Marx at the Millennium by Cyril Smith

4 Science and Humanity

Natural science will lose its abstractly material – or rather, its idealistic – tendency, and will become the basis of human science, as it has already become – albeit in an estranged form – the basis of actual human life. … Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science. [Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 303-4.]

Science Looking at People

Theory and Utopia

In this chapter I want to investigate the relationship between Marx’s conception of science and his notion of humanity. I have argued that Marx was concerned not just with explaining the world, but with questions like these: What does it mean to be human? Why do we live in ways that deny our humanity? What must we do if we are to live humanly? After the experience of this terrible century, any attempt to get grips with such issues is obliged to give an account of itself, explaining why it is the right way to go about the task. Neither natural nor ‘social’ science attempts this self-validation, but this was precisely what Marx wanted his science to do.

We ‘Marxists’ were keen on distinguishing ‘scientific socialism’ from utopian variety. But we generally assumed that when Marx used the word ‘science’ he meant something like the approach of a modern natural scientist. This guaranteed, we believed, that the ‘complete, integral world outlook’ we called ‘Marxism’ was objective truth. All we had to do was to bring this truth into the minds of our fellow citizens.

Our opponents often asked us, how did we know this truth? If ‘Marxism’ was indeed a theory of history which allowed us to refer to a future situation, how could it be checked? Of course, since our interrogators were upholders of the existing social order, we could happily brush their questions aside. However, unfortunately they were not questions we ever asked ourselves.

I now believe these are key questions. Marx saw that humanity was trapped inside an inhuman shell. But wasn’t he inside the shell, like everybody else? So how could he know about it? How could such knowledge be systematically developed, so that it could become a weapon in the hands of those social forces which were struggling to break through this shell? Insofar as we paid any attention to such questions at all, we pushed them out of the way with some arm-waving talk about ‘dialectics’ and a few references to ‘Marx’s method’. But what was this method, and why, as we used to say, was it ‘correct’?

When Marx began work in the 1840s, there were already many theories of socialism and communism around. In his opinion, they had passed their sell-by date.

Just as the economists are the scientific representatives of the bourgeois class, so the socialists and the Communists are the theoreticians of the proletarian class. So long as the proletariat is not yet sufficiently developed to constitute itself as a class, and consequently so long as the very struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie has not yet assumed a political character, and the productive forces are not yet sufficiently developed in the bosom of the bourgeoisie itself to enable us to catch a glimpse of the material conditions necessary for the emancipation of the proletariat and for the formation of a new society, these theoreticians are merely the utopians who, to meet the wants of the oppressed classes, improvise systems and go in search of a regenerating science. But, in the measure that history moves forward, and with it the struggle of the proletariat assumes clearer outlines, they no longer need to seek science in their minds; they have only to take note of what is happening before their eyes and to become its mouthpiece. So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society. From the moment they see this side, science, which is produced by the historical movement and associating itself consciously with it, has ceased to be doctrinaire and has become revolutionary. [The Poverty of Philosophy; Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 177-178.]

Marx separated himself from utopianism, which produces a pre-set agenda for human development. In doing so, he recommended a particular kind of science, one that was ‘produced by the historical movement’ and knew that it was. Only such a science can find in poverty and suffering its ‘subversive side’. Its task was not to come up with a plan for a new, human, way to live and then try to get non-scientists to implement it. Rather, Marx’s science seeks to remove the obstacles to a humanity which already exists. It attempts this by tracing the way that our inhuman forms of life have us in their power. But how was such a science itself able to escape from this power?

Let us look more closely at this word ‘theory’. I know that Marx occasionally used the word in a general way to mean ‘ideas’ or ‘concepts’. But I want to reserve it to mean something specific, to be contrasted with what Marx meant by ‘science’. Then, I believe, I can show that, in the sense in which there are theories in physics or biology, Marx did not have a theory.

Theoretical science claims to have knowledge of some bit of the world, to be able to tell you what this bit is, how it functions and what it is going do next. If these claims are true, they leave no room for the selected object to choose for itself what it wants to do or to be, or to determine for itself how it relates to the rest of the universe. Thus a theory which has humanity for its subject-matter would be, from the start, denying its humanness, locking it into an inhuman prison and throwing away the key. Marx’s science is the direct opposite of this notion, a critique of this kind of theory. It aims to gain systematic knowledge of the world, but knowledge which is ‘in its very essence critical and revolutionary’. [Capital, Vol. 1, p. 103.]

How to Build Yourself a Theory

In order to build yourself a theory you first need a set of definitions. You must know, before you can begin, exactly what object your theory is about. It has to be about something, to be a theory of something. It is necessary to fence off this ‘something’, draw its boundaries, make sure that it will not break out and wander all over the place.

To build a theory you also need some categories. These list the kinds of things you are allowed to say about the ‘something’ defined: how big it is, what it weighs, what it tastes like, and so on. Another requirement is a method. This is a pattern of procedure, a kind of all-purpose instruction manual, available for use with any kind of definitions and any set of categories which might come its way. Now you are ready to begin.

This is how natural scientists have proceeded for some time and everybody knows what a great success they have had. But even they, with a ‘something’ like, say, a variety of pig or a star or an atom, sometimes feel themselves in trouble at this point. First of all, whatever your ‘something’ may be, it has connections with other things, even with everything else in the world. Even worse, the damn thing won’t stand still, and it keeps on changing into other kinds of objects which won’t fit the shape of your carefully drawn boundary. You must tie it down and cut lumps off it to make it fit, and it might not like this treatment.

Now, stand by for an important warning: when you are delimiting your ‘something’ in this way, putting a secure fence around it, you yourself must stay outside the fence. On no account allow yourself to be caught inside. Otherwise you will never move on to the next stage, actually describing the ‘something’ you are trying to capture, and your categories will never be taken out of their box.

Now you have new problems to worry about: having carefully separated yourself from your object, how can you get to know about it? And how can you be sure that your definitions and categories are the right ones? How do you know your carefully chosen method is correct? Where did you get it from? In order to check, you will find that you really need the very theory you set out to build.

Suppose that, when you have worked away on your defined terms, employing your toolbox of categories, according to your method, you do end up with a theory. Alas, instead of being about the world or even about a part of it, it turns out to refer only to your own definitions, or, as they say in the trade, it is just a ‘model’.

Getting to Know Nature

I want to contrast Marx’s idea of his science with what natural scientists think they are doing. Of course, I am not trying to criticise the approach of physicists to physical objects, or that of biologists to living beings. My concern is only with the way they think about themselves and the rest of us.

The job of the natural sciences is to systematise and expand the store of knowledge of the natural world which the human race has accumulated. In the twentieth century, technological application of this knowledge transformed every aspect of human life with breathtaking speed. Everybody knows this. But it is remarkable that only a tiny proportion of the inhabitants of the globe have more than a vague notion of what these discoveries are about. Even among this small group, few understand anything outside their own limited field of specialisation.

And what does ‘understand’ mean here? Most scientists just get on with their job, totally uninterested in the general meaning of their results or of the methods they used to get them. Increasingly, scientific and technical work means using tried and tested routines to answer given, partial, short-term questions.

Only rarely do those engaged in such work have the time or the inclination to think about it. Why are these particular questions being asked, rather than some others? Why have they been formulated in that particular way? What makes you think that the answers will have any value? Everybody is too busy to consider such issues, which will worry your superiors and will certainly not help anyone to get a research grant or a more lucrative appointment! Fearfully, the rest of us are obliged to leave the whole business to the experts.

The idea that scientists could take over the running of the world and organise us all on rational and hygienic lines used to be more common than it is these days. But an image of men with domed heads, gleaming white lab-coats and noble expressions still haunts us. More common nowadays is the image of the mad scientist, plotting to destroy everything.

But although most people are very vague about what scientists actually do, many are convinced that the natural sciences provide the model for all objective knowledge. The objectivity of science is supposed to result from its ability to ignore everything except the particular object under study. To get hold of systematic knowledge, enquirers must rigidly exclude themselves from the picture, along with their wishes, feelings or personalities. So studying a field objectively, in this use of the word, means assuming that the object’s properties are quite independent of anything human and that human life is somewhere off-stage.

Of course, nobody really believes this assumption is true. Both the form and the content of each question the scientist is trying to answer has arisen out of human desires, needs, activities, history. A successful solution is one which will enable people to act upon the world in ways which are expected to change it, and at the same time transform the people involved in this task. If an object had nothing to do with us, why would we study it?

As is well known, natural science has to face some difficult questions about the consequences of applying its discoveries: the more successful they are, the more they threaten to destroy us all! Such questions are usually answered by politely referring the questioner elsewhere. They are not scientific, we are told – try Philosophy or Theology perhaps. After all, scientists add with charming modesty, we are merely scientists. We would not presume to answer problems outside our own special field.

This leads to yet another difficulty. Scientific knowledge is not just a collection of bits and pieces of information, but a systematic organisation of what is known. And yet each field of work is cut off from the totality of knowledge. This is because you are not supposed to talk about what really unites them: the development of humanity as a whole.

Each branch of knowledge operates within a given framework, a set of basic rules which has grown up over the history of the science. By definition, this framework is itself not part of the field of study. So we are rigidly limited to questions which leave these assumptions intact. The powerful attraction of this ‘scientific method’ is precisely its ban on self-investigation. It adheres firmly to the unanswerable logic attributed to the great Benjamin Jowett.

There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am Master of this College:
What I don’t know, isn’t knowledge.

This way of fitting each field into its own framework, isolated both from the rest of reality and from the rest of science, is particularly suited to the application of the methods of mathematics. This has led to the notion that the most scientific of sciences are those which deal with quantity, and that real knowledge is about purely quantitative relationships, the hallmark of the really real. Those who think like this feel a bit uncomfortable when they bear that mathematicians are not at all sure about the foundations of mathematics itself.

Each scientific discipline – astrophysics or geology, for example – is widely supposed to provide us with an account of star-formation or continental drift, or whatever, as it actually exists. In truth, the stories they have to tell have been shaped by the presuppositions on which they are founded. Thus even the notions of space and time which they take for granted are rooted in the particular way we move about in the world, and so the particular way we live, at any particular time.

Every fundamental advance in scientific knowledge – what Kuhn called a ‘paradigm-shift’ – opens up these issues afresh, as if for the first time. After the shift has been completed, however, and the new way of looking at problems is accepted as the only objective one, such questions again cease to be a talking-point in respectable scientific company.

Some accounts of scientific work do not claim that it gets to grips directly with its objects. Instead, it builds a ‘model’ of that bit of the world it has chosen to investigate. Some elements of the model are named ‘parameters’. Others are ‘variables’, identified with aspects of the world, generally things which can be measured or related to measurements. You can adjust the parameters until the relationships between the variables match up with analogous relationships in the world. Experimentation then means checking whether the model ‘fits’ properly. [My friend Towfik Shomar tells me that my idea of what philosophers of science believe is out of date. See his forthcoming PhD thesis for an account of what he calls ‘phenomenological theory’.]

This method is very powerful. But what if the model, even one which shows close approximation to the world, misses aspects which are really vital? How could you detect this discrepancy? Only too often, this problem is avoided by the simple expedient of concentrating on the model and forgetting all about the world. Especially when the model is actually a set of mathematical equations, or a computer program which embodies them, the assumptions on which the whole thing is based become firmly fixed prejudices and consequently ignored. We do not even have a language in which they might be questioned.

All this is bad enough in the field of natural science, when the picture which has been distorted by this pretended ‘objectivity’ is one of stars, atoms or frogs. When the subject under investigation is humanity itself, the product of this way of thinking can be quite ridiculous. For the investigator is then simultaneously the investigated, and to divorce yourself from the object under investigation means divorcing yourself from yourself.

This is how it often works: the scientist is obliged to start with a particular ideological view of humans and this determines what questions he asks. Indeed, since he or she happens to be human, living at a particular time in a particular culture, how could it be otherwise? Later, they rediscover in nature the story about humanity with which their science began. An unconsidered prejudice about what humans are had been carefully buried in their scientific work, and – surprise! surprise! – they dig it up again. Their original conception, often embodying the crudest superstitions, is reproduced in their conclusion, but now hallowed by the sacred name of ‘science’.

The following are two examples of recent popular scientific approaches to the question: ‘what are humans?’

Thinking Machines?

Several powerful developments in science and technology during the past half-century have shaken up the way that humans think of themselves. The release of atomic energy, the development of molecular biology and the beginning of extraterrestrial travel are a few examples of scientific work which have suggested new standpoints from which our species can look at itself and at the planet on which it lives.

However, it is the all-pervasive electronic computer which has opened up some of the most startling questions. In the 1940s when they first appeared, these machines were commonly known as ‘electronic brains’. Ever since then, the idea has been abroad that someone has manufactured machines which can think. On the one hand, the tasks given to computing machines were expected to encroach on many activities previously regarded as specifically those of humans. On the other, the machine was going to give us an insight into how our brains work.

Back in the 1930s, the papers of Alan Turing [Turing’s papers are reprinted in The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, ed. Margaret A. Boden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).] on ‘computable numbers’ had theorised the possibility of mechanising intellectual operations. By 1950, when his even more famous paper appeared, computers actually existed. Now, he could pose the problem of whether they might be programmed to imitate a human so accurately that it would be impossible to tell them apart. (Turing wagered this would be technically feasible before the year 2000).

The academic discipline called Artificial Intelligence (AI) soon got under way. [For some of the background to the AI discussions, see: The Artificial Intelligence Debate: False Starts, Real Foundations, ed. Stephen R. Graubard, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); J. David Bolter, Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984); Boden, Artificial Intelligence; and The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, Machines, eds. James J. Sheehan and Morton Sonsa, (Berkeley: Berkeley University Press, 1991).] By the 1950s, research-workers were creating computer programmes which could, for example, recognise simple patterns, solve puzzles and play draughts and chess. In 1956, Newell and Simon announced:

There are now in the world machines that think, that learn and that create. Moreover, their ability to do these things is going to increase rapidly until – in a visible future – the range of problems they can handle will be coextensive with the range to which the human mind has been applied. … Intuition, insight and learning are no longer the exclusive possession of humans; any large high-speed computer can be programmed to exhibit them also. [A. Newell and H. Simon, ‘Heuristic Problem Solving: The Next Advance in Operations Research’, Operations Research 6, Jan. – Feb. 1958.]

Such euphoria was understandable. It had become clear that computers were not just machines for ‘number-crunching’, but systems for operating on symbols. Surely, as soon as the engineers had constructed machines of sufficient size and speed, any mental task would be programmable. The word ‘information’, a technical term used by telecommunications people, passed into everyday language. Computers were ‘information processors’, symbol manipulators. Were human brains anything else?

Struck by this analogy, schools of ‘cognitive science’ sprang up, combining psychology, neurophysiology and computer science. They have been encouraged by the development of so-called ‘neural nets’. Many independent computational devices are connected together, and the strengths of the connections are altered in accordance with what the system does. Instead of setting out with a program of instructions, like the computers we all know, the ‘connectionist’ machine ‘learns’ from its own ‘experience’.

The idea for this style of computer architecture comes directly from neuro-science. The hope of modelling a machine on the possible structure of the brain thus complemented the attempt to understand the brain as a kind of machine. I have no wish to underestimate the achievements of workers in this field, but it must be said that they have only changed the way that the problem posed by ‘old-fashioned Al’ is expressed. [P.N. Johnson-Laird, The Computer and the Mind (Fontana, 1988), is the best statement of the case for regarding the mind as a machine. G.M. Edelman’s Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), contains a powerful rejection of this case. See also J.-P. Changeux, Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).]

Buoyed up by unbounded optimism and massive research grants from military and industrial sources (in the US, almost entirely military), propagandists for AI kept making increasingly grandiose claims about what machines would do ‘in the next decade’. Forty years on, some of them are still at it.

Violent criticism of these views appeared immediately, of course. One form that they often took was pretty futile. Where the AI supporters predicted wonders, their opponents drew a line which was alleged to separate things which machines could achieve from things which only humans could do. The ever-accelerating advance of the computer industry answered some of these challenges quite soon. Robots, equipped with the means to ‘see’ and ‘hear’, are now quite common in factories. So are machines which respond to humanly spoken words with their own version of language.

But as the machines grew more and more powerful and programming became increasingly sophisticated, doubts began to appear within the AI community itself. [See for example Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), and Terry Winograd, ‘Thinking Machines: Can There Be? Are We?’, in Sheehan and Sosna (eds.), Boundaries of Humanity.] What computers were now doing was amazing, but was it thought? Philosophers battled with Al practitioners over questions of intentionality, intelligence and emotion and the fight still goes on.

However, the opponents of the notion of machine intelligence usually start from a very similar outlook to that of their antagonists. For example, John Searle, well known for his philosophical attacks on the idea of machine intelligence, is sure that: ‘Mental phenomena, all mental phenomena, whether conscious or unconscious, visual or auditory, pains, tickles, itches, thoughts, indeed, all of our mental life, are caused by processes going on in the brain.’ [John Searle, Minds, Brains and Science: 1984 Reith Lectures (London: BBC Books, 1984), p. 18. However, see John Searle, Minds, Brains and Programs, in Boden, Artificial Intelligence, p. 86: ‘Could a machine think?’ My own view is that only a machine could think, and indeed only very special kinds of Machines, namely brains and machines that had the same causal powers as brains …AI has had little to tell us about thinking, since it … is about programs, and programs are not machines.] This is just what the AI people all believe too, and with a similar dogmatic certainty. Like them, Searle believes that thinking is an individual, private activity, as if it could be separated from language and culture. So he is quite happy with the idea that brains are machines. He only disagrees with the AI belief that computers are the same kind of machine. [Ibid.]

In the course of one of his writings on AI, Searle lets slip an interesting remark. He imagines an opponent asking him:

‘Well, if programs are in no way constitutive of mental processes, why have so many people believed the converse? That at least needs some explanation.’ I don’t really know the answer to that one. [Minds, Brains, and Programs, p. 84.]

It seems to me that this is the question which really matters. Why does Searle turn away from the confusion in people’s minds about whether they are themselves automata? Is it not far more important than logical riddles about whether, and in what sense, these devices can be said to ‘understand’ what they are doing? AI itself is an expression of people’s inability to control their own lives. The problem is to understand this pathological symptom of a world in which people are, indeed, made to think of themselves as purely mechanical.

The Sociobiology Affair

In 1971, E.O. Wilson’s The Insect Societies was a best-seller among his fellow entomologists. However, when the same author published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis four years later, the stir it caused went far beyond this circle of insect buffs and, indeed, beyond the world of science. For Wilson claimed to extend his explanation of the evolution of social behaviour from insects to the species homo sapiens. Its first chapter, ‘The Morality of the Gene’, declared that ‘sociology and other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modem Synthesis’. [E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).] And the final chapter was devoted exclusively to explaining how human social behaviour is ‘genetically determined’, just like that of ants and termites. Wilson lends his scientific prestige to statements like these: ‘Among general social traits are aggressive dominance systems with males dominant over females’ [Ibid., p. 552.] and ‘Man would rather believe than know.’ [Ibid., p. 561.]

The 600-page book was given a coffee-table format and considerable media hype. Reviews in scholarly journals and highbrow magazines were supplemented by features and interviews with Wilson in rather more mainstream, populist publications. (House and Garden: ‘Getting Back to Nature -Our Hope for the Future’; Readers Digest ‘Why We Do What We Do’; People Magazine: ‘A New Science with New Ideas on Why We Sometimes Behave Like Cavemen’.)

In 1978, Wilson produced yet another book, On Human Nature, which made even bigger claims:

The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature. [E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 3.]

Innate censors and motivators exist in the brain that deeply and unconsciously affect our ethical premises; from these roots, morality evolved as an instinct. If that perception is correct, science may soon be in a position to investigate the very origin and meaning of human values, from which all ethical pronouncements and much of political practice flow. ... Human emotional responses and the more general ethics based upon them have been programmed to a substantial degree by natural selection over thousands of generations. [Ibid., pp. 5-6.]

Human aggression, Wilson is quite sure, is ‘innate’, while some of the most baffling religious practices in history might have an ancestry passing in a straight line back to the ancient carnivorous habits of humankind. [Ibid., p. 65.]

The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an irradicable part of human nature. [Ibid., p. 169.]

The sociobiological story is very simple, as its opponents have clearly explained. Being human is something inherited biologically. The way humans behave is determined by the genetic material with which they are born. The ways that we act, think and feel are ‘programmed’ in our genes. Behavioural patterns are the outcome of adaptation by natural selection. Choose pretty well any activity in which people engage, from sex to self-sacrifice, and it is child’s play for a sociobiologist to find an ingenious ‘scientific’ explanation of how we got just this particular habit by selection of the appropriate genes. (Critical biologists like to refer derisively to such accounts as ‘Just So Stories’.)

It’s a pretty obvious trick. Anything humans are observed to do, any nasty habits they display, can be ascribed to a ‘genetic predisposition’. If we are feeling a bit optimistic, or if we find something we don’t want to fix in that way, we don’t have to, since it can also be said to be caused by ‘culture’. You just can’t lose!

When Richard Dawkins, an expert in animal behaviour, published his celebrated The Selfish Gene in 1976, he went even further than Wilson: ‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. [R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), Preface to the new edition.]

Over the past decade or so sociobiology has grown into a major academic industry. Some of the more absurd statements of over-enthusiastic practitioners have been toned down, but by no means all. Sometimes its operatives speak of sociobiology itself as ‘a science’, while on other occasions they more modestly call it ‘a scientific theory’.

‘Behaviour’ is inseparable from thought and feeling, so the development of evolutionary psychology might have been predicted. On the other hand, the application of sociobiology to economics is perhaps more surprising. [The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, eds. J.H. Barkow, L. Comides and John Tooby (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1989).] In 1975, the readers of Business Week, were delighted to learn, under the headline ‘The Genetic Defence of the Free Market’, that ‘competitive self-interest, the bioeconomists say, has its origins in the human gene pool’.

The manner in which Wilson and his friends invoke ‘science’ is interesting. The very word is used as if it must necessarily silence all dissent, very like the use of biblical quotations in former times. But we should not be intimidated: all their claims ought be examined with care. For example, just what are these ‘genes’ which they tell us are the determining subject in all our lives? They are supposed to pull the strings which make us all jump, but they are never defined except in the vaguest terms. Reading the arrogant statements of the sociobiologists, it is sometimes difficult to remember that they are actually unable to point to a particular bit of genetic material which can be said to cause a single piece of animal or plant behaviour – let alone human behaviour.

The way that some scientists now think of human beings is strikingly illustrated by the mountains of dollars being lavished on the Human Genome Project, the plan to ‘map’ human DNA. In order to bolster their demands for this cash – the rest of biological research in the US is under severe threat, as the Project hoovers up all the available funds – its supporters throw around unlimited claims for what they can achieve.

Here, for instance, is Walter Gilbert, Harvard Professor of Molecular Biology:

Three billion bases of sequence can be put on a single compact disk, and one will be able to pull a CD out of one’s pocket and say, ‘Here is a human being; it’s me!’ ... To recognise that we are determined, in a certain sense, by a finite collection of information that is knowable will change our view of ourselves. [The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project, eds. D.J. Kevles and L. Hood, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 96. For a discussion, see R.C. Lewontin’s The Doctrine of DNA. Biology as Ideology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993).]

Sociobiologists talk about the modern version of the theory of evolution as if it were identical with biological science and they can take its approach for granted when ‘applying’ it to homo sapiens. In fact, the whole approach is challenged by some of the leading figures in contemporary biology. [For an authoritative opposition to the ‘orthodox’ view, see Brian Goodwin’s How the Leopard Changed its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994).]

Charles Darwin, from whom all modem biologists claim (intellectual) descent, had no concept of genetics, of course. The characteristics of an organism were passed down to its offspring, with some changes, but Darwin did not claim to know any special mechanism for this process. Although he had been sent a copy of Mendel’s work on inheritance, he never read it. Genetics became linked with evolution only after considerable controversy. Julian Huxley’s book, Evolution: The Modem Synthesis, combining Darwin’s natural selection with Mendel’s genetics, came out only in 1942. (Wilson’s 1975 book was named in honour of Huxley’s.)

When, in 1953, Crick and Watson announced their discovery of the ‘genetic code’ in the structure of DNA, Mendel’s gene was thenceforward considered as a bit of DNA, which somehow ‘controlled’ the development of the organism, whether plant, ant, elephant or human. Weissmann’s doctrine of the ‘continuity of the germ-plasm’ was translated into Crick’s ‘Central Dogma’: information flows from DNA, not into it.

What happened to the theory of evolution seems to have been something like this. In the last century, biologists sought in Darwin’s idea of natural selection a way of imitating the success of the rival science, physics. The secret, they came to believe, was to reduce the working of the complexities with which they were faced to the actions of simpler entities.

They could not begin with the world as a whole (with all its interconnections) as the unity whose development was to be understood. Instead, they wanted to start with the simplest possible biological component, and then build up from there. A single instance of the chosen unit is contrasted with everything else, called its ‘environment’. Natural selection is then supposed to be about the adaptation of the organism to its environment. But, however difficult it makes our task, we cannot brush aside the fact that this ‘environment’ itself contains other evolving, active units. Each of these is itself an organic assembly of evolving sub-units.

So even before the evolution of humankind comes into the story, the ground on which sociobiology stands is shaky. Once humanity enters into the picture, the problems of evolutionary theory are multiplied a thousandfold. Ever since Darwin, biology has always had as its target the explanation of the origin and function of human society, the most intricate of totalities. But biology is itself a part of human society. Darwin tells us that the idea of natural selection began to form in his mind after his reading of Malthus’s Essay on Population.

Of course, the process of selective inheritance must play an important part in the development of species of organism, and that must include humans. But that does not mean that evolution is a matter of selective inheritance alone, separate from the forms of activity of the individual organism, the rest of its species and the ecological system in which they live.

Sociobiology evoked violent opposition among prominent US radical biologists and philosophers. [See The Sociobiology Debate: Readings on the Ethical and Scientific Issues Concerning Sociobiology, ed. Arthur J. Caplan, with a foreword by Edward O. Wilson (New York: Harper, 1978).] Many of them charged Wilson and his co-thinkers with giving support to racism and sexism. Some of these critics considered themselves ‘Marxists’ and ‘dialectical materialists’, and accused sociobiology of being part of the ideological defence of inequality. [Steven Rose, R.C. Lewontin and Leon J. Kamin, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).]

But, as in the case of AI – the two are often closely associated – I do not think these critics got to the heart of the matter. Beyond generalities about the connection of Wilson’s ideas to ‘the maintenance of the existing social order’, they did not seem to ask themselves why this particular argument arose just when it did. It must go deeper than that. The way we look at ourselves must have something to do with the way people treat each other, including the way they treat themselves. The attempt to explain human life in purely biological terms is founded on a view of the human species as a whole which arises from their inhuman way of life.

The Sociobiology Affair

Medical science is among the oldest branches of knowledge. Its successes in modern times are justly celebrated. But, as is well known, its outlook assumes that the human body is a collection of interrelated parts. Each specialisation treats a different bit of what is regarded as a very complex machine. No-one is concerned with the human as a whole. Even the manner of the typical medical practitioner expresses this attitude, which is bound up with the attempt to separate the expert from the ‘patient’, who, however, just happens to be a fellow human.

These difficulties of natural science show themselves again in the confusions of ‘green’ politics. The development of ecology as a scientific study tried to look at entire systems of plant and animal life and the balance between them. How, then, is the species homo sapiens to be seen in such a context? ‘Greens’ often appear to want to down-grade the human with respect to the rest of the natural world. Some of them talk as though we had no business to be here at all.

But it is in the alleged ‘social sciences’ that the approach I am criticising shows its problematic character most blatantly. Economics, sociology, anthropology and so on display what the palaeontologist Stephen J. Gould calls ‘physics envy’: the desire of those trying to study society ‘scientifically’ to emulate their natural-scientific colleagues. They struggle for quantification and mathematization. They yearn for rigorous definitions and axioms. They build ‘models’ of humanity and strain every muscle in the attempt to validate them statistically. And in the background of such theoretical work lurks the shadow of its application to ‘social engineering’.

Econometrics is a good example of such an approach. It ignores everything about economic life, except the levels at given times of a finite number of variable quantities – GNP, money-supply, unemployment, price levels and so on. Then it sets up an algebraic system of relationships and, using economic data, tries to make statistical estimates of the ‘parameters’ of the chosen model. The key feature of such econometric models is the total absence of anything resembling a human being, anything which feels, suffers, enjoys or thinks, or indeed anything other than pure quantity.

The more rigorous the methods of a ‘social science’, the less it seems to have to do with humanity, and the more easily what is essentially human escapes capture. Each social science uses a different model of humanity, and none of them takes any notice of the ones employed by the rest. None of them sees the whole picture. As we have seen, a model must begin by defining those aspects of its subject-matter which it is trying to relate. Each definition begs all other questions I want to ask, especially about how the world might be made to differ fundamentally from its present state.

There are some trends in recent scientific development which make similar objections to these. Particularly in the last twenty years, several fields have opened up which challenge the view of the world as a collection of bits and pieces, and quite deliberately study structure, complexity, wholeness. Many thinkers have emphasised the differences between the study of nature and that of humanity. This work is indeed of great importance and underlines some of the deficiencies I have been talking about. However, the question it never seems to examine is why? Why does ‘orthodoxy’ take the positions criticised?

As I said earlier, if someone comes up with what they claim is an explanation of human life, they really ought to show how their explanation explains itself. Where in this picture of the world can you find their own thoughts and feelings which drove them to ask these questions and struggle to find these particular answers? Science is itself a human activity, albeit one in which only a tiny minority of people engage. But if its notion of the human is false, there is no way it can understand itself.

The methods I have been discussing explicitly renounce the chance to look at themselves. The picture of humanity drawn by such methods has necessarily to be a view from the outside. That is why it depicts a collection of individual beings, separated from each other, and each fragmented into many uncoordinated pieces. Their lives conform to fixed, predefined modes of being, which, individually and collectively, they are powerless to change.

But isn’t there something strangely familiar about this picture? Indeed there is. It is just like the inhuman way we humans actually live. And this is the heart of our difficulty. Forms of knowledge are engendered by the very way that we live, which prevent us from grasping the truth about ourselves and our way of life.

The problems we face at the end of the millennium are bound up with our inability to understand ourselves and the relations between us. Natural science studies all kinds of objects, but it cannot see the one nearest home – ourselves. It seeks the truth only by placing a barrier between itself and the object. Why does science behave like this? Do the causes lie inside science itself, or outside, in the very world it cannot see? What is there about the way that we live which induces this strange myopia about the relation between science and humanity?

Surely, it is significant that humans have the very possibility of asking the question, what is it to be human? Ants or pigs or dandelions neither know nor care about who they are, so why should we? And this problem raises another: if we are clever enough to pose such riddles – and some people have been doing so for thousands of years – why have we been so slow at finding answers? So any answer to the question, ‘what is it to be human?’, must deal some others: How is it that we, unlike any other kind of object, can ask such a question? How has the answer been hidden from us for so long, and why do most people go right through their lives without asking it? How must we think and how must we act to bring an answer to light?

And that brings us back to Marx.

Marx and Method

Marx worked to produce a science of liberation, the implications of which I am trying to establish. ‘Marxism’, making a great noise about ‘the Marxist method’, always separated the activity called science from the process through which humanity emancipated itself. If it got round to discussing communist society at all, it was always prefaced by remarks about how Marx avoided the futility of utopianism. The scientific method attributed to Marx was then only a variant of the method of bourgeois science. The difference was supposed to be confined to the ‘application’ of Marx’s results to political struggle.

The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach is famous (and is inscribed on Marx’s tomb): ‘Philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world in different ways: the point, however, is to change it.’

This has often been assumed by the ‘Marxist’ tradition to mean: theorise a bit, and then get on with the real job of ‘making a revolution’. This misses the whole point. Marx is not talking about either ‘interpreting’ or ‘changing the world’ in some general sense. He is concerned with the specific problem of how to liberate humanity from its inhuman way of life. He focussed on the particular question: what is it to be human? It could not be just a matter of ‘interpretation’, important as that might be. It could only be tackled in terms of a task: what must we do to live humanly?

Throughout history, great thinkers, whose works remain vital for our own time, have striven to illuminate what they saw as the most important issues of human life. Indeed, this was the best that they could do, given the social conditions under which they worked. (Marx’s admiration for Aristotle, and his attitude to the limitation of Aristotle’s understanding by the institution of slavery, is a good example. [Capital, Vol. 1, p. 151-2.]) But the conditions of modem society make it both possible and necessary to tackle questions which go beyond the bounds of philosophical thinking. That is the root opposition between Marx’s science and all forms of utopia.

When Marx analysed the inhuman forms assumed by human life, he did not follow the course of established, ‘normal’ science. He did not begin by defining his object, then, keeping himself totally separated from his well-defined object, try to express the logical consequences of this definition. On the contrary, including himself in the picture, he showed that humanity was potentially free to define itself.

He had to trace the path through which humanity would liberate itself from the forms which enclosed it and falsified its self-image. The problem was to grasp how humanity can achieve consciousness of itself. In Volume 3 of Capital is an often-quoted statement: ‘[A]ll science would be superfluous if the form of appearance of things directly coincided with their essence.’ [Capital, Vol. 3, p. 956.] I used to be delighted with this boost for theoretical thinking. But this led me to ignore other questions which hovered in the background. Why are the appearance and essence of social forms separated? Why is science required to bridge the gap? Where did it plant its feet when it did this job? How can its intellectual activity alter anything in practice?

Marx not only wants to know what gives science the power to penetrate surface appearance. He is even more interested in the question: why is it such hard work? Even Hegel, Adam Smith and Ricardo were incapable of asking such questions. To pose such problems, we must imagine another sort of world, where the relations between human beings are transparent to them, because these relations are consciously made by them.

I am not talking about the way that humans, rational beings, go about their rational lives. I am discussing life under the monstrous power of capital. What reigns in this world, masquerading as Reason, persuading us that it is built into the very fabric of realty, is actually inhumanity, madness. Here, nothing appears as it really is.

Is this God’s will? Both Hegel and Adam Smith knew that it is not. It is all our doing. Like the man fatally hooked on heroin, we are doing it – and it’s killing us. But now I am not talking philosophy! Just as the addict cannot reason his way out his predicament, these problems cannot be answered in thought alone, but only in conscious, purposive activity, in life, in ‘revolutionising practice’, activity which can render it human.

Karl Marx and Some Theories

Theory and Political Economy

Marx’s problem was this: what must we do if we are to become self-conscious and self-creative, that is, truly human? I have tried to show that this problem cannot be answered in a ‘theory’, because that would imply assuming a defined limit for the answer sought. While ‘Marxism’ certainly embodied several theories, Karl Marx was not in that business at all.

Let us look yet again at Marx’s chief work, Capital. Its title-page tells us that is a Critique of Political Economy, and that its first volume is about The Production-Process of Capital, that is, how the inhuman relation, capital, produces and reproduces itself. But we should not be misled by those mistranslations of the work into English – including the one that Engels authorised, I’m afraid – which declare themselves to be about the ‘Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production’. That is not what Marx wrote. Engels mistitled the second and third volumes, too.

Marx (who, we must not forget, was a communist), was investigating how the set of exploitative, oppressive relations which dominated the working class, and consequently the whole of human life, came to seem perfectly ‘natural’, an expression of ‘human nature’. Forms of thought which enshrined this misconception played an essential part in the way that society operated: ‘How could people live without money, wages, employers?’, ‘If l did not have a slave-owner, who would feed me?’ Such questions seem to be purely rhetorical.

Capital was Marx’s name for the core of the social relations which prevail in modern society. It was a vast, impersonal power, which forced us all continually to produce and reproduce it. When this was clearly understood, the struggle of the working class against the power of capital could be seen for what it really was: the struggle for a human life, by people treated inhumanly, used as if they were things or machines.

Now, was this a ‘theory’? I believe it was nothing of the kind. As we have seen, the essential nature of a theory is that it stops us from criticising the ‘something’ we are trying to theorise. Once we have put our object inside its fence, drawn up our category-list and switched on our method, we are stuck with them. To say that the object ought to be different, or ought not to be at all, is not allowed by the rules of the theory-game. Anyone expressing sentiments like these will instantly get a red card and will be sent off for being untheoretical or ethical. Why? Because these rules are themselves a reflection of the set-up we are trying to theorise.

But that was the whole point of Marx’s revolutionary enterprise. I think that the method Marx uses is ethical in character. I mean that it embodies his conception of what human beings are, bow they could live humanly and how they actually live inhumanly in bourgeois society. He criticises the method of political economy because he knows that the categories it uses arise from the inhuman nature of society itself. He possesses a criterion with which to condemn the existing set up and builds it into his investigation.

In Capital he shows that the exchange of objects for money presents the relations between people in a ‘crazy (Verrückte) form’, adding:

The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this kind. They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production. [Capital, Vol. 1, p. 169.]

Thus the ‘better’ the theory, the more clearly it portrays capital as if it were logical, the more misleading it is, because the capitalist mode of production is itself a lie, a form of human life which denies humanity.

Marx’s enterprise was scientific, a search for systematic, universal knowledge. But what does he want to do with this knowledge? If he had been in the theory business, he would have been aiming at an ‘explanatory framework’, one which ‘explained’ the existing economic system better than any alternative interpretation. But that was not what he was trying to do at all.

Capital contains not one, but two sets of terms. One set is taken straight from the category-list of the scientific political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. These terms -for example, ‘value’, ‘profit’ and ‘wages’- which describe the way that capital operates, but mask its inhuman nature, are developed in a way which tears off this mask. By criticising them, Marx is opening the road for the ‘criticism-by-revolution’ of the world they theorise.

But there is also a second set of terms, invented specially by Marx. Terms like ‘abstract labour’, ‘surplus value’ and ‘rate of exploitation’ are used to reveal the real story, which the other categories serve to mystify: the imprisonment of human life within the inhuman shell of the bourgeois mode of production. To get hold of terms like this, Marx had to check and critically assess the entire range of theoretical equipment of the political economists.

When Marx derives a ratio between two quantities and calls it ‘the rate of exploitation’, he is deliberately not being ‘theoretical’. When he describes the devastating effect of the division of labour on the worker, the sufferings of women and children during the industrial revolution, struggles over the length of the working day, the fate of peasants cleared from the land on which they lived, or the revival of slavery in a capitalist form in the New World, he is quite clearly talking about the inhumanity of capital and of the economists who apologise for it.

Marx sees that the division of capital into two parts, fixed and circulating, arises from the way that capital appears to the capitalists and their theoretical spokesmen. But this, he shows, falsifies the nature of capital. Instead, Marx introduces the division between constant and variable capital. The first covers raw material, machinery, etc., while the second takes the form of the wages bill. This is how Marx spotlights the separation of the instruments of production from the producers by the capitalist form of private property, and the ability of capital to extract a surplus from the labour of the wage worker. Thus he brings out the way that human creativity is dehumanised in modem society.

The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere semblance, belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a mere form. which is alien to the content of the transaction itself, and merely mystifies it. The constant sale and purchase of labour-power is the form; the content is the constant appropriation by the capitalist, without equivalent, of a portion of the labour of others, which has already been objectified, and his repeated exchange of this labour for a greater quantity of the living labour of others. ... The separation of property from labour thus becomes the necessary consequence of a law that apparently originated in their identity. [Capital, Vol. 1, p. 729-30.]

The ‘Marxist’ notion that Marx had developed a new kind of political economy, a set of ‘economic doctrines’, including a ‘theory of value’, got it all wrong. Marx began with all the assumptions of the great classical political economists and showed how they concealed a reality which was their direct contrary. A ‘theory of value’, like that of Ricardo, as a theory, is obliged to maintain the story that the relations of bourgeois society are the expression of ‘human nature’, that the exchange of equivalents is necessary for human life and human freedom.

That was why Marx valued the work of these writers so highly. It was objective science, and that was why he spent so much effort on the long manuscript known as Theories of Surplus Value. This was devoted to the development of bourgeois economics, from ‘classical’, scientific political economy, to the later economists whom he described as ‘vulgar’, and for whom he had the most profound contempt. In other words, it was a careful study and criticism of other people’s theories.

Science, philosophy and utopia each has a dual relation to the estranged world. At their best, they express the need to answer questions about the opposition of existing society to what it might be. But methodologically they take this same opposition as fixed and immutable. In their different ways, each of them views the world through its own set of categories, which are accepted without comment. To the scientist, the categories of his or her own speciality are invisible.

Marx’s simultaneous critique of the categories of political economy, of utopian socialism and of Hegel does not aim to replace them with an improved set. He grasps them as expressions of the way that humanity is concealed within inhumanity. By tracing their logical interconnections, he finds the way to break their stranglehold on our consciousness and on our lives.

‘Obviously the Correct Scientific Method’

I have not often used the word ‘dialectic’ in this discussion. The story about ‘dialectical materialism’ is so widely accepted that it comes as a shock to discover that this word ‘dialectic’ comes up very seldom in Marx’s works. It does appear a few times in Grundrisse, but it is not used consistently. So, for thirty years, in public, Marx used it exclusively to mean Hegel’s dialectic.

Only in 1873, in the ‘Afterword’ to the second edition of Capital, does he ‘avow’ himself ‘a pupil of that mighty thinker’ and refer to ‘my dialectical method’. Just look at this reference:

My dialectical method is, in its foundation, not only different from the Hegelian, but its direct opposite. For Hegel, the thought-process, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea’, is the creator of the actual, and the actual is only the external appearance of the Idea. With me, the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing more than the real movement, overturned and translated in the human head. [Capital, Vol. 1, p. 102.]

(I quote this famous paragraph in a slightly altered translation. The substitution of ‘the real movement’ for ‘the material’ is justified by the French translation which Marx made at about the same time: ‘Materielle’ there appears as ‘le movement real’.)

Befuddled by the ‘dialectical materialist’ myth, generations of Marxists, including Marx’s mis-translators, have read this as a recommendation to disconnect Hegel’s excellent dialectical method from his unfortunate idealist theory of knowledge and then hitch it up to a healthy materialist outlook. In this way, the entire human meaning of Marx’s insight was buried, while at the same time we were cut off from a true understanding of Hegel’s achievement. (I won’t go into it here, but I contend, first, that it is misleading to call Hegel an idealist, and, second, that neither he nor Marx had a ‘theory of knowledge’. See the Appendix to this chapter.)

Marx’s work did not aim at setting up a scientific ‘model’ of the world, nor an explanation of ‘how it worked’, nor an ‘interpretation’ of it. His object was something rather different from pigs or God or atoms: humanity itself. With this as his object, he could not leave himself outside.

When Marx was examining the theories of the political economists, he was also concerned with the problem of the nature of science. Section 3 of his 1857 Introduction to Grundrisse, [Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 37.] the section entitled ‘The Method of Political Economy’, examined it in some detail. So let us spend some time looking at this widely discussed – and widely misunderstood – text.

Almost universally (I know of only one exception, the book by Hiroshi Uchida, [Hiroshi Uchida, Marx’s Grundrisse and Hegel’s Logic (London: Routledge, 1989).] although there may be others), it is taken to be a description of Marx’s own method, which somehow managed to be the same as both Ricardo’s and Hegel’s. The passage is usually presented as if it were a kind of advertisement, something like this:

A satisfied customer, Dr Marx, writes: ‘Just watch thought advance from the Simple to the mental concreate: this is definitely the way to discover the truth.’

This would be an odd way to introduce a book devoted to the critique of political economy, founded on the critique of Hegel’s dialectic. Before jumping to ‘Marxist’ conclusions, it is a good idea to look at what Marx actually wrote, which necessitates a careful check on English translation. [I am indebted to Ute Bublitz for the discussion of translations of Marx, here and throughout the book.]

Marx thought the political economists had two main ways of getting started with their theory construction. First of all, he refers to the seventeenth-century political economists – he has in mind, particularly, William Petty – and their habit of beginning with what seemed to be ‘the real and concrete’, for example, population, nation, state. ‘It seems to be right to begin with the real and concrete, the actual conditions.’ [Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 37.]

But does that mean he accepts this approach? Of course not. This is how the Introduction to Grundrisse proceeds:

However, under closer scrutiny, this shows itself to be false … a chaotic conception of the whole … through closer determination I would, gradually, come to simpler notions; from the imagined concrete to ever thinner abstractions, until I reached the simplest determination. …

The [political] economists of the 17th century … always end up with finding out, through analysis, some determining, abstract, general relations, like division of labour, money, value, etc.

Now he turns to heir eighteenth-century successors, thinking of Adam Smith especially, of course. They tried going the other way. Starting with the simple, and progressively getting more complex, they made a return journey, ‘until, finally, I reached [my starting-point], this time, however, not as a chaotic representation of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations’. Along this second path, ‘the abstract determinations lead to the reproduction of the concreate by way of thinking’. This may look more scientific, but it all depends on what you mean by science. Like other ‘Marxists’, I used to be quite sure that Marx approved of this second path and built himself a theory by means of it. Now I no longer believe this.

Marx’s next sentence, read with all the fixed prejudices of ‘Marxism’, has led to enormous confusion: ‘The latter is obviously the correct scientific method.’ At least, that is what it seems to say. Since these eight words provide the only foundation for the usual reading of this entire text, we had better examine the fine print: ‘Das Leztre ist offenbar die wissenschafilich richtige Methode.’ In fact, ‘offenbar’, as well as ‘obviously’, means ‘evidently’, ‘manifestly’ or even ‘seemingly’. So, Marx is saying this way also seems right.

He goes on to give us some reasons why we might think so – and then why he does not:

The concrete is concrete because it is the gathering together [Zusammenfassung] of many determinations, that is unity of the manifold. In thinking, therefore, it appears as a process of gathering together, as a result, not as a starting point, although it is the real starting point, and therefore also the starting point of perception [Anschauung] and representation [Vorstellung].

So we have two opposite ways of going about our investigation. ‘The first procedure evaporates the full visualisation into abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead to the reproduction of the concrete by way of thinking.’ I am convinced that Marx does not see why he should choose either of these approaches. Otherwise, the entire character of Section 3 – ‘but’, ‘ça dépend’, ‘still’, ‘on the other hand’ – makes no sense. Rather, he is saying that, while the second approach might be the right way to theorise, why theorise at all?

Without any explanation, the next passage takes us straight to Hegel. Fourteen years earlier, Marx had made a careful critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state, and another of ‘Hegel’s Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole’. In the latter manuscript, he declares that ‘Hegel’s standpoint is that of modem political economy.’ Now, he returns to that idea, combining his critique of Hegel with his critique of Ricardo and Smith. [This passage of Grundrisse raises a problem: did Marx think that Hegel was an exponent of ‘the synthetic method’? If he did, he was mistaken. The Logic, talks about both the analytic and synthetic methods. In the final section of The Science of Logic, the Absolute Idea, Hegel tried to show their essential unity. The concrete totality which makes the beginning contains as such within itself the beginning of the advance and development. …The absolute method … does not behave like external reflection but takes the determinate element from its own subject matter, since it is itself the subject matter’s own principle and soul. … This no less synthetic than analytic moment of the judgement, by which the universal of the beginning of its own accord determines itself out of itself as the other of itself, is to be named the dialectical moment. (p. 831).]

Talk about ‘Marx the materialist’ versus ‘Hegel the idealist’ has obscured what Marx was doing. He found in Hegel’s system, philosophy at its highest point, the essence of what he was criticising in the great classical political economists. Speaking on behalf of the entire philosophical tradition, Hegel attempts the feat of scaling ‘the Absolute’, ‘the Unconditioned’. The entire human world, with all its contradictions – appearance and essence, good and evil, triumph and failure – has to be hauled inside the logical-historical movement he called dialectic. Then the dialectical door is bolted behind it. Now, the Absolute Method can provide itself with its own raw material, its own instruments of production and its own foundations.

Here, in this highly abstract form, in Hegel’s Absolute, Marx finds the secret of political economy, of the exploitative, oppressive, self-sustaining character of bourgeois society, of the appearance that it is ‘natural’ and of the path to its revolutionary transcendence. This is how the Introduction brings Hegel into the story:

Hegel, therefore, fell into the illusion of taking the real as a result of gathering itself together [Zusammenfassung], delving into itself, and moving out on its own; whereas the method of ascending from the abstract to the concrete is only the way for thinking to appropriate the concrete, to reproduce it as a mental [geistige = spiritual] concrete ... For consciousness, therefore – and this is how philosophical consciousness is determined – for whom a thinking that grasps notions [begreifende Denken] as the real human being and only the world notionally grasped [begriffne] as such as the real – the movement of the categories appears, therefore, to be the real act of production ...

Precisely as in 1844, Marx is associating Hegel’s logic with the method of political economy and criticising both of them. The kind of thinking which ‘reproduces the concrete as a spiritual concrete’ is exactly what Marx was to call ‘fetishism’. This is a false, abstract way of thinking, not because it does not correspond accurately to the actual way in which people live, think and feel today, but because it does correspond to them. It is the object, this particular way of life, which is false and abstract. The fetishised thinking which arises from it ‘fits’ it and makes it appear ‘natural’.

The whole, as it appears in the head as a thought-whole [Gedankenganzes] is a product of the thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only manner possible for it, a manner which differs from the artistic-, religious-, practical-spiritual [geistigen] assimilation of this world. As before, the real subject remains in its independence outside the head; that is, so long as the head behaves only speculatively, only theoretically.

Marx has got to the heart of the problem. Capital is the active subject in bourgeois society which dominates and destroys human life. How does it reproduce itself as a social relation in such a way that it appears to all who live inside its impersonal, inhuman and totally crazy world to be perfectly natural and perfectly rational? Hegel’s logical scheme, dialectic, gives us the clue to the answer. By tucking its actual assumption – the existence of bourgeois society – inside its beginning, it performs its dialectical magic trick. ‘Look’, it cries, ‘no presuppositions!’ As Marx puts it: ‘Capital is the economic power that dominates everything in bourgeois society. It must form both point of departure and the conclusion.’ [Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 44.]

Thus we see that Hegel’s dialectical logic is essential for Marx’s critique of political economy because both Hegel and political economy base themselves on the same conception of what humanity is. That is why Marx’s critique of that logic – and thus of the logic of capital – is inseparable from his communism. To believe, as Hegel does, that the real human being is ‘the comprehending mind’, is equivalent to restricting ‘the real world’ to ‘the comprehended world’. This means banning those questions which go beyond pre-set bounds of what is askable: world history, as it is known, has been fixed as the only one possible.

What characterises both Adam Smith and Hegel is precisely this completion of the circle of categories. It locks us all – bourgeois and proletarians – into the prison ruled over by capital. Some prisoners might have considerable privileges, while others are condemned to hard labour or even to death. But we are each forced into the miserable prison uniform of the economic category we happen to personify. Under the iron control of the invisible hand, or of the Idea, the relations between subject and object, living and dead, active and passive have been reversed.

The characteristics of humanity which were most important to Marx: were its powers of creativity and self-creativity. In the course of what he called ‘the social production of their life’, humans defined themselves in their practice. In the conditions of class division, exploitation, oppression and struggle, mental and physical activities are rigidly separated. As a result, we are unconscious of the collective process of self-creation in which we are engaged. We create ourselves with our eyes shut. Not surprisingly, we make a complete mess of it. The ‘theoretical method’ accurately reflects the characteristics of this ‘estranged’ way of life. In political economy, ‘the categories express forms of being, determinations of existence and sometimes only individual aspects – of this particular society’. [Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 43.] That is how Marx explored simultaneously the falsity of three things: these categories, the method which employs them and the society they expressed.

Political Economy and Religion

Throughout his writings, Marx often connected the ideas of money, logic and religion, and his attitude to religion might help to illustrate his critical method. Marx did not believe that religion was just a con-trick, a false story spread by priests to maintain class rule. (It was often like that, but not always, and never only so.)

Religion sprang from the real suffering of real people. As the famous passage in the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1844) explains: ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man.’ Religion is ‘an inverted world-consciousness’, produced by society and state,

because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form. its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. ... Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. [Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law; Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 175-6.]

Note the theoretical nature of religious illusion. Like a ‘theory’, religious illusion objectively reflects the real world, precisely because it is a world where people cannot live without illusions.

I think that Marx’s relation to political economy is as follows. Because the world of money is upside-down, inverted forms of thought are needed to give it theoretical expression with objective validity. The critique of political economy and of its crazy forms of thought therefore takes us to the heart of the struggle to transcend this craziness.

In Capital, Marx explains that: ‘The religious reflections of the real world can ... vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form.’ [Capital, Vol. 1, p. 173.] In a similar way, the disappearance of political economy is bound up with the disappearance of the crazy forms of life of which it is a theoretical expression. Just as religion is not simply a ‘mistake’, to be rectified by logical argument, so political economy is not a set of ‘mistakes’. Indeed, the great achievement of Smith and Ricardo, Marx believed, was to give objective expression to a ‘mistaken’ reality.

A Theory of History?

‘Marxism’ believed itself to be a ‘historical materialism’, a materialist conception of history, or a ‘theory of history’. I don’t think this describes Marx’s view at all. Anyone who thinks it does should read the letter Marx wrote to the Russian journal Otechestvenniye Zapiski. Marx derides those who attribute to him ‘a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in its being super-historical’. [Marx to the Editorial Board of Otechestvenniye Zapiski, November 1877.] He illustrates his point with a reference to the fate of the peasantry in ancient Rome, and contrasts this with developments in Western Europe: ‘Thus events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historical surroundings led to totally different results.’ [Ibid.] Marx wrote the letter to contradict those ‘Marxists’ who saw developments in Russia as inevitably following a path directly parallel with that described in Capital.

For Marx, history was the process in which humans engaged in ‘the social production of their life’. In this process of becoming human, they developed means and powers of production. But the forms of social relations within which this took place denied their humanity, their capacity for free self-creation. These social relations of productions were ‘independent of their will’, imposed on them from the past, unfree. [Preface to Introduction to the Critique of Political Philosophy; Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 29, p. 263.]

Their consciousness of these relations ‘corresponded to’ legal, political, religious and philosophic forms which made up a ‘superstructure’, built on top of this set of relations. So their social consciousness was ‘determined’ by the false, inhuman way that they lived and related to each other. Law, politics, religion and so on were the illusory ways in which we vainly attempted to resolve the conflict between humanity and inhumanity, and between individuals and the collective movement. This conflict was expressed in social revolution, as human potential developed and collided with inhuman forms of society, giving rise to new forms in which they can resume their development.

Note that the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy does not say anything about the socialist revolution, which has to be a conscious struggle for the emancipation of humanity from its last inhuman, ‘antagonistic’ form. It notes only that the productive forces which have developed within this form now provide ‘the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism’. [Ibid.]

Is it right to call this a theory? I believe it is not. It is neither an explanation of history nor an interpretation, but an outline of the way humanity will break free of domination by all such explanations and interpretations. Certainly, it involved Marx in a systematic study of as much history and as many theories of history as he could manage, just as he had to study the entire history of political-economic theory and many other fields. But this study begins and ends with ‘the social production of our life’. It was and is a study of humanity, undertaken by a human being, not by a professor who pretends to stand outside or above his subject-matter, while actually being just an unthinking part of it.

Theory and the State

Did Marx have a theory of the state? I do not believe so. We know that he considered the state to be ‘the illusory community’, [German Ideology; Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 46. See also Vol. 5 p. 78.] and that ought to be thought about. ‘Marxism’ talked a lot about the state as ‘an instrument of violent class oppression’. As with the cruder descriptions of religion, this is true but misses Marx’s point.

The state is a power standing outside and above society, but springing from its inhuman form. It tries to resolve the contradictions of society but cannot succeed. Its pretence to represent society as a whole is false. To believe that a theory of the state is possible is to believe that it is a kind of machine, a regulating mechanism, working outside human consciousness and desire. Of course, if this were true, there would be no way to overthrow it or to think about overthrowing it.

That is why Marx never spoke of a ‘workers’ state’ through which the proletariat would in some sense ‘hold power’ in the transition to socialism. And in his writings on the Paris Commune of 1871, he was careful not to describe the Commune as a state. Rather, it was ‘a working-class form of government’.


In order to evaluate the ‘Marxist’ tradition, we must try to read what Marx actually wrote, not what we imagine he wrote, or what we think he ought to have written. So long as we are encumbered with the ‘Marxist’ prejudice that he was engaged in constructing a ‘theory’; or if we think he had a ‘method’ operating outside his conception of communism, this is not possible. If we listen carefully to what he is saying everything becomes much simpler.

Theory is a form of thinking which reflects that inhuman shell in which our lives are covered, taking it for granted that humanity can never escape. Marx’s struggle for communist revolution is centred on revealing this imprisonment, allowing us to regard it from a human standpoint and to find a way out. Instead of ‘seeking science in his mind’ and presenting a theory, Marx wanted to free our consciousness from these shackles. It is that insight which must be recaptured if communism is to be regenerated.

The way we live and the way we think about it are parts of the same problem. When humans live inhumanly, their self-conscious, social being is constricted and distorted inside a form in which their lives are atomised and their collective self-creation hidden. Marx’s ideas are based on the struggle of the proletariat to realise its humanity. This is the force which strives against capital from the inside, working to break out of its alienated form of life. To give this fight scientific expression, to ‘become its mouthpiece’, Marx studied human life from ‘the standpoint of human society, of socialised humanity’. His object was revealed by him as the outcome of social activity, so that it could be remade consciously.

Marx grasped the possibility of concepts which united science as a subjective activity and its object. They were separated by theory, the kind of abstraction which governed the lives of human beings living inside inhuman, estranged forms. Marx’s science was concrete, live knowledge which we can use humanly. Of these two forms of knowledge, one expressed our enslavement, the other the road to our liberation.

Marx did not first construct a theory, which could later be applied to social problems if so desired. His science was human science, basing itself on humanity as a collectively self-constituting set of universal individuals. Such a science, and only such a science, could show humanity the way to break out of its inhuman shell.