If you remember a while back, I referred to a debate on Dave Osler’s Blog whereby leading SWP blogger, Lenin, rejected the idea that objective truth exists, or rather that it can be approximately knowable. This is a fundamental rejection of a key tenet of Marxism. There has been a contribution to a similar debate in last week’s Weekly Worker, but sadly the article by "Chris Knight" in defence of science is a bit disappointing. Thanks to Matthew at The point is, for bringing the article to my attention.
The argument becomes a bit technical, but worth persevering with, as it is relevant to the whole situation we are in with competing left groups all proclaiming they are the way, the truth and the life.
Knight says: "In the final analysis, no doubt, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What happens when we try out a new hypothesis? Does it prove to be empowering? Does it lessen mental effort in solving intellectual problems? In other words, does the hypothesis add to the power - be it purely intellectual or practical as well - of scientists in the relevant field? If it does, then everyone should ultimately come to recognise the fact. Assuming intellectual efficiency to be our criterion (and we will not be scientists otherwise), support for the theory will spread. Internal coherence (agreement between the theory’s parts) will find expression in widespread social agreement. Such a capacity to produce agreement is the ultimate social test of science."
This type of argument in defence of scientific realism was dealt a body blow by Laudan's theory of "pessimistic induction". Laudan basically points out that using tests like the one by Kuhn approvingly quoted here, lots of false theories like the phlogiston theory of chemistry or the caloric theory of heat, were accepted as truth.
To say that "capacity to produce agreement" is the arbiter of truth-likeness, is a dangerous concession to the idea that truth is only what we agree it to be. Indeed “Chris Knight” concludes: “ if Marxism is genuine science, it ought to be possible to demonstrate this potential in purely theoretical terms in advance.” Thus he rejects not only the philosphical position of scientific realism that the predictive powers of theories must be empirically established, but also the actual practice of working scienctists that hypotheses are not accepted unless they are repeatably verified by experiment
Before we go any further it is worth stating what the scientific realist philosophical position, (which is defended by but not exclusive to Marxists) actually is. In a nut shell we argue that currently successful scientific theories are approximately true. In the evocative image by the philosopher, Sellars, scientific theories are “cutting the world at its joints”
This is worth looking at because if a prolific writer in the SWP, like the blogger “Lenin” argues that the truth of concepts such as atoms is unknowable, then all truth is unknowable, and all we have is language. In which case we are in the very scary world where the truth is determined by power relations, and where the ends totally justify the means. Only recently in the comments box of the Sheridan story in this blog, SWP blogger Snowball referred to "the truth” in question marks. As Ed correctly says in reply: “the position you're taking here is reminiscent of those references to 'revolutionary truth' (ie what it is politically expedient to promote as the 'truth') as opposed to 'bourgeois truth' (as in what actually happened) which have unfortunate historical associations”
(skip the next two paragraphs if you are not interested in philosophy) Laudan actually made an important contribution to the defence of scientific realism by attacking a weak chink in some interpretations of it, and therefore refining how we interpret evidence. Laudan correctly points out that when it comes to observing scientific theories, observing their consequences is neither necessary nor sufficient for empirical support. That is not all logical consequences of a hypothesis are supportive (for example quick recovery from a cold after prayer would not prove the hypothesis of the power of prayer), and conversely a hypothesis can be supported by evidence not among its logical consequences (If a theory T entailed some evidence E, then if T was part of a wider theory H, then E indirectly supports H, even though E is not entailed by H)
Thus Laudan challenges naïve empiricists who would argue that if there are two theories T and T’ that both explain the evidence E, then the best we can do is argue that the theories are empirically adequate, and we cannot distinguish if either is approximately true. In defence of scientific realism (supported here by Laudan) we must say that theories that explain the empirical evidence must also conform to theoretical virtues, such as coherence with other established theories, completeness, unifying power and the capacity to generate novel predictions.
So is Marxism a science? To which I would answer it could be, but usually isn’t. If we mean by Marxism a social theory that seeks to establish its own approximate truth through examination of the evidence, and through self-critical evaluation of its own theoretical virtues, including coherence, then Marxism is a science. However, there must be a number of caveats. Firstly, that the development of evidence involves the art of seeking to change the world though political activity, and it is extremely hard to evaluate the impact of such activity, and what evidence is gathered is subjective . Secondly, the research resources of the Marxist left, including academics, are puny compared to the complexity of the society we are seeking to understand, so any theories we develop are likely to be only highly flawed approximations to the truth; thirdly the problem of organisational conservatism on defending false aspects of theories. When we take these caveats into account we can see the inadequacy of all those arguments that start: “As Marxists we should, or as Marxists we must … “
The last factor I mention, organisational conservatism is perhaps the most important. Precisely because the empirical evidence is sparse, or subject to other interpretations that are equally consistent with the evidence, then the question of “theoretical virtues” are of elevated importance. Alex Callinicos includes a useful discussion of this in his short book on Trotskyism, discussing the question of progressive and regressive problem shifts derived from Lakatos. If the consequence of a theory entails evidence consistent with an unrelated theory then this is a progressive problem shift, that supports a presumption towards truth-likeness. If however, defence of a theory involves rejection of parts of other mature ands established theories, then we are involved in a regressive problem shift (That doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong as all theories are only truth approximations and can be refined – but a regressive problem shift should raise a presumption of truth-unlikeness requiring further research.)
Yet the various Leninist groups, the SWP, CWI, USFI etc, all derive their justification for separateness by defining themselves as having a coherent world vision based upon a unique or semi unique interpretation of Marxism, often deriving from very partial and incomplete evidence. How could it be different? How could a few amateur researchers, with scarcely any access to evidence, really develop theories that were sufficiently supported empirically; and sufficiently theoretically virtuous in the technical sense; to explain social phenomenon as complex as the degeneration of the Soviet Union? Yet on the basis of these differing interpretations, each of these groups has developed a distinct Weltanshauung that is largely hermetically sealed. For example, if we look at the theoretical writings of the IS tendency, they only refer to works within their own “tradition”, or to the old grey beards. The same can be said of the Mandelite tradition, or the Taafeites. In other words, the left groups deliberately eschew an attempt to develop a scientific exposure of their theories to a discussion of their theoretical virtues – again in the technical sense of what degree they are consistent, consilient, lacking ad hoc features, etc.
This is because each of these groups endeavour to establish that their theoretical tradition, and their reason for separateness, is and always has been correct. What is more there is a belief that the tactical decisions of the leadership bodies are always correct or defensible – but why should that be so? This is not a scientific realist approach, and inevitably involves regressive problem shifts, and increasing cognitive dissonance.
How insane we must look from the outside. A tiny number of dedicated socialists, spilt into multiple organisations, each of which believe they are the only ones with access to the truth.