3 March 2011

Disproving Marxism: is it possible?

If I had to pose the hardest question to Marxist theory it would be this rather simple one: What events could take place in the future which would refute Marxism?

If Marxists don’t come up with an answer, but say instead that anything that happens is compatible with Marxist theory, then surely Marxist theory cannot explain anything at all. It would be as meaningful as a weather forecast that said it would either rain or not rain within the next twenty-four hours.

To say the same thing in philosophical terms, Marxism must surely give rise to potentially falsifiable synthetic a postiori propositions and not simply consist of a priori ones.

The microscope conception of Marxism

Some have argued that Marxism cannot the refuted by events in the world for the following reason. Propositions, it is argued, are of two kinds: empirical ones which can be refuted by testing against reality and philosophical ones which cannot. The latter would include propositions of mathematics, formal logic and Marxism. One way of illustrating Marxism when seen like this is to compare it with a microscope. A microscope enables us to see an object which otherwise would remain unknown to us, but nothing that we see “invalidates” the working of the microscope.

This view, though, seems to lead to an uncomfortable conclusion. Social sciences (sociology, politics, economics, etc) do give rise to falsifiable hypotheses. Marxism can’t give us any statements on these matters because if it did they would be refutable, and if they were refutable then the Marxism that gave rise to them would also be refutable.

This kind of formulation, if left here, seems to imprison Marxism into a closed metaphysical system.

Marxism conceived only as history

Some argue that Marxism is only about history, so the theory cannot be refuted by events in the future. Many people do in fact see Marxism as primarily a tool for understanding the past, as a theory of “postdiction” as opposed to prediction. And indeed, Marxism conceived as a narrative on human history is easy to understand. It’s not necessary to comprehend what caused what, but merely what happened. And what did happen was written down by Marx, Engels and later Marxist writers.

This kind of historicism is extremely flexible. If we discover new information about the past, we simply slot it in somehow with what we have already been told in the Marxist narrative. If we find something that is false in that narrative, we take it out without our conception of history collapsing. Such an approach is not wholly without merit, but I would contend that it too easily lends itself to propaganda and can neither verify nor falsify Marxism.

How Marxism is done

How does Marxism work? It is about selecting phenomena from the gamut available, expressing those facts in Marxian concepts and then integrating the facts into the Marxian meta-narrative.

Marxism could be contradicted not by facts in the world – because after all we make history even if not in conditions of our making, so anything is possible in the future – but by finding that the facts that underpin the Marxist paradigm are wrong.

Some discoveries would seriously undermine the Marxian paradigm. Three examples:

The existence of God

Human social behaviour was changing because of developments in the brain independent of social conditions.

Any area of society (e.g. politics,) was explicable without reference to the whole of society.

Marxists can and do come up with specific theories which can be falsified without damaging Marxism. (E.g. the immiseration thesis)

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