of science around this, and there are those who indeed argue that there are contradictory moments in Kuhn (perhaps because of his explicit refusal to adopt dialectical logic, though it may be implicit) where whatever he claims here and there about the new coming with the old, that this old is so completely rearticulated that it is not the same. Again, I think this proves more than rejects what I would argue about continuity-rupture, but the point is that it is not entirely clear and within philosophy, specifically the narrative of philosophy of science, he has been charged with arguing completely against continuity.

      While we might reject this reading of Kuhn, we cannot escape the fact that a very simplistic reading will make it appear that he is indeed saying this. Robert M. Young in fact attacks Kuhn's approach for being too "post-modern" and instead argues that its critical aspects would be better developed by importing a marxist analysis of ideology.

  2. one very simple question: have you READ "the selfish gene"? or just the title? it's a book about evolutionary biology on the level of genetic information. i would really appreciate if you could write a short article explaining exactly what is your issue with it, so that i could be enlightened. either that or stop making little snarky off-hand remarks about a book that i have seen it happen WAY too many times where a marxist (i try to be a marxist which is worthy of the many articles you've written here) just puts it down based on their PERCEPTION of what the book MUST be about - justifying or explaining selfishness and exploitation as natural.

    1. First of all: this was in my spam folder which is why I didn't see it until now. This is probably because of your anonymous identity which, if you read my comment policy, that is usually frowned upon.

      Yes I have read Dawkins' "selfish gene". I do not see why I have to post on Dawkins, though, simply because you think a tangental comment is snarky. I have also read the debates amongst biologists regarding the theory of the selfish gene and those debates cover most of what I would say. Should I also have to write a long article about Lysenkoism since I also dismissed it in an off-hand way that was just about as "snarky" as my comment about Dawkins? Interestingly enough, most people who have a cursory understanding of the history of science would think it was okay to dismiss Lysenkoism but would not have the same attitude towards Dawkins who is just as flawed but for different reasons. If you are interested in understanding my problems with Dawkins, feel free to read the work of Jan Sapp, who is both a biologist and a historian and who has catalogued a lot of these debates, or Robert M. Young, or even Stephen Jay Gould on this issue.


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