Revolution#110, November 25, 2007
MAKING REVOLUTION AND EMANCIPATING HUMANITY
PART 1: BEYOND THE NARROW HORIZON OF BOURGEOIS RIGHT (CONTINUED)
Marxism as a Science—Refuting Karl Popper
Editors’ Note: The following is the sixth in a series of excerpts from a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA earlier this year (2007). This has been edited for publication and footnotes have been added (among other things, in preparing this for publication, the author has considerably expanded the section on Karl Popper). These excerpts are being published in two parts. Part 1 is available in its entirety, as one document, online at revcom.us. Part 2 will also be available in the near future, as one document, at revcom.us; the excerpts comprising Part 2 will also be published as a series in Revolution after the conclusion of the present series of excerpts.
The following is the first part of Bob Avakian’s discussion of Karl Popper. This week’s excerpt examines Popper’s use of the concept of scientific falsifiability and applies it to Marxism; next week’s excerpt turns more directly to Popper’s attempts to discredit Marxism.
Marxism as a Science—Refuting Karl Popper
Marxism’s “falsifiability,” Popper’s falsehoods, and a scientific approach
Now, in this connection, I want to speak to the attempt by Karl Popper to discredit and attack Marxism.1 Popper claims that Marxism is not a science because it is not falsifiable. Or to put it another way, Popper asserts that Marxism is in effect a religious worldview, which makes historical prophecies; and when, as Popper asserts, these “prophecies” turn out to be false—when reality turns out differently than what has been “prophesied” by Marxism—then Marxists simply invent rationalizations to explain away the failure of their “prophecy.”
This deserves to be addressed, because it gets to the heart of what, in fact, the Marxist outlook and method is—and is not—and how it not only meets the standards of science but represents the most consistent and systematic application of the scientific outlook and method, and is in the most fundamental and profound opposition to religious worldviews and approaches to reality.
Let’s begin by discussing the question of falsifiability, and its application to Marxism, and then get into some of Popper’s main attacks on Marxism and how in reality they turn out to be apologies for capitalism-imperialism. In The Science of Evolution and The Myth Of Creationism—Knowing What’s Real And Why It Matters, Ardea Skybreak emphasizes this contrast: “unlike ‘religious beliefs,’ scientific predictions (including predictions made about the processes involved in evolution) are actually testable and verifiable.” (p. 70, emphasis in original) And:
“A good scientific theory puts forward some predictions about what we should expect to find in the real world if the theory is true; and it also makes predictions about some of the things we should not be able to find in the world if the theory is true. This is known as the principle of ‘scientific falsifiability’: a genuine scientific theory, as a matter of principle, has to be capable of being disproved by facts (things which, if discovered, would prove your theory to be wrong).” (pp. 215-17, emphasis in original)
In short, the “falsifiability” criterion means that if something is really scientific, then it can be put to the test of reality. If things emerge in reality which the theory not only doesn’t anticipate, but which the theory would predict cannot happen, then obviously there is something wrong, incorrect, about the theory. If, to take an example cited by Skybreak, it could actually be shown—and not pretended in creationist museums—that dinosaurs and human beings existed at the same time, that would be one means of falsifying the theory of evolution, of showing that it is wrong. In reality, dinosaurs and human beings are separated in time by tens of millions of years; and in reality the evidence, from many different fields, that has been continually discovered and examined since the time of Darwin has increasingly verified the theory of evolution, demonstrating from a growing number of directions that it is in fact true, not false. But the point is that evolution, as a scientific theory, is falsifiable. And so, in a fundamental and essential sense, is Marxism—scientific communist theory.
Of course, it is possible that a scientific theory is true—correctly reflects reality—in its main and essential aspects, but is shown to be incorrect in certain secondary aspects—and, in accordance with that, some of its particular predictions prove not to be true. And when that is the case, the application of the scientific method leads to a further development of the theory—through the discarding, or modifying, of certain aspects and the addition of new elements into the theory. In fact, this happens all the time with scientific theories in all fields—physics, geology, biology, archaeology, medicine, and so on. To determine whether a theory as a whole has been falsified—has been shown, through investigation and analysis, utilizing scientific methods, not to be true—or whether, on the other hand, only certain secondary aspects have been falsified in this way, it is necessary to examine whether those things that have been shown not to be true actually bear on and undermine the main and essential elements of that theory or only secondary aspects which do not go to the essence of the theory as a whole. To put this another way, if the elements which have been shown not to be true can be eliminated, or modified, without calling into question the fundamental assertions of the theory, then it is not the theory itself, but only secondary aspects of the theory, that have been falsified; whereas, if the demonstration that certain elements of the theory are in fact not true causes the theory itself to collapse, then it is the theory as a whole, and in its essence, that has been falsified.
Let’s see how all this applies to Marxism. There are definitely things in Marxism that are falsifiable. For example, dialectical materialism. If the world were made up of something other than matter in motion—if that could be shown—then clearly Marxism in its fundamentals, in its essence and at its core, would be falsified, proven wrong. Or, if it could be shown that, yes, all reality consists of matter, but that some forms of matter do not change, do not have internal contradiction and motion and development — that too would be a fundamental refutation of dialectical materialism. But none of that has been shown.
Another “core element” of Marxism is concentrated in the statement by Marx, cited earlier, concerning the foundation of all society in the struggle of people to produce and reproduce the material requirements of life, and the fact that in carrying out this most fundamental activity people enter into definite production relations, which are independent of their will. That is falsifiable, as is the Marxist analysis of the underlying dynamics of change in society, rooted in the contradictory relation between the productive forces and the production relations, and the economic base and the superstructure.2 That is also falsifiable—but it has not been falsified. It is true—the examination of human society in a scientific way bears out the truth that Marx was concentrating in that analysis.
There is the Marxist analysis of the basic contradictions and the driving forces and dynamics of the capitalist system in particular, including the pivotal element of the production of surplus value through the exploitation of wage-labor by capital. All that is falsifiable—but it hasn’t been falsified—it is true, it corresponds to reality.
There is the Marxist analysis, sharpened by Lenin, of the nature of the state as a decisive part of the relation between the economic base and the legal, political and ideological superstructure. This analysis that the state, of whatever kind, always represents a dictatorship of one class or another—this, too, is falsifiable. Show us a state that is not an instrument of class rule. If anyone could show that—in reality, and not in fanciful illusions—then at least that part of Marxism would be shown to be false (and that is a crucial part of Marxism). But this has not been shown to be false: Everywhere experience has shown, often at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering, that in fact this Marxist analysis of the state—that all states, even the “most democratic” ones, are in fact dictatorships—is profoundly true.
All these are core elements of Marxism—of scientific communist theory. All of them are falsifiable—but the application of a scientific approach and method has shown them not to be false but true, to in fact correspond to reality.
Now, of course, precisely as a science, Marxism continues to develop—to, if you will, refine its analysis and synthesis of reality, both “natural” and social reality. It continues to discard particular aspects which have proven not to be true, or to no longer apply. For example, Lenin analyzed capitalism’s development into imperialism and showed that, while the basic contradictions and underlying dynamics of capitalism remained fundamentally the same, its development into imperialism modified certain features of more “classical capitalism” that Marx had analyzed (that is, capitalism before it had reached the stage where it was defined by the domination of monopolies and other features which, Lenin showed, were characteristic of a new stage of capitalism: imperialism). Lenin also showed how this development (of capitalism into this new stage of imperialism) led to changes in the political realm as well as the economic realm. For example, Lenin analyzed the split in the proletariat, particularly in the imperialist countries, where certain sections of the working class were, to a significant extent, bribed from the spoils of imperialism’s international exploitation and plunder; and he emphasized that, in this situation, the revolutionary movement representing the interests of the proletariat as a class must be based, fundamentally, on the “lower, deeper” sections of the proletariat, as opposed to the more bourgeoisified or “labor aristocratic” sections of the working class. These were modifications in the theory of communism, but they did not constitute an abandoning, or a refutation, of the core and essential elements of this scientific theory.
Marx and Engels had anticipated that the communist revolution would come first to Europe where, in their time, capitalism—and, along with it, the proletariat—was already more fully developed. When that did not happen—because this is a real life struggle and not something pre-determined, not something teleological, heading toward some predestined end—Lenin analyzed this and showed how the potential for socialism was in fact strengthened on an international basis, while the class contradictions and the potential for socialist revolution in the capitalist-imperialist countries themselves were attenuated and retarded in some ways by the development of capitalism into imperialism—revolutionary possibility in the capitalist-imperialist countries was not eliminated but held back, in certain ways and for a certain period of time.
Does all this make Marxism not a science? No. In reality, it demonstrates Marxism’s scientific character: Marxism has continued to refine its understanding of reality, but it has, correctly, retained its core elements, and its basic outlook and methodology—which are falsifiable, but are not false.
Similarly, Mao, on the basis of the development of imperialism and its effects in countries like China (the emergence of semi-colonial and semi-feudal society under the domination of foreign imperialism), applied the scientific outlook and method of communism to analyze this reality and brought forward the conception of new-democratic revolution in these semi-colonial, semi-feudal countries—a revolution that would not be immediately socialist but would first pass through an essentially bourgeois-democratic stage, aimed at defeating imperialism and feudalism, and then, with victory in that stage (which Mao termed “new-democratic” because the struggle was under the leadership of the proletariat, and not the bourgeoisie), the revolution would achieve a new state power—a new form of the dictatorship of the proletariat—which would open the door to establishing socialism and advancing through the socialist transition toward communism. Along with this, Mao developed the strategic conception and road of protracted people’s war as the means for carrying out this revolution. This was a new element added to Marxism—on a scientific basis.
Further, on the basis of the positive and negative experience of socialism itself over more than a half century, first in the Soviet Union and then in China itself—which, when scientifically analyzed, and synthesized, showed that in socialist society itself there continue to be antagonistic classes and in particular that a new bourgeoisie is continually regenerated on the basis of the remaining material conditions left over from the old society, which can only be transformed through a protracted process, and ultimately on a world scale—Mao developed the theory of continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This, again, represented the application of the scientific outlook and method of communism to investigate and to draw profound lessons from historical experience and from reality broadly.
And, over the whole period of more than 150 years since the time when Marx and Engels first formulated communism as a scientific theory, there has also been the continuing enrichment of the understanding of dialectical materialism itself, on the basis of learning from continuing discoveries, in natural science as well as social science and history. It is not that these developments have shown that, after all, reality does not consist only of matter in motion; it is that they have deepened our understanding of what that means, and at the same time have posed new challenges in understanding particular forms of matter and particular aspects of the laws of motion of matter. In the realm of physics, for example, scientists are straining for further synthesis, striving in particular for a theory that will unify the principles of relativity with those of quantum mechanics. I have to admit that much of the particulars of this is beyond my understanding, but it is clear that none of this has pointed to any conclusion other than that all reality consists of matter in motion.
As people who adhere to and seek to apply a consistently and systematically scientific world outlook and method, we communists will continue the struggle to refine and develop our understanding of all of this, including the basic scientific principles of dialectical materialism and its application to nature and to human society as well. But, once again, all of this is on the foundation of certain basic principles and methods which do continue to apply—to conform to objective reality—and which, yes, have been and can be subjected to the criterion of falsifiability but have not been shown to be false, have in fact been shown to be true, in their essential core elements.
Editors’ Note: The installment in the next issue of Revolution, #111, will turn more directly to Popper’s attempts to discredit Marxism.
1. The discussion here of the views of Karl Popper, a 20th-century English philosopher (born in Austria), will focus on one of Popper’s more influential works, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and in particular Volume 2, The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, Revised First Edition, 1966 [First Princeton Paperback Printing, 1971]).[back]
2. The statement by Marx referred to here is discussed earlier in this talk, in the section “Changes in Society and in People: A Materialist, and Dialectical, Understanding of the Relation Between People’s Conditions and Their Consciousness. The statement itself is quoted in footnote 4 in that section. See the text of entire Part 1, online at revcom.us. This section of the talk was excerpted in Revolution #106, October 28, 2007.[back]
Part 2 of
MAKING REVOLUTION AND EMANCIPATING HUMANITY
Now on Web
Revolution is excited to announce that Part 2 of Bob Avakian’s new talk, MAKING REVOLUTION AND EMANCIPATING HUMANITY, is now available at revcom.us. The second part is entitled EVERYTHING WE’RE DOING IS ABOUT REVOLUTION, and goes into essential thinking on the actual content of building a revolutionary and communist movement. The talk will be serialized in Revolution at the conclusion of the serialization of part 1.
In an important sense this second part of MAKING REVOLUTION AND EMANCIPATING HUMANITY sets out an essential scaffolding for building such a revolutionary movement. There is surely work to be done in construction, and further thinking to do as we carry out and sum up that work, and as the world develops—but this talk sets out a coherent framework and approach for doing that work. It also applies—and exemplifies—a method that everyone can learn from and utilize: it gives a living sense of the multilayered and multilevel and dynamically changing character of reality and a way to comprehend reality in its motion and development and to transform it. In doing this, it builds off the first part of the talk, now being serialized, with its discussion not only of the overarching goal of the struggle, but also of the scientific method.
Every revolutionary and every person intent on, and grappling with, how to make, fundamental social change should get into this talk. We look forward to your comments and response on this work.
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