George Novack’s Understanding History

Positivism And Marxism In Sociology


Apropos Of Professor Popper And His Methods

Does history have any regularities that can be scientifically known and used to foresee and shape the future? Marxism says yes, positivism says no, to this cardinal question of sociology.

Both the positivists and their ideological cousins, the pragmatists, are extremely dubious about the existence of sociological laws and the possibilities of ascertaining the direction of social developments. They disavow historical determinism, especially in connection with the prospects of capitalism, and are intent upon disqualifying the claims of Marxism to be scientific.

Their case is most vigorously argued nowadays by Professor Karl Popper of the University of London, author of The Open Society and its Enemies , The Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Poverty of Historicism . This influential theorist of positivist method in the social sciences is a proponent of “piecemeal social engineering”. He is also a pioneer of cold-war liberalism whose reputation in the West has been enhanced by the political consequences of his views. As early as 1945 he expounded the thesis that the central issue of our time was the world conflict between capitalist democracy and communist totalitarianism, the first safeguarding the values of reason, freedom, democracy, individualism and liberalism in “an open society”, the other promoting collectivism, servitude and authoritarianism in “a closed society”. The contending camps had their respective philosophies in a flexible empiricism versus a dogmatic dialectical materialism.

Professor Popper is not conservative but progressive in his social outlook. He expresses agreement with Marx that philosophers should not simply interpret the world but help change it. He contends, however, that Marxist historical method is not suited for that purpose; its pretensions to scientific knowledge of the laws of social development are spurious.

Although Professor Popper believes in a kind of physical necessity, he does not extend any determinism to social phenomena. In an address on “Prediction and Prophecy in the Social Sciences”, delivered at the 10th International Congress of Philosophy at Amsterdam, 1948, and printed in Theories of History , edited by Patrick Gardiner, he asserts that “there exists no law of evolution” either for plants and animals or for man. Consequently there is no factual basis for forecasting economic, political or historical developments. He labels the irrepressible fondness for prediction shared by diverse schools of sociology as “historicism” and focuses his attack upon Marxism as the worst offender in the practice of “futurism”.

Scientific socialism maintains that the purpose of both natural and social science is to know in order to foresee correctly and act most effectively. That is its practical value, the reason why so many people devote so much time to scientific work and governments today subsidise it so heavily.

Professor Popper dismisses this aim in sociology as wishful thinking. It is the modern secular version of an age-old dream of prophecy—“the idea that we can know what the future has in store for us, and that we can profit from such knowledge by adjusting our policy to it”. The kind of predictability pursued by historical materialists, who believe that human affairs are causally determined and lawful, is a chimera because history exhibits no regularities, he says. It is largely made up of singular cases. “Non-repetitive events are the most striking aspects of historical development”, he writes.

Obviously, no general laws can be derived from an endless series of purely unique events. If every occurrence in social life and the procession of history was as unprecedented as he proclaims, scientific analysis would indeed be impossible. So would any reasonable orientation and effective action.

Positivism claims to be superior to dialectical materialism because it is not dogmatic but faithful to the facts. The rival theories may therefore be tested by reference to the basic facts about the regularities and irregularities of social existence and historical development.

The society around the professor does undergo minor modifications from day to day but, barring overnight revolutions, he can count on meeting substantially the same institutions and customs in the morning as when he fell asleep on the previous evening. But he has not awakened to the philosophical import of this simple fact.

It is grossly unfactual to assert that history has no regularities or that nonrepetitive events are its decisive characteristics. Social relations themselves refute such a contention; they are definite types of perennially repeated mutual interactions among men arising from continuous activities of a definite kind. The regularities of society are primarily expressed in the productive activities and economic relations of its members. Since our species emerged from the primate stage, men have acquired and produced the means of satisfying their needs in routine ways through repetitive labour processes. The tools they made for that purpose were fashioned according to traditional techniques and previous models.

Our prime source of knowledge about preliterate times comes from archaeology, that science of society which deals with the earliest human activities incorporated in artifacts. Although each of these products and instruments of labour has individual characteristics, almost all belong to specific types. These constitute the data of archaeology. “If the implement be unique, it is not a datum for archaeology at all; it remains just a curio, until a similar implement, that is, one of the same type, be observed in a significant archaeological context Archaeologists must ignore the small individual peculiarities of any given knife and treat it as an instance of one or another of the standard types, as a member of that class of knives”, observes V. Gordon Childe in A Short Introduction to Archaeology (pp. 13-14). Jacquetta Hawkes tells us that “in the Lower Palaeolithic period the hard-axe, although it was gradually improved, remained in use as the dominant tool form for over a quarter of a million years” (Prehistory , p. 172).

The social relations of the most primitive peoples were as simple and standardised as their instruments of production. The small bands or tribes of Stone Age food-gatherers, hunters or fisherman, had collectivist institutions and customs. The scope of variations in their social organisation were held within the narrow limits prescribed by their mode of production. They might live in caves or camps but had, as a rule, no permanent settlements.

The innovation of food production which gave rise to barbarism introduced the first epoch-making changes and extensive diversifications into primitive social structures. But the barbaric communities and kingdoms were based upon agriculture. What could be more repetitive than this kind of economy rooted in the natural processes of plant growth and reproduction, regulated by the round of the seasons and carried on by traditional techniques and rituals?

Mankind took more than a million years to go from savagery through barbarism to civilisation. This crawling pace indicates how greatly recurrences outweighed novelties in daily life. Even after the most advanced sections of humanity became civilised, the fixity of social relations and the slow and intermittent rate of change in the agricultural societies culminating in feudalism betokened the predominance of repetition in the lives and labours of their human constituents.

Change becomes the rule rather than the exception in society and history only with the advent of capitalism—precisely because of the peculiar nature of its mode of production. Unlike previous master classes, the bourgeoisie is impelled by the dictates of its economic interests to keep modernising and revolutionising the conditions of production. This is imposed by competition, the necessities of capital accumulation, the drive for the maximisation of profits. Incidentally, that is why the peasant is “history-less”, the proletariat is so historical minded, and theorists like Professor Popper are so preoccupied with the problem of changeability.

However, bourgeois changeability has inherent limits. As much as the capitalist class may reform the economy and other parts of society, it cannot replace the mode of production and appropriation upon which its property, profits and power rest. It must safeguard these at all costs. This conservative basis of its socioeconomic position clashes with the cumulative changes in the rest of the system. The intensification of these contradictions in its system has led to grave social and political crises that have already resulted in the overturn of capitalist relations in countries on three continents.

What about the nonrecurrent features of events? These may be interesting and dramatic, but they cannot be the decisive causal factors, the main determinants and driving forces of history. Random events are usually the unessential, accessory, incidental, superficial and trivial aspects of the historical process. However, this is not always the case. Qualitatively new events or deviations from the norm, which ordinarily have little historical consequence or a negligible scientific significance, can be converted into causally important factors. They become determinative to the extent that they are reduplicated. In the further course of development, the previously unprecedented can become more and more of a causally effective precedent. History would never progress if unique events did not contribute to its making. But novelties acquire weight in the total process of determination only as they forfeit their originality and become recurrent.

This dialectical process can be seen at the dawn of humanity. According to the labour theory of social origins, tool-using and tool-making differentiated man from the beasts. The occasional use of natural objects as tools for some momentary purpose by other anthropoids had no enduring evolutionary consequences and brought about no fundamental changes in their animal mode of existence. The regular and collective use and fabrication of tools and the habitual skills associated with them converted our primate progenitors into human beings.

The same is true of that sound-tool, language. Sporadic cries of other species had no social significance and made no essential difference in their relations. The reiteration of verbal utterances by our ancestors, in conjunction with their cooperation in labour, created speech. Language is rooted in the reproduction of words, the conventionalisation of meaningful references to things, the stabilisation of grammatical elements and structures to which Professor Popper has to conform in order to communicate with us.

The main task of historical and social science, according to Marxism, is to find out the pattern of all those regularities and formulate them into laws that express the necessary connections of objective realities in their evolution. Such regularities are not confined to established social structures. They also operate within the evolutionary and revolutionary changes which bring new and higher types of social organisation into existence. These processes begin with occasional variations from the customary pattern which massively recur until they acquire power enough to overthrow and replace the old order.

Professor Popper avers, in defiance of the facts, that only variables and not constants shape history. Actually, history is made by the interplay of its constant and variable elements. In the course of development constants turn into variables and variables into constants—and they do so, not in an arbitrary manner, but in lawful, materially determined ways.

Let us review a case from the history of politics, the relations between monarchy and democracy. In the earlier stages of civilisation the sacred monarchy was the predominant form of sovereignty from Egypt to China. For several thousands of years states rose and fell and dynasties came and went while kingship persisted as the rule. Democracy was unknown in Mesopotamian civilisation. This remarkable uniformity in the political constitution of the ancient empires was rooted in the essential stability of the economic and social substructures of these agricultural despotisms.

Political democracy first emerged in seventh century Greece as a result of profound changes in the economic conditions and class relations of its most progressive commercial city-states. But this novel kind of government was exceptional, unstable and short-lived, enduring here and there for little more than two centuries. Kingship in one form or another remained the normal form of the state through all the subsequent stages of class rule, until the more thoroughgoing bourgeois revolutions deposed the monarchies and set up democratic republics in their stead. Even so, parliamentary democracy did not become widespread or deep-seated until the peak of capitalist expansion and stability was reached in the 19th century and then was largely restricted to the richest, most favoured nations of the West.

The monarchy that in its twilight monopolised political life at the dawn of class rule has become a rarity, a curious decorative relic, because the fundamental historical conditions for its survival and revival are no longer at hand. Popular sovereignty, on the other hand, which was absent in the first civilisations, is today regarded as the normal and most desirable form of government to which even antidemocratic regimes pay lipservice. What was once constant has become variable and vanishing; what was nonexistent is on the rise and constantly growing.

The second case, taken from technology, deals with an analogous transformation in the relations between the two major consecutive types of means of labour. Until 200 years ago men used nothing but hand-tools in production; machines were an insignificant exception. This historical constant was set aside by the large-scale introduction of machinery, an innovation which came about lawfully and comprehensibly by transferring the function of handling the working tool from a human being to a mechanism. The more complex and efficient means of production displaced the more primitive and less productive implements as the capitalists recognised their greater profitability. In factory industry the use of hand-tools is exceptional while machine production is its basis; their roles have become reversed.

This fundamental change in technology generated a host of others which together constitute industrial capitalism. Under this system tens of millions of people get up five to six days a week and go to work for eight hours or more for wages in enterprises operated by capitalist owners for their private profit. Whatever their individual differences and personal preferences, the wageworkers must submit to this standard type of labour relation in order to get their daily bread, pay the landlord monthly and meet installment loans regularly. This is not an accident but a necessity of capitalism, its fundamental law, the source of its exploitation.

Professor Popper denies that there are any such essential necessities in economic activities and social relations or that the aim of sociology is to discover and explain them in order to foresee their development. He even contends that social systems or “wholes” do not exist as “empirical objects”; they are only “ideal objects”. What really exists are “individuals and their actions and reactions”, which presumably never acquire a definitely organised or systematised character.

He therefore assigns an entirely different task to the social sciences. Their main task, he tells us, “is to trace the unintended social repercussions of intentional human actions”. That is to say, sociology must revolve around an explanation of the accidents rather than the necessities of history.

This is a legitimate subject of social science, although it is not central to it. Sociology should be more concerned with demonstrating the interplay of accident and necessity in history and the conversion of the one into the other as it develops. Nevertheless, the discrepancies between the conscious purposes of human beings and the real results of their activities, which Hegel called “the cunning of reason”, that is to say, the irony of history, does pose an important problem for social science.

In order to clarify why this anomaly has been such a pronounced and persistent trait of human affairs to date, it is essential to find out the social and historical circumstances that have prevented the outcome of man’s collective activities from coinciding with their avowed aims or will. Professor Popper apparently believes that this is an eternal law and irremediable flaw of history. Actually, this prime feature of past and present history originated in the exchange of commodities and man’s consequent loss of control over his social relations issuing from the expansion of exchange relations. This lack of control is most accentuated in the capitalist phase of commodity production. The phenomenon so overwhelms Professor Popper because capitalism is an inherently anarchic system, beyond regulation by its most powerful agencies and privileged beneficiaries.

The conflicting private interests of its constituent parts make it impossible for the plans of an individual, a corporation or a state to be assured of realisation. The main objective of the socialist movement is to do away with the economic sources of this social disorder and establish the material preconditions for bringing man’s aims into consonance with his results, by eliminating the private ownership of the means of production, and planning economic development.

This is abhorrent to Professor Popper, who is a partisan of individualism and free enterprise. The last sentence of his liberal polemic against Marxism reads: “The fight against avoidable misery should be a recognised aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative.”

The theoretical justification for his program is that social science in general, and Marxism in particular, possesses no predictive power that could contribute to effective social control over the next stage of human progress. He would have us believe that our contemporaries, who have proved capable of the intricate computations and constructions required to send spacecraft and their instruments to the moon and to Mars, are unable to discern the forces at work around them on earth and figure out the main lines of their evolution. Or, having analysed and ascertained these trends, they cannot act consciously and collectively to realise the best alternative.

Fortunately, even pre-Marxist revolutionaries have not been as myopic as the positivist scholar. They have grasped historical necessities before these became actualities. Indeed, a clear and conscious recognition of these was a prerequisite for their realisation. In the Declaration of Independence the colonial patriots proclaimed that it was imperative to break loose from English crown rule at least seven years before they succeeded in doing so. Sam Adams saw its urgency much sooner. The Abolitionists understood the necessity for eradicating the institution of slavery as the biggest block to national progress decades before that was done through the Civil War.

Professor Popper maintains, however, that history has no discernible progressive direction. To assume, as historicists and Marxists do, that we can know where a social structure is—or is not—heading is to arrogate a divine foresight forbidden mere mortals. According to his highly subjective and idealist conception, history can have only the meaning individuals ascribe to it.

This is contradicted by the entire march of history. Every primitive people and outlived ruling class expected to perpetuate themselves and projected that wish upon their historical horizon. In North America the Indians, the feudalists and the slaveholders asserted their will to survival through furious resistance. Yet all were swept under by the invincible forces of bourgeois civilisation. Their subjective desires could not prevail over historical necessities.

Why, then, should scientific socialism be prohibited from analysing the structure and functioning of capitalism, identifying the strategic forces and factors which affect its development, foreseeing their further trends (at least in outline if not in concrete detail) and devising a practical program of revolutionary action? Is there any empirical evidence that this can be done? The Communist Manifesto of 1848 was so prescient that even today it is more pertinent to contemporary realities than any other political document of its time.

Here are two examples of Marxist foresight, one confirmed in a positive, the other in a negative manner. In 1906 Trotsky set forth his theory of the permanent revolution, which predicted that the proletariat would have to take power and adopt socialist measures in the coming Russian revolution. That is what happened in 1917.

Twelve years later the exiled Russian Marxist declared in a series of writings that German capitalism had been plunged into so severe a crisis by the crash of 1929 that the shaky Weimar Republic was doomed. The crisis could be resolved only by victory for the socialist working class or its defeat at the hands of the fascists. He warned that the mistaken policies of the social-democratic and communist leaderships were preparing a catastrophe and forecast that Nazism in power would crush the entire German labour movement, destroy democracy, unleash world war and attack the Soviet Union. Although his alarms went unheeded, their correctness was substantiated by the events of the next 15 years.

This example is pertinent to another one of Professor Popper’s strictures. The conclusions of the historicists are unfounded and unverifiable prophecies rather than scientific predictions, he contends, because they are unconditional. However, Marxist prognoses, which should flow from an all-sided diagnosis of the given situation, are not presented with such absoluteness. Where there are opposing necessities at work, the outcome must be conditional on their further interaction and relative weight.

Proceeding from a knowledge of the laws of the class struggle and their specific refraction in the Germany of the Weimar Republic, Trotsky concluded that the rickety bourgeois democracy could not be saved and only two opposing roads were open under the given circumstances: fascism or socialism. He stated that all the objective conditions for another October 1917 were present but that the subjective factors of correct leadership would have to be brought to bear for the favourable variant to be achieved. If the divided leadership of the working masses failed to apply the right policies in time, Hitler would win. The perspectives which guided his recommendations for action were conditional, although the possible outcomes were categorical.

The same conditionality applies to judgments on the prospects of the conflict between capitalism and socialism on a world-historical scale. The triumph of the socialist cause is not predetermined in the same way as an astronomical eclipse, since the factor of human consciousness and timely action is involved and decisive. If a cosmic catastrophe or a nuclear war should blow up the planet, that would end human history and dispose, among other things, of the controversy between positivism and Marxism.

Assuming, however, as one must, that mankind will have a future and a better one, victory for the international working class depends upon many factors: the course of development and degree of disintegration of monopoly capitalism, the growth in power of the workers’ states, the advances of the colonial revolution, the actions and consciousness of the industrial workers in the imperialist strongholds, the kind of political organisation and leadership they get.

It is possible for all the conditions required for a successful socialist revolution to be met. The overthrow of capitalism is no longer the wholly conditional or conjectural prospect it was when Marx and Engels predicted its advent in the Communist Manifesto . It is already an accomplished fact in countries on three continents.

As an empiricist, Professor Popper would maintain that no amount of precedents establishes a rule. He does not understand that what has been more or less possible becomes more and more probable, and eventually necessary, as the conditions for its occurrence and recurrence pile up and come together. What has hitherto been conditional, at a certain critical turning point in the processes of development, becomes necessary.

His death is conditional and avoidable at any time of his life; it is more and more probable as he ages and is inevitable in the long run because of the laws of his biological constitution. Social systems are no more immortal than the human beings whose activities sustain them. Like capitalism, they can perish piecemeal before they are abolished in toto.

Let us consider a fresh historical instance which is most favourable to his viewpoint. The Cuban revolution developed in an unexpected fashion which surprised not only the Cuban property owners and the corporations and government of the United States but also the July 26th leaders and the entire world socialist movement. Yet, even if it was not specifically predicted before the fact, its line of development can be explained after the fact.

Political analysts should first ask: Why did the Cuban revolution follow a different path and have an outcome different from its Latin American predecessors in Mexico, Bolivia and Guatemala? There were numerous reasons for its unprecedented turn. Among these was the fact that Castro and his associates learned from the military coup in Guatemala in 1954 that, if colonialism was to be stamped out and popular power preserved, the officer corps and the old army had to be destroyed and replaced by a revolutionary armed force. In addition, they learned how to expropriate the capitalists and start building a planned economy from Russia, Yugoslavia and China. The whole experience of 20th century history since 1917, plus the international balance of forces issuing from it, were indispensable preconditions for the unanticipated course taken by the Fidelistas.

The transformation of the armed insurrection against Batista’s capitalist dictatorship into a proletarian-peasant revolution is a spectacular example of the law governing the present stage of world history that the fundamental problems of backward countries cannot be solved except by a revolutionary struggle directed along socialist lines.

This theorem of the permanent revolution formulates an irrepressible and growing tendency inherent in all the insurgent colonial movements of our time.

The positivist professor must protest against this logic of contemporary history. The Cuban experience, he will expostulate, was unique; it cannot be taken as a sample of a law. “Society is changing, developing. Its development is not, in the main, a repetitive one.” Contrary to his shortsighted philosophy, the Cuban revolution is not regarded as unique either by its leaders or its enemies. Its general import and impact is what makes it such a touchy issue in American and world politics.

Official Washington does not view Cuba as an isolated incident that can have no sequel, although it would like to have it that way. That was demonstrated by its armed intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and declared intention to dispatch troops elsewhere in Latin America if a comparable threat arises. Both sides recognise the potential for further Cubas in the Western hemisphere and are taking appropriate measures to promote or prevent them.

The policies of Washington to contain and crush, and of Havana to aid and extend, the socialist revolution have a lawful character. They correspond to the logic and dynamics of current history, which is determined and directed by the necessities of the mortal combat between capitalism and socialism.

Standing helplessly between the class adversaries, Professor Popper would advise them that no such necessities exist. Since both sides know better, his advice would fall on deaf ears.

Professor Popper is acclaimed in scholarly circles for his special definition of the nature of scientific method. He teaches that the essence of science consists, not so much in the verification of hypotheses, as in their falsification. The greatest scientific progress is registered when it is disclosed, not what theories and laws can tell us about what exists and what can be done, but when they advise us what does not exist and what cannot be done. Laws above all set limits to the possible.

The timidity of his sceptical epistemology is evident in this lopsided conception of scientific lawfulness. To be sure, the clarification of the conditional limits, inadequacies and errors of existing theories are an indispensable and fruitful function of scientific activity, a prime source of its growth, the starting point for fresh advances and breakthroughs. That happened in the 19th century and early 20th century with Euclidean geometry, Newtonian physics and classical political economy.

But exposures of this kind, which have stimulated progressive crises in science, represent only one phase, one step in the totality of scientific investigation and advancement. It is the negative side of the unending process of acquiring more precise and deep-going understanding of the phenomena in question. Such revisions in the light of further experimental facts pave the way for the elaboration and verification of more comprehensive, complex and correct theories. Darwin banished incorrect doctrines from biology as part of his positive demonstration of the evolutionary mechanism and unity of living beings. The eventual outcome, the net result, is a steady accumulation of more ample and dependable information with which to foresee and control natural and social processes.

Ironically, positivism shies away from acknowledging this growth of positive knowledge about the world, does not properly assess its significance and its role and relevance in providing foresight and facilitating action. It is badly named and should be more precisely termed “negativism”.

Finally, Professor Popper, who insists that the social sciences cannot and should not forecast historical developments and that unconditional laws are taboo, fails to abide by these two precepts of his own position. Despite his contention that the future is opaque, this liberal does not hesitate to affirm most categorically that revolution in general, and above all the socialist revolution heralded by Marxism, is bound to be ruinous. “I am convinced that revolutionary methods can only make things worse—that they will increase unnecessary suffering; that they will lead to more and more violence; and that they must destroy freedom.”

On what scientific grounds, empirical or rational, can such an unconditional assertion be justified? Many past revolutions have benefited mankind and enlarged freedom for the masses. The very bourgeois democracy he defends and cherishes was the offspring of revolutionary struggles. The American people have had two revolutions which made things much better rather than worse for them. Is it then only contemporary proletarian, and not previous bourgeois revolutions, that are full of evils? He will not convince the peoples of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, China and Cuba that their revolutions brought no good, whatever their shortcomings. Nor will his timid admonitions prevent other peoples from seeking and finding the revolutionary socialist method of solving their otherwise insoluble problems. This empiricist turns rigidly dogmatic when he confronts the prospect of socialist revolution. In order to uphold gradualism and piecemeal reform at all costs, he is compelled to throw overboard the principles of his own method and relapse into “ahistoricism”, an absolute rule that revolutions always and everywhere have baneful results.

Such inconsistency is a congenital vice of positivist epistemology. It is engendered in the last analysis by the predicament of the middle-class liberal under monopoly capitalism who wishes to work toward a better society but fears to overstep the framework of the established order in his views, perspectives, and actions. Others, who refuse to be hemmed in by these arbitrary and essentially reactionary standards, are told that they are “unscientific”. This demonstrates how different conceptions of science and its methods, which appear so remote and detached from everyday life, have their social implications, class affiliations, and political uses.