Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Singer, Popper, and Marx

I found this article, Discovering Karl Popper, by Peter Singer, who reviews a couple of books about Karl Popper for the The New York Review of Books back in May 2, 1974. Here's some stuff about Popper versus Marx, but the article is worth reading for an overview of Popper and his critics.

Popper's Marx is a rigid determinist who thought he had discovered the inexorable laws that control our destiny, laws in the face of which we are "mere puppets, irresistibly pulled by economic wires."[3] Using this discovery, Marx, like a good historicist, is supposed to have considered himself in a position to prophesy the allegedly inevitable outcome of all human history.

Popper is not the first to have misinterpreted Marx in this way. Indeed, this is one of those fortunate instances in which the author lived long enough to rebut the misinterpretation. In a letter written in reply to Mikhailovsky, a contemporary critic, Marx denies that he has given "a historico-philosophic theory of the general path that every people is fated to tread." Mikhailovsky, he protests, "is both honouring and shaming me too much."[4]. It was in reply to this sort of dogmatic, rigidly deterministic interpretation of his ideas that Marx, late in life, used to say that he was not a Marxist.[5]

Admittedly, Marx was being a little disingenuous. As Engels wrote in a letter to Bloch, he and Marx were partly to blame for the misunderstanding, having felt the need to stress the economic side in opposition to those who denied it any role at all in history. Still, as Engels goes on to say, one has only to look at Marx's own historical writings, especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, to find that Marx is well aware that, as the first page of that work says, "men make their own history," though under circumstances handed down from the past. The same point is also to be found in quite theoretical, non-historical texts—the "Theses on Feuerbach" is the classic example.

This is not to say that Popper's attack on Marx misses its mark entirely. Marx sometimes, and Engels more frequently, wrote as if Marxism were a body of scientific knowledge that included general laws governing all historical development. Because this conception of Marxism is relatively easy to grasp, and attractive to a period impressed with the achievements of science in other areas, it has proved popular with later Marxists. Since most of the predictions that can be culled from the original general laws have turned out to be false, one would have to be extraordinarily biased to hold this view today. This is the only possible interpretation of Marxism that Popper could be said to have refuted.

It is not, in any case, a tenable interpretation. We have seen that late in life Marx and Engels rejected the idea of general laws determining all history. In his early years too, when Marx transformed what he thought sound in Hegel's philosophy into the ideas that we now associate with his name, he made no claims to scientific certainty. Moreover, Marx continued to think in the categories and terminology of Hegelian philosophy even while planning his most "scientific" works, as the recently translated rough draft of Capital shows.[6] In the light of these texts—which Popper admits he had not read when he wrote The Open Society—Marx appears less the Newton of the social sciences, more the philosopher struggling to apply to the real world the insights gained from his Hegelian education.

The fact remains that these insights do prove illuminating. A proper appreciation of Marxism would grant its philosophical orientation and would see it as suggestive of ways of looking at man and society that are scientifically fruitful, although it is not itself a full-blown science. We may disregard Marx's sometimes excessive claims to certainty and his mistaken predictions, and yet agree that he has pointed out a path along which the social sciences may progress. Before Marx it was common to treat man and his ideas as if their history and development were independent of the fulfilling of more mundane needs; since Marx the idea that man's ideological, political, social, and economic activities are bound up together and cannot be understood fully in isolation has become generally accepted. For this reason Marx could justly claim that his insights have made a science of society possible.

I cannot see why Popper should want to deny any of this. It fits well with his view of the role metaphysics can play in science, as a source of hypotheses for the scientist to test; and it fits too with his own admission that his treatment of Plato and Hegel in The Open Society was influenced by Marx, and that a return to pre-Marxian social science is inconceivable. To say that, today, no rational man can fail to be a Marxist would be an exaggeration—but no worse an exaggeration than Magee's remark that after reading Popper no rational man can remain a Marxist.

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