Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963


If we knew the constituents of social, economic, and political systems and were successful in discovering and measuring their functional connections, we would have genuine knowledge of how the systems operate. Given the initial conditions, we would be able to predict the state of the system at any future time. Marxism-Leninism makes claim of having attained this kind of knowledge about social reality. Its predictive power with respect to social, economic, and political phenomena provides, therefore, a crucial test of the validity of this claim. If it is true, Marxism-Leninism as an applied science should be able to make predictions of the behaviour in some specified set of circumstances of various groups and of the outcome of complex social processes.

The predictive power of the social sciences is, however, still very limited. Even economics or political economy (Marxist-Leninists use the latter term, associated with the classical political economy and the theory of Marx, and leave the former to the present-day followers of what Marx called ‘vulgar economy’), the most advanced among them, did not manage to become an applied science, that is, to predict fairly accurately the effects of alternative economic policies. An economist cannot be compared with a dam or bridge constructor who calculates with great precision the quantity and quality of materials required to carry out his work. Although political economy is apparently vastly superior to economics, it does not claim an advantage in predictive power over economics[1047].

In spite of their lack of success in the most advanced of the social sciences, Marxist-Leninists contend that in social matters knowledge of the future is not beyond their power. Bukharin confidently stated that ‘prediction is possible in the domain of the social sciences as well as in that of the natural sciences’. He qualified this statement by the proviso that since Marxism-Leninism does not claim to know the ‘velocity of the social processes’, it cannot predict the time of their occurrence but only their direction. Otherwise he had no doubt that the predictive power of the Marxian and Marxist-Leninist doctrines has been fully confirmed by the whole subsequent course of events. Deborin was even more confident than Bukharin. In his view, Marx created an ‘absolutely new science’ characterised by its ability to ‘foresee the ways of future historical development’ [1048].

Popper defines historicism as an ‘approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim’ [1049]. Popper’s definition applies perfectly to Schaff’s approach. ‘Historical prediction’, Schaff wrote, ‘is a component part of the science of history. . . . . The laws of social development are not only objective, but also knowable. This is revealed by the practice of predicting social development, the prediction being based on the knowledge of historical laws’ [1050]. It is clear from Schaff’s argument that in his opinion successful predictions concerning future social development were made in the past by applying the laws of historical materialism to this effect and that these successful predictions should be regarded as confirmation of the truth of historical materialism. There is a point in this argument which would win the support of numerous thinkers. The predictive success of a theory is widely considered as convincing evidence in its favour. The important condition to be satisfied is that the prediction has in fact been made by taking advantage of the theory in question.

We should distinguish a lucky guess in foretelling the future from a forecast and from a prediction. A lucky guess is saying in advance what happens to come true; it is not a prediction, for it is not based on evidence. Clairvoyance, prophecy and anticipation fall into this category. They are the province of visionaries and dreamers, but also of politicians and men of action. The latter foretell, as an act of faith, the course of distant events or state that the future will display a certain trait and realise a desired possibility, discerned more or less dimly as one among many courses the events might take.

Notwithstanding his historical materialism, Marx was aware of the fact that ideas and beliefs may pave the way for social realities. For men are urged into action by what they think to be the case and by what does not necessarily have to be the case. It sometimes happens, therefore, that something actually occurs because people think and act as if it were bound to occur. ‘If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’, stated the American sociologist W. I. Thomas. For the definition is in this case an integral part of the situation and consequently can influence the subsequent behaviour. Sociology has recently begun to study the effects of beliefs or acts of faith on the course of events and has reached the conclusion that they might be important causes as well as instruments of attaining long-range aims. They have been given the name of ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’. A self-fulfilling prophecy ‘is, in the beginning,a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the originally false conception come true’ [1051]. A sociological ‘prophetic prediction’ is itself a social fact, closely connected with action, and its power of creating what has been predicted is perhaps less mysterious than it might appear at first sight. This is even clearer in the case of a self-defeating prophecy, that is, of a prophecy which cannot be made without destroying the success of what is prophesied. The self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecy clearly applies to what is within our control. However, the fact that it makes no difference whether anybody writes down a prediction of the sun’s eclipse and that it might make a tremendous difference whether a sociological prophecy is made or not constitutes a puzzling problem when it is followed up and considered in detail.

Although a clairvoyant or a prophet or a man of action need not always be wrong, when he happens to be right he does not achieve anything more than a lucky guess. This is meant to indicate that no logical principle which implies what has been guessed is involved in foretelling the future.

A forecast is a conjectural estimate of future things, based on the analysis of a trend or a tendency. Meteorological or demographic forecasts provide the best examples of such conjectural estimates. They are genuine extrapolations based on the assumptions that certain specific initial conditions would persist. They are, therefore, always subject to the proviso rebus sic stantibus. The more they are long-term estimates, the greater the probability that either the initial conditions change or some other unforeseen events interfere or some counteracting forces appear. There are always chances that other factors would make a difference, offset or affect the forecast effect and invalidate the conjectural estimate. The unreliability of forecasts based on trends results from our ignorance of the conditions on which a trend depends. Even if we know some of them, we can never be certain whether all its conditions have been considered, and in the absence of this knowledge we are unable to say whether and for how long it will continue to persist.

Prediction is extrapolation derived deductively from the discovery that certain events are regularly connected. Popper has shown that explanation and prediction have the same formal structure, in which three elements must be distinguished: universal statements or laws, initial conditions or explicans, and the prognosis or explicandum. To explain an event is to discover its initial conditions and to deduce the explicandum from the explicans and from some universal statements. To predict an event is to deduce a singular statement – the prognosis – from its known initial conditions and some universal laws. There are, therefore, some stringent restrictions attached to the procedure by means of which a prognosis can be established. If the law is not suitable or if the initial conditions cannot be ascertained or are not fully known, we can make no prediction. A law states a recurrent connection of certain conditions and subsequent events. If these conditions are not precisely defined by the law, the statement asserting a recurrent connection is not a law suitable for making predictions. On the other hand, if the antecedent conditions cannot be known, no law applies to them and no prognosis can be derived from universal statements alone.

A forecast is not a prediction. An estimate of future events depends on a trend, which is not unconditional, that is, it does not comprise either the sufficient or necessary conditions for the occurrence of events and is relative to some unspecified favourable circumstances. Therefore, it is not a universal law. Forecasts or guesses mistakenly regarded as predictions, such as, for instance, the supposed inevitability of progress, preached by Condorcet; or the inevitability of socialism resulting from the disappearance of the entrepreneurial stratum, foretold by Schumpeter; or the inexorable power of social evolution, impelled, according to Marx, by ‘tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results’, confuse trends or alleged trends with laws. They assume that there are absolute trends, emancipated, as it were, from the restrictions of initial conditions, laws unto themselves, going on over men’s heads to a predetermined consummation[1052]. Such long-term and large-scale anticipations are closer to prophecies than to forecasts in the technical sense. Predictions and lucky guesses are still more widely apart than are scientific predictions and forecasts.

It is not always possible to say at the first glance whether a prognosis has been established as a lucky guess or by the scientific procedure of prediction. Should Western civilisation disintegrate, like so many others in the past, the historian of the future may admire Arnold Toynbee’s predictive knowledge. His admiration would not be justified. A historiosophic prophecy does not become a prediction on account of being formulated in terms of a historiosophic system. Speculative philosophies of history choose one of the present discernible possibilities to the exclusion of all others, regard it as decisive, and view the future as the actualisation of the selected potentiality. This choice might be prompted by an incisive insight into the ‘logic of the historical situation’ or by a sound feeling for what are important motives and ends of human action. If in this manner a more or less lucky guess is made – apart from clearly false prophecies such lucky guesses had been accomplished by Comte and Marx – it should not be called a prediction, but a prophecy or divination. For the philosophy of history, which provides the ostensible basis for foretelling the future, does not logically justify the prognosis about what happens to be rightly foreseen. The scientific way of predicting requires that the prognosis is logically inferred from some universal laws and specific statements describing the initial conditions[1053].

The question whether a given ‘prognosis’, confirmed by actual observation, was a lucky guess, a forecast, or a genuine prognosis arrived at by means of the scientific way of prediction, is of considerable importance. For the procedure followed in predicting a specific event is also the procedure applied for the purpose of testing the validity of a theory. Successful predictions provide, therefore, relevant evidence of the soundness of the theory on which it was based. In the case of a forecast nothing more can be derived from its success than the conclusion concerning the continued persistence of the trend (this seems to suggest that trends are, in general, better suited for the purpose of explaining than for that of predicting). A lucky guess reveals just the fact that we were successful in making a guess.

When Schaff examines historical predictions, it is at once clear that he does not have scientific predictions in mind. He states explicitly that historical laws, that is, laws of social development, operate with the necessity of natural events. But he adds that no particular historical event can be predicted by means of these laws. What can be foreseen is the ‘general direction of historical development and its result’ [1054]. What he probably had in mind was the view already stated by Bukharin, to which reference has been made: a social scientist may find out by inspecting a chain of events that there is a developmental process at work in it and that this process presses on to an outcome of which only the general character can be described. Just as Bukharin before him, Schaff failed to notice that such diagnoses are futile unless they are restricted by taking account of the counteracting factors. If the latter were known and the difference made by them could be assessed, the diagnoses could not have been made. On the other hand, if the counteracting factors are disregarded, the diagnoses must remain incomplete and the conclusions about the future, based upon them, cannot be held to be warranted. The feeling of confidence that something will happen is not a prediction or a forecast. Leonardo da Vinci was sure that it would become possible to fly. But his firm anticipatory belief was not a prediction in the relevant and important sense of this expression.

It should be noted that the impossibility of predicting historical events has no similarity to the impossibility of prediction which a natural scientist also would recognise in some cases. Eduard Meyer, the celebrated German historian, was of a different opinion[1055]. He maintained that natural science can, for instance, assert that when dynamite is set on fire an explosion will occur, but it cannot predict what would happen in a specific instance, e.g. whether a particular person would be killed or not. This is not an absolute but a relative impossibility, that is, relative to the knowledge of the initial conditions. If these conditions are known, a prediction of what would happen to particular persons in a specific case of dynamite explosion can be made with a degree of probability dependent on the accuracy of our knowledge of the initial conditions. There is no analogy in this case between a scientist and a historian. The relative impossibility of prediction in the former is an absolute impossibility in the latter case. The historian has at his disposal no laws of the kind of which ‘if dynamite is set on fire, an explosion will occur’ is an instance.

As a matter of fact, no scientific prediction can be made on the ground of historical materialism. The law ‘the relations of production must conform to the productive forces’, or ‘the superstructure must conform to the economic basis’, or ‘the productive forces must progressively improve’, are not suitable for deducing any prognosis from them. The scientific way of predicting future events does not break down, it simply cannot be started.

A historical prediction in Schaff’s sense is not a forecast either. ‘What does it mean’, he asks, ‘that we make a prediction and that a historical development will take such and such course? It means that we discover the law of this development, and having discovered it, we succeed in determining the effect of a whole chain of development on the basis of a succession of causes and effects’. It is in that manner that Marx and Stalin predicted the inevitable destruction of the capitalist socio-economic formation. The ‘models of scientific historical predictions’ are provided by Marx’s assertion in The Communist Manifesto and Capital that the fall of the bourgeoisie, the expropriation of the expropriators and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable or by Stalin’s pronouncement of 1927 that in spite of some deflecting forces temporarily holding back the inevitable final destruction of capitalism, new economic crises, new periods of revolutionary upheavals, and new wars were drawing near[1056].

A forecast is not arrived at by means of following up a chain of causes and effects of a whole developmental process. If this were the method of forecasting future events, no reliable forecast could ever be made. Moreover, if the rules of the ‘composition of forces’ are unknown and the ‘forces’ themselves are heterogeneous, it is impossible to have a clear idea of the cumulative effect of many distinct causes, even if each of them were an isolated system of conditions, which they are not. The different kinds of social ‘forces’ cannot be compared in terms of common standards and the resultant of their combination can be estimated only in a rough and ready manner. A forecast based on the estimate of the combined effect of heterogeneous social ‘forces’ is bound to be a lucky or a wrong guess. Marx’s assertion that the introduction of labour saving machinery was bound to increase steadily the reserve army of the unemployed exemplifies the risks and the difficulties of the factor-combining procedure in the social sciences. It is now clear that Marx failed to consider all the relevant factors and to correctly estimate the respective share of those mentioned owing to the absence of a common measure of their comparison. Although Marx thought that he was drawing conclusions from a well established body of universal laws, he was actually involved in guess-work, which did not come off, on what would be the outcome of a number of interrelated but incomparable factors, none of which was either the sufficient or the necessary condition for the occurrence of the ‘predicted’ events. There is no easy and secure way of saying in advance which of the many factors carries more weight and is ‘stronger’ than any other or is ‘decisive in the last analysis’ [1057].

In the case of a social evolutionary process the difficulty of applying the factorcombining procedure greatly increases owing to the circumstance that what is meant by ‘development’ is not the appearance of a simple observable characteristic, such, for instance, as can be recorded by measuring the position, velocity, or temperature of a physical body. ‘Development’ in the sense in which Schaff uses this term is a long chain of internal and structural changes, taking place ‘from the inside outwards’, which cannot be observed but are inferred from certain results obtained deductively by complicated and abstract reasoning. A good example of such ‘inward transformations’ is provided by Marx’s demonstration that some characteristics of the capitalist mode of production turn ‘every economic progress into a social calamity’ [1058]. The magnitude of such an undertaking clearly surpasses the power of any mind.

The other error involved in the assumption that events can be predicted by inspecting a chain of causes and effects extending into the distant future results from the misconception which has been inspired by Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system. Marx assumed that a long succession of ‘phases’ or states of society conforms to a single fundamental law, that this law can be discovered and provide the basis for gaining a foresight into the future. This idea is explained in the preface to the first edition of Capital and is repeatedly applied throughout the work. The fallacy of this assumption has been exposed by Popper. While it is not unreasonable to suppose that any successive natural occurrences follow each other according to some laws of Nature, if periodical changes are excluded, practically no sequence of three or more causally connected occurrences takes place according to a single law. Popper concluded that though there might be singular hypotheses of evolution or development, each of them taking advantage of a number of natural laws, there is no law of evolution or development, which would have to be a universal statement[1059]. A singular hypothesis does not provide us with what is needed to make a prediction. If what is foretold comes true, it is a lucky guess.

A forecast is not an estimate of a ‘final effect’, brought about by a chain of causes and effects. An estimate of future events makes the assumption, always subject to the clause rebus sic stantibus, that a certain configuration of causes would remain stable and produce a certain effect. Thus, a demographer makes the assumption that a set of causes determining the rate of deaths and births would remain unchanged and produce only a slow rate of changeability in the ratio expressing the natural increase of the population. On this basis he evaluates the growth of a population in the years to come. He might be successful in his forecast if it is restricted to the near future. The narrow limits of safety are closely related to the ignorance of all the causes conditioning the trend. While this point might be ignored as long as the forecast remains short-term, the causes left unconsidered or unknown assert themselves in the long run and invalidate the presupposition on which the forecast was based.

Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin did make ‘predictions’, but neither they themselves nor their followers have so far succeeded in establishing the fact that these ‘predictions’ were warranted, that is, arrived at by means of the scientific procedure of prediction. If some of these ‘predictions’, as is the case with Marx, have turned out to be not entirely unsuccessful, they speak highly of Marx’s foresight or his ‘historical sense’. This is, however, a biographical characteristic which does not permit us to draw the conclusion that the laws of social development, formulated by Marx, have thus been confirmed. Only successful scientific predictions constitute evidence of the validity of the theory by means of which they are deduced.

‘Predictions’ of Marx and his successors were put in terms of and inspired by historical materialism. This was not the only source of their inspirations. They were made by great leaders of men, perhaps more anxious to change the world than to acquire a true knowledge of it. Their ‘predictions’ were to influence the course of events and become self-fulfilling prophecies. This factor has been put into relief by Bukharin and also by Schaff. ‘The scientific analysis of the movement of capitalism’, wrote Bukharin, ‘is only a means of foreseeing, and foresight itself is only a means for practical activity’. Marx ‘grasps the coming in order the more energetically, fully, actively and successfully to change the world’ [1060]. Schaff made similar observations. The problem of objectivity of historical laws and of predictions based thereon, he wrote, is not solved in the peace of the historian’s study. It concerns, above all, political men of action and is decided in the tumult of the class struggle impelling the evolution of society. The most perfect kind of historical predictions is attained by men who combine the qualities of a theorist with those of a man of action. It requires the adoption of a partisan point of view and of the outlook of the progressive and revolutionary class, that is, of the proletariat[1061].

These are clearly conditions for making a self-fulfilling prophecy which would encourage men to act in a certain way. To get men to act together, they must believe together and have confidence in the success of their action. The confidence that they are on the side of History and History on theirs has proved to be a powerful and effective motive of concerted and sustained effort (as well as a source of tragic and vicious delusions). Marx’s foresight and feeling for the so-called historical forces are in fact reducible to his understanding of the role played by ideological motivation and normative value-permeated social theories in human destiny. Constructing his theories on this basis he managed to throw more light on the future than the scientific way of predicting would warrant[1062]. In this manner, however, Marx’s prophecies, in so far as they come true, contribute to the refutation of historicism and confirm the view that men alone bear responsibility for what happens in history. Although they are conditioned in their actions, their free choice plays a part in the making of history which is not governed by inexorable laws working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. If Marx’s prophecies have come true, his basic assumptions must be false.