Of Marx, mice and Alberto Garzón: part two

We publish the second part of our response to Spanish United Left leader, Alberto Garzón's criticism of Marxism as a scientific method, which – under the guise of updating or modifying Marxism – in actual fact represents a revisionist break with the very essence of Marx and Engels. You can read part one here.

Is Marxism a scientific method?

Comrade Garzón, blindly following in the footsteps of Karl Popper, wants to exclude Marxism as a scientific method. But Popper's attempt to establish an arbitrary definition of what science is does not correspond to the real world. No scientist feels the need to receive a certificate signed by Mr. Popper in order to continue doing scientific work. Neither do Marxists need a certificate from any “living” author to continue practising scientific socialism.

It is true that there are sciences, and there are sciences. Some are more exact than others. An astronomer can predict what the precise location of a star or a galaxy will be millions of years from now with absolute certainty. On the other hand, a geologist can be absolutely certain that there will be an earthquake in a certain place, but to this day it is impossible to predict with certainty when an earthquake is going to happen, which does not prevent the majority of people from recognising geology as a science.

Medicine can also be included as a science, although a doctor’s predictions cannot have the same character as those of an astronomer. A doctor makes a diagnosis based, on the one hand, on his or her knowledge of pathology and similar case studies, on the other, based on the observable symptoms in a specific case. A patient may complain of stomach problems. The doctor (we assume that he or she is qualified and efficient) has to decide if it is a colic, an ulcer, a cancer, etc. Even the most qualified doctor can make a wrong diagnosis. But these errors cannot be used as an excuse to deny the scientific character of medicine.

In the case of psychology, the situation is even more complicated, being a science that is still in its infancy. And when we get to the social sciences, matters get even more complicated, not only because it involves an immense amount of changing factors, but also because the interests of antagonistic classes come into play.

Trotsky Image public domainTrotsky: “In the eyes of a philistine a revolutionary point of view is virtually equivalent to an absence of scientific objectivity. We think just the opposite: only a revolutionist – provided, of course, that he is equipped with the scientific method – is capable of laying bare the objective dynamics of the revolution." / Image: public domain

It is not difficult to understand that the mask of false academic objectivity serves to conceal the crude reality of a defence of the interests of the bourgeoisie. In contrast to the hypocritical pseudo-objectivity of academic historians, Marxists openly espouse the cause of the working class and socialist revolution.

But does this mean that Marxists cannot approach questions in an objective manner? Is there a contradiction between having a passionate interest in changing society and at the same time being capable of an objective appraisal of historical events and the role of individuals in the historical process? The answer was given by the great Russian Marxist, Leon Trotsky:

“In the eyes of a philistine a revolutionary point of view is virtually equivalent to an absence of scientific objectivity. We think just the opposite: only a revolutionist – provided, of course, that he is equipped with the scientific method – is capable of laying bare the objective dynamics of the revolution. Apprehending thought in general is not contemplative, but active. The element of will is indispensable for penetrating the secrets of nature and society. Just as a surgeon, on whose scalpel a human life depends, distinguishes with extreme care between the various tissues of an organism, so a revolutionist, if he has a serious attitude toward his task, is obliged with strict conscientiousness to analyse the structure of society, its functions and reflexes.” (Trotsky, The Chinese Revolution, 1938.)

Engels as a scientist

Comrade Garzón will doubtless remind us that the contents of Engels’ famous book The Dialectics of Nature are a reflexion of the science of the 19th century. In reality, however, Engels was far in advance of the science of his time. He was extremely critical of the mechanistic theories that dominated Newtonian physics. His criticisms were completely corroborated by the discoveries of quantum mechanics and relativity theory at the beginning of the 20th century.

Engels was not a professional scientist, but had a fairly extensive knowledge of the natural sciences of his time. However, based on a deep understanding of the dialectical method of analysis, Engels made a number of contributions to the philosophical interpretation of science that fully retain their importance today, although they have remained unknown to the overwhelming majority of scientists.

In fact, modern science furnishes us with far more proof of the correctness of dialectics than the examples that were available to Engels. In particular, the new field of chaos theory and its derivatives provides a striking proof of Engels’s statement that, in the last analysis, nature works dialectically. The dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality lies at the heart of chaos theory, and is absolutely fundamental to the study of phase transitions, a most important area of modern physics.

Friedrich Engels 20 Image public domainEngels made a number of contributions to the philosophical interpretation of science that fully retain their importance today / Image: public domain

In his book Ubiquity, the American scientist, Mark Buchanan, points out that phenomena as diverse as heart attacks, avalanches, forest fires, the rise and fall of animal populations, stock exchange crises, the movement of traffic, and even revolutions in art and fashion are all governed by the same law, which can be expressed as a mathematical equation known as a power law. This is actually the law of the transformation of quantity into quality.

What about materialism? The materialist method is fundamental to all science. Every attempt to substitute materialism for idealism in the field of science has led to mistake after mistake. This is particularly the case in the study of human origins, which for over a century was hampered by the idealist prejudices of paleontologists, who were looking for the fossil of a human ancestor with a large brain.

They never found it, but were taken in by a fraudster who invented the so-called Piltdown man, which turned out to be a human skull to which the jawbone of an ape had been attached. Scientists believed this fraud because it coincided with their idealist prejudices. But Engels had explained in advance that it was not the brain that created the hand, but the hand that created the brain.

This is what the renowned American scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote about Engels:

“Indeed, the nineteenth century produced a brilliant exposé from a source that will no doubt surprise most readers – Friedrich Engels… In 1876, Engels wrote an essay entitled, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. It was published posthumously in 1896 and, unfortunately, had no visible impact upon Western science…

“The importance of Engels’s essay lies, not in its substantive conclusions, but in its trenchant political analysis of why Western science was so hung up on the a priori assertion of cerebral primacy…

“The importance of Engels’s essay does not lie in the happy result that Australopithecus confirmed a specific theory proposed by him – via Haeckel – but rather in his perceptive analysis of the political role of science and of the social biases that must affect all thought.

“Indeed, Engels’s theme of the separation of head and hand has done much to set and limit the course of science throughout history… Even today, ‘pure’ researchers tend to disparage the practical, and terms such as ‘aggie school’ and ‘cow college’ are heard with distressing frequency in academic circles. If we took Engels’s message to heart and recognised our belief in the inherent superiority of pure research for what it is – namely social prejudice – then we might forge among scientists the union between theory and practice that a world teetering dangerously near the brink so desperately needs.” (Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin, pp. 210-213.)

Gould’s fulsome tribute to Engels is a sufficient answer to the nonsense of Karl Popper and everyone else who tries to discredit Marxism by attacking its philosophical basis, dialectical materialism.

Capitalism in a dead end

At the present juncture, capitalism finds itself in a deep crisis. As a socio-economic system, it has long since exhausted any potential for carrying humankind forward.

When a social system enters into terminal crisis, this finds its reflection not only in a failure to develop the productive forces, but also in other fields: culture, art, morality, philosophy, etc.

In the past, when the bourgeoisie was still capable of playing a progressive role, it had a coherent ideology and philosophy. Liberalism presented the capitalist system (“the free market economy”) as the only possible system, a system that guaranteed progress and constant advances. Today was better than yesterday, and tomorrow would be better than today.

Capitalist crisis Image Flickr KOREphotosCapitalism finds itself in a deep crisis. As a socio-economic system, it has long since exhausted any potential for carrying humankind forward / Image: Flickr, KOREphotos

After the fall of the Soviet Union, this beautiful vision received a powerful new impulse. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. Socialism was alleged to have failed, capitalism was the only possible system. The future would be one of peace and prosperity for all.

25 years later, not one stone upon another is left of these comforting illusions. For 10 years, governments and economists have struggled to pull the system out of the crisis, without any signs of success. The bourgeoisie and its ideological defenders are filled with pessimism about the future. They have no answers to the crisis of their system.

This pessimism finds its reflection in philosophy. Instead of admitting honestly that on the basis of the present system no progress is possible, so-called postmodernism assures us that progress in general does not exist. History cannot be understood, except as a series of accidents. Similarly, ideology cannot exist, for the simple reason that the bourgeoisie itself has run out of ideas.

Clarity, not confusion!

It gives us no pleasure to say this, but comrade Garzón’s article, far from clarifying the questions it deals with is full of confusion from the first line to the last. It attempts to demolish Marxism, without actually admitting to that intention, or perhaps because Garzón is not even conscious of it.

He fails to make the slightest dent in Marxism, because he never deals seriously with the subject. Instead, he constructs a scarecrow in order to push it over. That is really not a very hard thing to do, and it does not serve to clarify anything or raise the political understanding of members of the United Left. This is doubly unfortunate, because at the present time what is required in order to unite the Left on a sound basis is precisely clarity.

The crisis of capitalism has produced a growing revolt in society. We saw this in the mass demonstrations and strikes for women's rights on 8 March, of pensioners demanding their rights and, before that, in the democratic rebellion of the people of Catalonia.

Everywhere we see the same discontent, anger, rage, and above all frustration – a frustration that is directed to a large extent at the leaders of the Left and the trade unions who, instead of providing the movement with the necessary programme, ideas and organisation, have systematically disappointed the masses and their own members.

Comrade Garzón should not see Marxism as heavy baggage left over from the past, which we would do well to throw off our backs. Marxism is not an onerous load that impedes our progress. Rather it is a compass that is absolutely necessary for us to find the right road. Without the aid of such a compass, we will necessarily lose ourselves in a morass of incorrect and contradictory ideas. We should not allow ourselves to be tempted to fall into a kind of dilettante eclecticism, accepting “a quarter or half of Marxism” while rejecting the rest, amputating it so as to reduce it to an impotent stump, stripped of its revolutionary essence, wiping out its program and thus transforming it into a religious relic to be brought out for use in processions and saint’s days, but completely removed from real life.

To see how this ideological confusion ends up, it is only necessary to point to the present crisis of Podemos. Podemos seemed to represent a way out. The radical speeches of Pablo Iglesias inspired hope in the hearts of many people.

But it is impossible to turn one’s back so frivolously on ideology, which, when expelled through the front door will fly in through the back window. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The absence of ideology merely signifies the acceptance of a bad ideology. Ideas as confused as “we are neither Left nor Right” open the door to an opportunist policy, with disastrous consequences.

The initial hopes are increasingly transformed into a growing disenchantment. This is precisely the result of the ideological confusion and political ambiguity of the leaders of Podemos who foolishly imagined that the way to increase their support was to modify their language in a vain attempt to win over the so-called centre ground. A serious mistake! If people want reformism they have the Socialist Party. They do not need Podemos, which naturally has lost ground to the PSOE.

Pablo Iglasias Image GUE NGLTo see how ideological confusion ends up, look at the present crisis of Podemos / Image: GUE NGL

In such a situation, the United Left has a golden opportunity to win the leadership of the movement. But the first condition is that it should defend firmly the genuine left ideas: the ideas of communism and revolutionary Marxism. In attempting to distance himself from these ideas, comrade Garzón is doing precisely the opposite of what is needed at this time.

We cannot forget what happened in the Transition. The abandonment of Marxism and Leninism, which is part of the same process, expresses itself in the first instance as a confused mish-mash. The following quote serves to sum up the latest articles written by comrade Garzón:

“[He] accepts Marxism as a theoretical tool, critical and not dogmatic, for the analysis and the transformation of social reality, embracing different contributions, Marxist and non-Marxist, which have contributed to make socialism the great emancipatory alternative of our times and fully respecting personal beliefs.”

But we should fill in the missing part of the first sentence by adding “The PSOE,” because this is the resolution that was approved by the extraordinary Congress in 1978 in which the party, led by Felipe González, formally abandoned Marxism!

Confused ideas can only be combated by ideological firmness and absolute clarity. We are very sorry to say that the ideas expressed by comrade Alberto’s article do not offer any clarity but represent a clear turn towards the right, not towards the left.

“Marxism must change”

Marxism has to change, says Alberto. This is a song that is very well known to us. It has been sung for well over hundred years by people like Bernstein, Kautsky and many others. All of these people wanted to change Marxism – into its opposite, to deprive it of its revolutionary identity, to castrate it and reduce it to a harmless kind of parliamentary reformism.

But at least the revisionist thinkers of the past tried to put forward a coherent programme. That, sadly, cannot be said in the present case. The article of comrade Garzón contains many criticisms of Marxism, but when it comes to presenting a coherent alternative, it turns out to be a big disappointment.

The attitude of Garzón towards Marxism, denying that it is a scientific method, and nor does it even provide us with any kind of method, seems to be identical to the attitude of his hero Karl Popper towards Darwinism, i.e. that it is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program—“a possible framework for testable scientific theories”.

Marxism Image public domain “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways – the task is however to change it.” / Image: public domain

As with every other statement by Popper, this needs to be translated into plain English, intelligible to normal human beings. While reluctantly paying tribute to Charles Darwin as a significant thinker of the past (the word “past” must be heavily underlined), his theories are a complete waste of time.

In the same way, Alberto Garzón is quite prepared to keep Marx’s photograph on the wall and the first volume of Capital on his bookshelf (after all, it is part of our ‘tradition’) as long as what Marx actually wrote is completely ignored.

Displaying a complete misunderstanding of the ideas of the founders of scientific socialism, he writes:

“In the first place, I believe that it is important to abandon the strong determinism that emanates from their conception of history. History is not written in advance by any providential forces and therefore we must not presuppose certain historical developments without the intervention of other variables that are not strictly economic.”

Here the comrade is mistaken, and vulgarises Marxism to the point where it is rendered unrecognisable. He carries it to an extreme of economic reductionism and a kind of religious determinism. But this was already brilliantly answered by Engels in his letter to Joseph Bloch:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. (…)

“We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. (…) Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. (…) Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent ‘Marxists’ from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too…”

“In any case,” we are told by Garzón, “I do believe that we must recover historical materialism, in a softened version, as a useful instrument for social science and as a way of counteracting the postmodern tendencies whose analysis has been disconnected from the economic base.”

But what this “softened version” of historical materialism consists of, we do not know. No alternative is offered. “Marxism must change,” but nobody has the remotest idea as to what the change consists of.

We are well aware that the young leader of the United Left is beset by doubts concerning the reality that surrounds us and is attempting to find a way out of the crisis through which the organisation is passing, but before converting these reflexions into authoritative statements, he should first of all follow the advice that Marx gave. He made a magnificent criticism of the philosophy of his own times, and it would be difficult to arrive at the correct understanding of Marxism without a study of the German Ideology, which he wrote together with Engels. But years later Marx himself delivered the following judgement of this work:

“We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more willingly as we had achieved our main purpose — self-clarification!”

Marx analysed the capitalist world, laid bare its internal workings and proposed an alternative. The world today, in all essentials, still remains the same system and the alternatives are also, in all essentials, the same, since the problems of exploitation, poverty, the concentration of capital, the law of value, surplus value and the crisis of overproduction still exist. This not only demonstrates the enormous superiority of Marxist thought, but also indicates the blind alley in which the left has landed by attempting to find an alternative by resorting (while changing the names) to pre-Marxian ideas.

Our discussion must not base itself on rejecting the formulations of Marx and Engels, but rather on finding the way to carry them into practice, while basing ourselves on living experience. We must go back to the study of Marxism with the aim of consigning this system with all its destructive consequences into the dustbin of history.

What the postmodernist economists so critical of Marx fail to understand is that he was not an “economist,” but a revolutionary. He did not work out an economic theory in order to deliver clever lectures in university seminars, to find a way to run the capitalist system, nor to work out a reformist electoral programme, but to analyse reality in order to carry out a thoroughgoing social transformation. Basing himself on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, he elaborated his perspective for the transformation of society by the working class. This leads us to the essence of Marxist thesis: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways – the task is however to change it.”