Is Marxism-Leninism really a science?

42-16486432What follows is put together from some comments I made in a discussion thread in the facebook group, Group for the Discussion of the Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism, called “the science part of ‘the science of revolution’“. These are my rough thoughts on the subject, not a set of totally worked-out theses. I think this is an interesting topic worth further discussion.

‘When asked whether or not we are Marxists, our position is the same as that of a physicist or a biologist when asked if he is a “Newtonian,” or if he is a “Pasteurian”… One ought to be “Marxist’ with the same naturalness with which one is “Newtonian” in physics, or “Pasteurian” in biology.’

Che Guevara, Notes for the Study of the Ideology of the Cuban Revolution

 Now, I think to have this discussion it may be helpful to define “science”, and if we are going to do it in a way that includes Marxism as it exists today, I don’t think we can define science in a narrow positivisitic sence.

Certainly I wouldn’t consider Marxism a “hard science” like chemistry, mathematics, or physics, but more of a “soft” or “social science” like psychology, sociology, or economics.

When the idea of Marxism as a science was first put forward by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, I think the concept “science” probably had a significantly different angle to it than it often does today (thought there certainly isn’t concensus even now), meaning basically a tendency to re-evaluate problems based on reason and analysis, quantifiable data, and a materialist viewpoint. Also it meant to get to a clear understanding of the “natural laws”, in this case meaning first and foremost “laws” of social change. I think Marxism fits those critera just fine.

Marxism as a “science of revolution” means “science” in the sense that it relies on learning from a summation of experience, casting away dogmas, methodical removal of ideological (in the negative sense) thinking.

Mao Zedong put it this way:

“In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures. Countless phenomena of the objective external world are reflected in a man’s brain through his five sense organs – the organs of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. At first, knowledge is perceptual. The leap to conceptual knowledge, i e., to ideas, occurs when sufficient perceptual knowledge is accumulated. This is one process in cognition. It is the first stage in the whole process of cognition, the stage leading from objective matter to subjective consciousness, from existence to ideas. Whether or not one’s consciousness or ideas (including theories, policies, plans or measures) do correctly reflect the laws of the objective external world is not yet proved at this stage, in which it is not yet possible to ascertain whether they are correct or not. Then comes the second stage in the process of cognition, the stage leading from consciousness back to matter, from ideas back to existence, in which the knowledge gained in the first stage is applied in social practice to ascertain whether the theories, policies, plans or measures meet with the anticipated success. Generally speaking, those that succeed are correct and those that fail are incorrect, and this is especially true of man’s struggle with nature. In social struggle, the forces representing the advanced class sometimes suffer defeat not because their ideas are incorrect but because, in the balance of forces engaged in struggle, they are not as powerful for the time being as the forces of reaction; they are therefore temporarily defeated, but they are bound to triumph sooner or later. Man’s knowledge makes another leap through the test of practice. This leap is more important than the previous one. For it is this leap alone that can prove the correctness or incorrectness of the first leap in cognition, i.e., of the ideas, theories, policies, plans or measures formulated in the course of reflecting the objective external world. There is no other way of testing truth.” (Where do Correct Ideas Come From?)

I understand the texts of Marxism-Leninism as the accumulated experience of more than 160 years of revolution all around the world, developed through a critical and self-critical process of summation, as well as through engagement with other views and theories. Marxism has its own “laws” (same as physics or any other science) and it also involves a constant process of practical application, summation, and development and deepening of theory through practice and summation.

Certainly Marx thought of his work (especially Capital) as scientific, and Lenin referred to this work as opening up a new continent (history) to science in the same way that had been done by Gallileo and Newton in Astronomy and Physics. Engels deals with this in his more philosophical writings like Ludwig Fuerebach, Anti-Duhring and especially in his book Dialectics of Nature and his pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Stalin elaborates on this Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Mao further develops it in his works Marxist epistemology and dialectical materialism, On Practice and On Contradiction.

This is the main theme in the work of Louis Althusser, especially in his work on the “epistemological break” (for an overview of this, see part II of his introduction to For Marx), examing where Marx begins to move away from idealisitic, Hegelian formulation like “alienation” and “species-being” and toward concepts like “mode of production,” “productive forces” and “relations of production”, “surplus-value”, “superstructure,” and so on.

Mao Zedong says, in “On Practice”

“Marxists hold that man’s social practice alone is the criterion of the truth of his knowledge of the external world. What actually happens is that man’s knowledge is verified only when he achieves the anticipated results in the process of social practice (material production, class struggle, or scientific experiment). If a man wants to succeed in his work, that is, to achieve the anticipated results, he must bring his ideas into correspondence with the laws of the objective external world; if they do not correspond, he will fail in his practice. After he fails, he draws his lessons, corrects his ideas to make the correspond to the laws of the external world, and can thus turn failure into success.”

This is a scientific approach to making revolution.

Mao also talks extensively about how this scientific approach solves the problems presented by rationalism on the one hand, and empiricism on the other. In “On Practice” he says

“Rational knowledge depends upon perceptual knowledge and perceptual knowledge remains to be developed into rational knowledge – this is the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge. In philosophy, neither ‘rationalism’ nor ‘empiricism’ understands the historical or the dialectical nature of knowledge.”

See my reading notes to “On Practice” and “On Contradiction

Then there are questions of teleology in Marxism and the ability to make predictions in a scientific way. Of course Marx is famous for predicting the “inevitability” of communist revolution, which probably isn’t very scientific of him, but it really is a myth that he made such an “inevitable” forecast. Generally such statements that do exist are rhetorical. Certainly the Communist Manifesto does not make this claim of inevitability. It lays it out as a strong possibility, with the other significantly possibile outcome of class struggle being the “common ruin of the contending classes”. Furthermore, I think Mao’s writings on Dialectical Materialism (On Contradiction, especially) and Louis Althusser’s work on the subject (Contradiction and Overdetermination and On the Materialist Dialectic) go a long way towards removing any Hegelian teleological remnants from Marxism. That said, Marxism does have a “predictive” function in that it looks at trends and makes strategic formulations.

Lastly, there are a few things that set Marxism, as a science of revolution, apart from other sciences, and this may be worth exploring further, especially as it relates to some of Marxism’s weaknesses, such as its history of splintering or fracturing into diverse and disagreeing trends.

Marxism is the only science that is intended to be used by and for the working class. It is not conducted by people in lab coats in universities, but by workers and oppressed people in factories, fields, and in the trenches. The experimentation involves agitation, strikes, pickets, mass mobilizations, advanced actions, and war, which must be subjected to a careful Marxist criticism, self-criticism, and summation. Its work is organizing, class struggle, national liberation, social revolution. There are no labs, and there are no “controls”. Its lab is the shop floor, the picket line, the ghetto, the barrio, the demonstration. Marxists don’t begin their work after a long training period, after which they have a degree. The “school of Marxism” is in the struggle itself. As Mao has said, we learn how to make revolution by making revolution. It also must deal with the fact that the full force of the existing social order, with all of its economic, political, and social institutions, wants it to fail. It has no corporate funding, but relies of a few dollars here and there from folks who already aren’t making ends meet.

No other science is anything like this. Does this make it less of science? I don’t think so. But it makes its work much more difficult and I think explains to a considerable extent why it could become so theoretically “fractured”.

This lack of resources (including access to knowledges) on the part of the Marxist scientists, along with the considerable opposition of the social order, disadvantages Marxism relative to other sciences. It suffers defeats and setbacks in a way that physics does not, it is infiltrated and sabotaged in ways that chemistry is not.

When was the last time the state used something like COINTELPRO and infiltrated a society of physicists and tried to instigate a split, or jailed or assassinated a top biologist?

What would be the state of chemistry, psychology, or mathematics if they had to work in such conditions?

“The merit of Marx is that he suddenly produces a qualitative change in the history of social thought. He interprets history, understands its dynamic, predicts the future, but in addition to predicting it (which would satisfy his scientific obligation), he expresses a revolutionary concept: the world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed. Man ceases to be the slave and tool of his environment and converts himself into the architect of his own destiny. At that moment Marx puts himself in a position where he becomes the necessary target of all who have a special interest in maintaining the old-similar to Democritus before him, whose work was burned by Plato and his disciples, the ideologues of Athenian slave aristocracy. Beginning with the revolutionary Marx, a political group with concrete ideas establishes itself. Basing itself on the giants, Marx and Engels, and developing through successive steps with personalities like Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and the new Soviet and Chinese rulers, it establishes a body of doctrine and, let us say, examples to follow.”

Che Guevara, Notes for the Study of the Ideology of the Cuban Revolution


8 responses to “Is Marxism-Leninism really a science?

  1. Marxism is the science of history and society. Marx outlined how history has progressed through Historical Materialism. Marx outlined in a scientific way how economic transformations occur, what conditions lead to revolution. No other philosopher had previously analyzed these developments in a systematic way. I believe Marxism did develop a way to pinpoint the material transformation of economic production with the precision of the so-called hard sciences.

  2. but is marxism a science?? you have not answered. if it is not a science, then is it a philosophy?

    • Emil, I think it is both. Marx founded a new science, historical materialism, and in so doing, in drawing general lessons from that science, he also developed a new philosophy, dialectical materialism.

      • It seems so simple that way, I never understood the distinction before. I missed the forest for the trees.

  3. some great points are really dear..but still i think u should clear the point…..’marxism is science or not??’…It is really a science or a revolution??

    • “Science or revolution” is a false dichotomy. Every great scientific discovery is a revolution. Perhaps you should frame your question more clearly.

  4. Marx is not science. Unless it somehow falls within the realm oh imperical falsifiability.

  5. butch s. espere

    Is Marxism a science?

    One of the elements of Marxism-Leninism which gives it scientific status is its power to explain economic phenomena. In the 1980s, bourgeois economists who could not fathom what was beyond the surface in the rise of such “tiger economies” as Singapore, South Korea and Brazil, simply dropped their jaw in awe and called it the “miracle of the decade”. But Marxism-Leninism has explained all that.

    Up to the last minute when the capitalist world tottered on the edge of global economic crisis in 2007, all bourgeois economists were clueless about it. When the collapse finally happened and its domino effect came rushing down the slope, many of those bourgeois economists turned to Marx’s Capital for the explanation.

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