Marxism – interpreted to death, appropriated, combated Ruthless Criticism

[Translated from GegenStandpunkt 1-2017]

150 years of Das Kapital and its bourgeois reviewers

For some time now, reading Marx and his magnum opus has been back in vogue among German economists and social scientists. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with dealing with Marx if the way he is dealt with weren’t somewhat peculiar. Was Marx right after all? asks ‘Die Zeit,’ for example, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of his critique of capitalism, and representatives from academia and the zeitgeist are then allowed to expand on what he might have been right about: In view of the many evils rampant today – from banks being greedy to the unfair distribution of wealth to jobs being abolished by digitization – didn’t he hit the nail on the head in ascribing these evils to the system and prophesying its disastrous development, as found in Capital?! The people who are speaking out in view of the many problems posed by capitalism seem to be very constructively concerned about its future progress. Some want to take something useful from Marx to deal with the unpleasant phenomena that the system inflicts on humanity. Others are just content to be morally edified in their consciousness of modern problems by reading relevant chapters of Capital. So this modern reception of Marx in all its varieties is entirely in the tradition of the bourgeois academic establishment which from the very beginning didn’t hesitate to examine Marx from the point of view of his usefulness for the theory and practice of the capitalist system. We document their highlights below, even if free science’s militant impulse to fight out its opposition to the communist system ad personam Marx is now a thing of the past: First, the scientific arguments used to remove his theory from the field of what’s appropriate for responsible scientific thinking are still the standards for the economic and social science ideas taught in the universities. And secondly, nothing has changed in the way Marx is approached from an interested standpoint, even when the scientists of our day search Capital for interesting ways to improve the capitalist world.

Marxism –
interpreted to death,
appropriated, combated

The way bourgeois science deals with Marx is a chapter in itself. Scholars from almost every discipline in social science come out to pay tribute to a man they know at least this much about: His ‘critique of political economy’ criticizes the economic mode of capitalism, which is so highly esteemed by them for its unrivaled efficiency as a class society, and leads to a call on the injured class to abolish it. It considers the system of wage labor to be a scandal and advises the proletarians of all countries to join forces to abolish it. And the inventor of scientific socialism didn’t have much good to say about the philosophers, economists, and social scientists he encountered at the time either. He criticized economics lock, stock, and barrel and gave it the attribute ‘bourgeois’ because of its partisan thinking. And in the emerging sociology of Comte, he was particularly struck by its interest in recipes for the cook-shops of the future; in other words: lots of apologetics and zero science.

Today’s bourgeois thinkers can hardly overlook the fact that they are dealing with a man who is up to something a bit different than they are; that they have before them an enemy of their busywork. This does not mean, however, that they would feel in any way compelled to take his theory as a criticism of themselves. Even where Marx makes every argumentative effort to destroy ideas they consider part of the tradition of their discipline and which they keep on course, they never feel it necessary to deal with objections to their science. They give Marx the dubious honor of being accepted as one of their own – at least for the time being and in principle. Economists, sociologists, philosophers of science, etc., do not miss the chance to pay tribute to the critic of the bourgeois system and its scientific translators as scientific colleagues, so to speak, and to visit his theory sine ira et studio: they measure Marx’s critique of political economy by their standards and their set of rules for scientificity. In all conscience and with a great deal of philological meticulousness, his work is examined to see what the methodological approach, the empirical basis, the terminology and other things are like – and thus an attempt is made in a constructive spirit to understand Marx’s theories as a contribution to their science. Where they fail to do this, or manage to do this only poorly, the verdict is, of course, already due for them: here a phony is at work. The procedure practiced by bourgeois thinkers of rethinking every theory they have to deal with according to their own science definitely turns into absurd theatre here; its application degenerates into shadow-boxing when dealing with a politically undesirable theorist.

I. “Value theory”: A totally useless approach for a proper scientific understanding of capitalism!

The economist Joseph A. Schumpeter provides a good example of how modern economics conducts this debate. At the beginning of his treatise on the economic theorist Marx, he assures us that he is very keen be fair to Marx’s arguments:

“Now for a desperately abbreviated outline of the Marxian argument” (Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy, New York 1942, p. 22)

If that’s what he wants to do, however, the question arises: why doesn’t he take on the theory and arguments that Marx makes? In his presentation, one gets the impression that there aren’t any arguments to be found in the theory he refers to. As is quite customary for critics of Marx’s ‘labor theory of value’ in modern economics, his presentation starts out with the following:

“Both Ricardo and Marx say that the value of every commodity is (in perfect equilibrium and perfect competition) proportional to the quantity of labor contained in the commodity, provided this labor is in accordance with the existing standard of efficiency of production (the ‘socially necessary quantity of labor’). Both measure this quantity in hours of work and use the same method in order to reduce different qualities of work to a single standard.” (ibid., p. 23)

The theory is presented from the outset as if Marx and Ricardo had been modern methodologists who decided on an approach and started from a certain basic assumption – that Marx criticized Ricardo’s theory doesn’t even matter! This gets rid of the need to deal with the question of whether their claims about the value of commodities is true or any examination of the reasons they give for their claim. But not only that: This way of treating the statements of the value theorists as a methodological prejudice is at odds with even a halfway honest presentation of their theory. As soon as Schumpeter talks about the value of commodities, he quite casually puts in brackets the premises with which modern economics tends to argue its equilibrium and macroeconomic cycle theories – quite heedless of the fact that Ricardo and Marx were never equilibrium theorists, so they didn’t raise the question of the proportionality of any ‘quantities’ in their economic theories and therefore did not circulate the bold hypothesis that the value of each commodity can be represented as a dependent variable of the amount of labor contained in the commodities. Only people who are perfectly at home in the functionalism of modern model building could come up such ideas; people for whom value – like all other economic phenomena from the world of capital – is a quantity that raises the question as to which other economic quantities determine it and how the determining factors in question can be measured. Schumpeter simply ignores the fact that he is faced with a theory of a different kind, one which wants to comment on the quality of this economic ‘quantity,’ from which his science abstracts so professionally through its pseudo-mathematical treatment of the subject matter. He therefore imputes to the old economists a procedure that he knows from his own science: because of their theoretical approach, they are said to have aimed at “reducing different qualities of labor to a single standard” and to have devised a “method” for this. This is how the modern economist translates Marx’s idea that this ‘reduction’ is practically carried out in the exchange of commodities – that in the exchange of commodities for commodities and commodities for money, regardless of the particular usefulness of the respective product and indifferent to the particularity of the labor that created it, it’s always about only one thing, namely how much the junk produced is worth: this is the economic fact that his value theory tries to explain. It aims to clarify the question of what it means when everything in an economy revolves around value.

Because Schumpeter makes Marx’s theory comprehensible to himself by interpreting it according to thoughts and approaches he knows from his academic work, he doesn’t even realize he’s on a different construction site. And so, in his judgement of Marx’s theory, he thinks he is fully in tune with Marx’s argument, although he measures it only by requirements that tend to be put on a theory by his science:

“Everybody knows that this theory of value is unsatisfactory . . . The essential point is not whether labor is the true ‘source’ or ‘cause’ of economic value. This question may be of primary interest to social philosophers who want to deduce from it ethical claims to the product, and Marx himself was of course not indifferent to this aspect of the problem. For economics as a positive science, however, which has to describe or explain actual processes, it is much more important to ask how the labor theory of value works as a tool of analysis, and the real trouble with it is that it does so very badly.” (ibid, p. 23 f.)

The question of whether what he has identified as the basic assertion of this theory of value is true is not that important to the modern economist. For him, this question is only of moral and ideological interest. He is quite sure of this: one only insists on the validity of the ‘basic assumption’ that labor is the true source of all value if one wants a different distribution of the product of labor; and of course Marx was such a person: A do-gooder eager for a new, fairer distribution of ‘goods.’ For Schumpeter, this all too clear tediousness is what remains of Marx. Conversely, it is equally clear to him that his colleagues who desperately want to refute the ‘labor theory of value’ are also only interested in rejecting such claims, which are at best based on social philosophy rather than scientific fact. He is also suspicious of their zeal and instructs them that it is also incorrect to call the labor theory of value ‘wrong.’ The positive science for which he stands wisely stays out of this dispute. As a man of science, he is to some extent dispassionate when it comes to the question: ‘What basic assumption do we want to take,’ and calls on his colleagues to do the same. True and false are not the criteria here. That’s why he has no objection in principle to a theory that sets out to present the value of commodities as a dependent variable of labor time – the only thing that matters is that it works.

He thus specifies the requirements he makes on a model. Such a model should describe the actual processes, but if it is not the explanation of the actual processes but their model-like description that is supposed to provide knowledge, the question arises as to why the Marxian ‘model’ called the ‘labor theory of value’ should not also be able to function. But Schumpeter enlightens us:

“To begin with, it does not work at all outside of the case of perfect competition. Second, even with perfect competition it never works smoothly except if labor is the only factor of production and, moreover, if labor is all of one kind. If either of these two conditions is not fulfilled, additional assumptions must be introduced and analytical difficulties increase to an extent that soon becomes unmanageable.” (ibid., p. 24)

At home in the world of economic model building like a fish in water, Schumpeter has scrupulously examined Marx’s labor time model to see under which conditions it would work, and on this occasion he once again only reveals all that he is familiar with from the world of his science: He not only considers it perfectly normal in a science for laws to be established which have no objective validity. He also thinks it’s good science to use this as a basis – i.e, counterfactually! – to think about how the world would need to be constituted so that the assumption of such a law could still pass as an adequate description of the actual processes. Characteristically, according to this ingenious model builder, it wouldn’t even necessarily say anything against Marx’s theory if it only worked under conditions that can’t be found in capitalism or anywhere else: If, under such – unreal – conditions, everything would work out at least in theory, then that would be something too! And if what works in theory still doesn’t quite work in reality, then one apparently makes do in his science with additional assumptions which are supposed to mend the contradiction between theory and reality. In the case of Marx, however, one learns that the problems would get out of hand.

The problems that Schumpeter subsequently reports are those that he thinks belong to a theorist who is committed to the thesis that labor is the source of all value. However, he presents these problems as if they were the ones that the old value theorists labored under. Indeed, Schumpeter reads all of Capital this way, chapter by chapter – as a large-scale attempt to overcome all the problems that, in his opinion, one inevitably runs into if one wants to reduce the value of each commodity, as he understands Marx’s project, to the amount of labor contained in the commodities:

“Though neither Ricardo nor Marx seems to have been fully aware of all the weaknesses of the position in which they had placed themselves by adopting this starting point, they perceived some of them quite clearly. In particular, they both grappled with the problem of eliminating the element of Services of Natural Agents which of course are deprived of their proper place in the process of production and distribution by a theory of value that rests upon quantity of labor alone.” (ibid., p. 25)

Even if the two value theorists did not see the weaknesses of their theory as clearly as he did, they should have seen some of them themselves – namely, that their choice of a starting point prevented them from adequately acknowledging land as a factor of production. Their theory must therefore be seen as an attempt to iron out this weakness in their approach:

“The familiar Ricardian theory of the rent of land is essentially an attempt to accomplish that elimination and the Marxian theory is another.” (ibid., p. 25)

If Marx and Ricardo had explained that in capitalism pure ownership of land and soil, i.e. precisely not the productive use of a tract of land but rather the exclusive disposal of lands that others need, functions as a source of income, in the way that collective bourgeois expertise does, with the services of the natural forces inherent in the soil, they would have been rid of their problems! But, unfortunately, they lost this opportunity through the unfortunate choice of their starting point! So Schumpeter recommends to Marx, of all people, as a solution to his problems, precisely what he has criticized as the epitome of the irrational ideas by which the bourgeois mind in general and the bourgeois economists in particular make the capitalist relations of production seem a righteous cause. After all, Marx went to some trouble to point out the theoretical crimes of a science that tautologically infers from the incomes earned by landlords, capitalists, and wage workers that they each have made a corresponding contribution to the creation of monetary wealth – the interested fallacy by which these three sources of capitalist revenue become factors of production –, that presents this as an explanation of this relation of production and turns its social determinations of form into natural necessities of all forms of production. Marx must allow himself to be taught by a 20th century bourgeois economist about how this phenomenon in capitalism, in which a class of landowners can appropriate a not insignificant part of social wealth in the form of ground rent, is not due to social conditions in which private property prevails, but to the forces of nature inherent in soil!

The labor theorists of value have also made life unnecessarily difficult for themselves with the ‘production factor capital.’ Here “we are still left with the difficulty arising out of the presence of capital in the sense of a stock of means of production that are themselves produced.” (ibid., p. 25)

For the author of Capital in particular, how he accommodates the “presence of capital” in his theory is said to have been a major problem – for where does the “net return on capital” come from if not from the fact that a “stock of means of production that are themselves produced” naturally has the quality of a sum of money that earns interest? Here, too, recourse to the tried and tested bourgeois ‘explanation’ would have prevented many problems from arising in the first place. But Marx blocked this with his starting point, which is why he had to resort to his theory of exploitation, something very strange to modern economists, to explain the “net return on capital.”

In the eyes of the Marx interpreter, Marx’s theory thus becomes a workaround for solving all kinds of problems in which the labor value theorist has unnecessarily entangled himself. They disappear if one chooses a different starting point:

“The theory which replaced it – in its earliest and now outmoded form, known as the theory of marginal utility – may claim superiority on many counts but the real argument for it is that it is much more general and applies equally well, on the one hand, to the cases of monopoly and imperfect competition and, on the other hand, to the presence of other factors and of labor of many different kinds and qualities.” (ibid., p. 24)

Hence his advice: it’s best for science to stick to the “plain facts of economic reality” in its claims. In his view, this is done in a pleasingly clear manner by the theory of marginal utility, which assumes the “presence” of at least three factors of production – land, capital, and labor – and accepts them as “plain facts of economic reality” which require no further explanation because land has the inherent legal claim of its owner to tribute payments, labor takes the form of wage labor, i.e. labor that is carried out in the service of others and to increase their property, and those who dispose of a “stock of means of production that are themselves produced” thereby also dispose of capital, which commands social labor. This is the solution: a science that comes to an intellectual arrangement with the forms in which capitalism appears; that “plainly” no longer wants to know anything about the theoretical necessities that the old value theorists pursued; in short: a science that has about the same attitude toward capitalism as the vulgar science that Marx criticized lock, stock and barrel.[1]

II. “Class society”: Viewed sociologically, a much too simple scheme, and what’s more, not empirically verifiable at all!

The same brutally subsuming procedure that we have just been able to study in a modern economist is also engaged in by modern social scientists, the sociologists, when they deal with Marx’s ‘class theory’ – by which, of course, they have already turned the page on the first transformation of the theory they want to give an opinion on: From Marx’s statements on bourgeois class society, they conclude that this is a theory of society that deals with the concept of ‘class’ in a particular way, so that the question as to what kind of result is reported about bourgeois society when it is described as a class society and whether this result is objectively correct is not even up for debate. Instead, the methodologically miseducated scientific mind that is at work here is faced with a completely different question: namely, whether the concept of ‘class’ is suitable or appropriate as an instrument for creating a social theory. Since Max Weber, it has been common practice among sociologists to use Marx’s theory to explain what is meant by ‘class,’ independently of it and the social reality it deals with. In this context, it can then be stated that this concept emphasizes the fact that property and lack of property are undoubtedly of paramount importance for the distribution of power within a society:

“It is the most elemental economic fact that the way in which the disposition over material property is distributed among a plurality of people, meeting competitively in the market for the purpose of exchange, in itself creates specific life chances.” (Max Weber, Economy and Society, Berkeley 1978, p. 927)

And to the extent that Marx didn’t want to say anything more with his class theory, one is happy to agree with him. One agrees with him on the level of a general argument not even specifically related to the existing bourgeois society about the fact that life chances are distributed quite differently among people who are blessed with different degrees of material wealth. For a modern social scientist, the only question that arises is whether an entire theory of society can be founded (solely) on this ‘fact.’ From the point of view from which he looks at society – what creates society, what holds it together? – such a “class situation” is one thing above all: not very productive:

“The class situation may be restricted in its efforts to the generation of essentially similar reactions, that is to say, within our terminology, of ‘mass behavior.’ However, it may not even have this result.” (ibid., p. 929)

The sociologist is so interested in the cohesion of society and the integrating effect of social collectives that, for him, collectives consist of nothing more than the fact that people associate themselves with them, that he can find in classes at best a limited effect that could be of sociological relevance. As if Marx had shared the enthusiasm of modern sociologists for everything that has a community-building effect and contributes to the socialization of the individual, and praised the classes of bourgeois society for the fact that their members always pull together, the critic counters him with his own sociologically based experiences:

“The class situation and other circumstances remaining the same, the direction in which the individual worker, for instance, is likely to pursue his interests may vary widely . . . ” (ibid.)

and with this ‘argument’ doubts that the term ‘class interest’ is in any way an empirical concept as they are known in his science. It would probably have been better if Marx had conducted an empirical study, using surveys and statistics, to determine what the workers’ interests are – family, sports, reading . . . !

Whenever the sociologist Marx is honored, doubts regularly arise as to whether the economic fact of unequal distribution of property, which no one really wants to deny, can be adequately described by, of all things, the concept of ‘class.’ In bourgeois social science circles, this term is usually associated with the idea of a pre-bourgeois estate or caste system, and this does not at all fit with the image one has of modern society:

“The water-tight division between people who (together with their descendants) are supposed to be capitalists once for all and others who (together with their descendants) are supposed to be proletarians once for all is not only, as has often been pointed out, utterly unrealistic but it misses the salient point about social classes – the incessant rise and fall of individual families into and out of the upper strata.” (Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy, New York 1942, p. 18)

What Marx said about the classes of bourgeois society does not matter at all here. He is considered to be someone who, for whatever (dishonest?) reasons, desperately wanted to proclaim the dogma ‘once a wage worker, always a wage worker,’ and this dogma, which one conjures up according to one’s own ideas, is then discredited by the fact that it is so unrealistic. What can be ‘observed’ in reality is the rise and fall of proletarians into the capitalist camp and vice versa, which, according to the observations of the scientific empiricist, is supposed to happen to individual families incessantly. You learn something new every day in empiricism! And that is the key point when it comes to reality. Where the proverbial dishwasher can become a millionaire, it would be better not to dwell on the idea that such ascents presuppose a class society, but rather to rejoice with science about a successful refutation of class theory and henceforth speak instead of strata, like today’s sociology, because they are above all one thing: permeable.

Similarly highbrow is how modern social scientists talk about Marx as a classic . . . of the theory of social inequality; a theory that has since come to the proud thesis of the multidimensionality of vertical inequality. As such a ‘classic,’ he is now praised for the third time for using his theory to remind us of the unequal distribution of wealth and emphasizing its importance. This time, however, he is accused of having neglected other dimensions of social inequality. In the following, a modern proponent of this ‘multidimensionality thesis’ reports what he sees when he looks at Marx through the lens of his science:

“Even a superficial glance at Marx’s class theory shows that the multi-dimensionality thesis does not play a major role in it.” (Reinhard Kreckel, Political Sociology of Social Inequality, Frankfurt a. M. 1997, p. 53)

A closer look reveals even more:

“In capitalist society, landowners and capital owners are confronted by the large class of wage earners. The resulting class antagonisms are objectively given, irrespective of whether the persons concerned are aware of them or not.” (ibid., p. 54)

But it doesn’t even occur to him to ask whether the interest of entrepreneurs in getting as much work as possible for as little money as possible does not really conflict with the interest of those who have to do the required work, live off the price of their labor, and then also have to use it to pay, among other things, rent to landlords. And he also doesn’t ask himself whether these are not actually facts that have practical validity, regardless of how conscious the people affected by them are. Well, he’s got his glasses on, so he continues:

“Translated into the language of contemporary stratification sociology, this means that Marx’s theory is based only on one – namely the economic – dimension of social inequality. If this were not the case and Marx would acknowledge other dimensions – such as education or social prestige – as being equal to the economic dimension, then he would not be able to clearly determine class fronts.” (ibid.)

A class theory, as conceived by Marx, only obstructs the path to a more elaborate theory of social inequality, which, besides the diverging distribution of property, lists other aspects of this social ‘phenomenon’ just as conceptlessly. If the keyword ‘equal’ is used here, this shows in passing how self-evident it is for a modern social scientist that in his empirical science the question of recognition of facts is a question of the interest that wants to be served by the picture of society that is drawn.

Where Schumpeter can give the economists satisfaction with his conclusion that the labor theory of value has landed on the dung heap of history: “In any case, it is dead and buried,” the previously cited theorist of social inequality can only agree with him. For his discipline, he states that Marx’s class theory is nothing to write home about – and is very confident that this is ultimately everything that needs to be said about this theory. However, it doesn’t make things any better when bourgeois academics come to the conclusion that it is possible to build on Marx and that the old class theorist certainly had insights and findings that need to be preserved. They work out their understanding of Marx’s theory by means of the same subsumption procedure and are therefore no less thorough in terms of destroying the insights that could be gained from Marx than those who refuse to accept his explanation of capitalism and recommend that it be thrown away.

III. “Necessarily false consciousness”: Neither necessary nor false because simply functional for society!

The sociology of knowledge is a prominent example of bourgeois theorists knowing what to do with Marx. Marx’s discovery that the members of bourgeois class society, in their practical prejudice in favor of their living conditions, carry out economic and other activities with a necessarily false consciousness[2] is of great interest to the representatives of this specialized sociological discipline. They unerringly recognize in this a peculiar sociological task that they feel responsible for:

“So, first there is the question and the task of proving whether there is a correlation, a correspondence between the immanently worked out locations of thought and the social currents (social locations). Only in this putting-into-relation of the mentally-systematic locations to the social locations, the peculiar task of sociology of thought arises . . . But it is precisely here that all naturalism and all those moments that originate from a primordial combat position of sociological knowledge must be eliminated, and as much as this question has arisen in the line of Marxist philosophy of history, one must adhere to the interpretation of this theory, which on the one hand eradicates the remains of materialistic metaphysics and on the other erases the merely propagandistic motives respectively reduces them to the right core contained in them.” (Karl Mannheim, The Problem of a Sociology of Knowledge, Berlin 1964, p. 376)

Karl Mannheim, who is quoted here as the founder of the sociology of knowledge, is obviously fascinated by the question of whether there could possibly be a relationship between social being and consciousness. The firm judgement that Marx comes to about this in his investigations and explanations of scientific and other ideas found in the bourgeois world, which he summarizes in the abstract formula that being determines consciousness, would thus already have been transformed into a research assignment for his own discipline; into a thesis, a methodical prejudice which an investigation of social reality can be based on – with the aim of finding out whether it offers anything for recognizing it. The aim is to take the following three steps in the empirical manner typical of this discipline: First, it should examine social reality to see whether it is possible to identify certain cognitive standpoints. This can be understood as something like recurring, fixed patterns of interpretation, stereotypes that are expressed in the views circulating in society, and which themselves need to be defined by external characteristics of their existence. The task of the study is then to examine the defined characteristics to see whether they can be used to work out cognitive standpoints, so that they can be changed if necessary and replaced by more useful characteristics. Second, according to the same procedure, social standpoints should be identified for which a catalog of criteria must also be drawn up, the suitability of which for empirical research would then be determined by the same. Thirdly and finally, the crowning glory of science is the interrelationship of the two sides. The aim is to find out whether there are statistically significant correspondences in the applicability of the characteristics which could be used to verify the existence of a correlation between the two sides and which could possibly even be interpreted in one direction or another as indications of the existence of a causal relationship.

Interpreted in this way without metaphysics and propaganda, the correct core of Marx’s theory of being and consciousness is revealed. For the rest, it must be said, of course, that this theory is extremely inadequate compared to the differentiated conceptual instruments and mathematical precision with which modern science underpins its hypotheses. One only has to read Marx with his materialistic metaphysics and already one comes across a naturalism according to which thoughts are determined by social being in principle – when, from a scientific point of view, it is clear that it is not as simple as that:

“First of all, there can be no question (this is also shown by a fleeting glance into historical contexts) that one could easily equate any location of thought with a social stratum or class, to bring it into line.” (ibid.)

This is shown not only by a cursory glance at history, but also by the finding, substantiated by the sociology of knowledge, that there are many more cognitive standpoints than classes:

“The differentiations within the spiritual world are far too rich to assign a corresponding class in the above defined sense to each direction, each location.” (ibid., p. 381 f.)

Whatever Marx meant by the story about the social being that determines consciousness, whatever his reasons for talking about a necessarily false consciousness in the bourgeois world – in the theoretical enterprise for which he may serve as a stooge, none of this happens any more anyway. It does not talk about a necessity or a mistake, nor to the social practice which thinking refers backs to, and a consciousness that thinks thoughts suitable to this practice is simply not included in it. What has been completely forgotten is that Marx’s findings expressed a critique of an unfree, subservient position toward the world; where he thought he was identifying a scandal by pointing to the sad, conformist performance of consciousness in acquiring false reasons for playing along, the modern sociologists of knowledge see a functional connection that they are extremely impressed with. In their concern for the functioning of society, they turn as specialized sociologists to the functional achievements which society accomplishes, on the one hand, by reproducing itself in the thinking of its members and, on the other hand, by reproducing ‘social being.’ The investigation of the functional relationship of ideas and thoughts to social being is the specialty in the sociology of knowledge – and Marx’s critique of ideology has become a contribution to the general appreciation of every thought as a useful contribution to the success of society.

IV. “Marxism”: A method of thinking to deliberately undermine the progress of science and humanity in general!

The dubious honor paid to Marx when bourgeois scientists in their own way take him seriously as a scientist is also done to him by the methodologists of science. They have also mastered the art of presenting his theory in the light of their science. They discuss it from the standpoint of their theories as an enormously deficient, one dimensional and unrealistic theory; they argue about its obvious shortcomings and difficulties and prove that Marx could only adhere to it with the help of an utterly irrational construction. And for them, too, this approach is a procedure for exposing Marx as a deviant thinker, for denouncing him as a man who may have been a gifted writer, but one who developed his theories less out of scientific motives than propagandistic ones, in order to then excommunicate him as such from science. Nowhere else, surely, does the shadow-boxing in bourgeois science’s confrontation with Marx appear so clearly as when philosophers of science confront Marxism. Because they already know from their profession that they are responsible for the question of what deserves to be recognized as science and what does not, people from their ranks are always ready to see themselves called upon to save science and explicitly make the fight against Marxism their cause.

When people like Popper and his student Werner Becker, who have distinguished themselves in this area, get to work, one thing is not even up for discussion from the outset: the content of any theory. According to their own statements, they are mainly interested in methodological questions, because one starts from the dogma (which Popper promptly imputes again to the Marxists as their view) that Marxism is primarily not so much a doctrine as a method, and it is already clear how it should be dealt with:

“The position is, simply, that whoever wishes to judge Marxism has to probe it and to criticize it as a method, that is to say, he must measure it by methodological standards.” (Karl R. Popper: The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume II, p. 285)

Of course, Marx’s theoretical legacy must first be processed into a methodology. Regrettably, Marx did not set out the principles of his “historicist method of thinking” with the clarity with which his modern critics see them. One thing is crystal clear:

“Marxism is a purely historical theory, a theory which aims at predicting the future course of economic and power-political developments and especially of revolutions.” (ibid., p. 284)

In accordance with his philosophy of science dogma, which he recites a thousand times, that a theory is an instrument of prediction, Popper recognizes with somnambulistic certainty the attempt in Marx’s theory to make a prognosis:

“Marx’s historical prophecy can be described as a closely knit argument.” (ibid., p. 334)

The difficulty with such a “description,” however, lies in the following:

“But Capital elaborates only what I shall call the ‘first step’ of this argument, the analysis of the fundamental economic forces of capitalism and their influence upon the relations between the classes. The ‘second step,’ which leads to the conclusion that a social revolution is inevitable, and the ‘third step,’ which leads to the prediction of the emergence of a classless, i.e. socialist, society, are only sketched.” (ibid.)

The master of Critical Rationalism unapologetically states that he has hardly found anything in Marx’s writings to support his interpretation – although he has searched them for nothing else! They essentially contain, as he readily admits, an analysis of the capitalist economy, which does not cause the critical rationalist, who wants to commit everyone else to the virtue of skepticism in thought, to have the slightest doubt about his own interpretation – and certainly not to consider it falsifiable and discard it. For him, this instead results in the judgment that Marx has left gaps in his argument which he, Popper, must now close. Because what is written in Capital doesn’t support his interest in presenting Marx as a “prophet of the course of history,” Popper takes the liberty of declaring that whatever doesn’t interest him in Marx is unimportant:

“Marx’s theory of value, usually considered by Marxists as well as by anti-Marxists as a corner-stone of the Marxist creed, is in my opinion one of its rather unimportant part . . .” (ibid., p. 367)

but only in order to work out the really important, only not quite so available, part of the Marxist edifice, historicism:

“In order to make as strong a case for Marx’s theory as I can, I have altered it slightly . . .” (ibid., p. 376)

“I have tried to present historicism as a well-considered and close-knit philosophy. And I have not hesitated to construct arguments in its support which have never, to my knowledge, been brought forward by historicists themselves. I hope that, in this way, I have succeeded in building up a position really worth attacking.” (Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, Boston 1957, p. 3)

Thus prepared, the theory is then ready for a takedown. First, it is noted with deep satisfaction that Marx’s attempt to emulate the Prophet Muhammad can be regarded as a grandiose failure:

“He was a prophet of the course of history, and his prophecies did not come true.” (Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume II, p. 283 f.)

But Popper is by no means content to savor the cheap triumph that the good reasons Marx put forward for a revolution did not catch on with the subject of the revolution and to proudly present this as a refutation of Marx’s theory. A much more fundamental objection to this theory arises when it is confronted with the social sciences’ question of methodology, which is as follows:

“Is it within the power of any social science to make such sweeping historical prophecies?” (ibid., p. 12)

Here the Critical Rationalist knows he is more competent than anyone else: Of course not, the answer must be. According to his philosophy of science, the task of science is to formulate laws that make predictions possible, while always remaining aware of the limits of what can be proven. And this is precisely what Marx is said to have violated. His critic claims to have found him making something like a very bold conjecture about the course of history – but without duly declaring a willingness to doubt himself, which, according to Popper’s philosophy of science, is what turns bold conjecture into science. And the disavowal of this demand by the house of Popper justifies accusations much harsher than the failure of Marx’s prophecies. Because Marx did not constantly bear in mind the principles of the philosophy of science about the possibility of error and the falsifiability of any theory, Popper sees a man at work who tried to buck the game rules of science. In order to immunize his historicist doctrines from criticism and falsification, he is said to have adopted a veritable devil’s tool from Hegel in the form of a dialectical method:

“This is a Hegelian doctrine which must destroy all argument and all progress. For if contradictions are unavoidable and desirable, there is no need to eliminate them, and so all progress must come to an end.” (ibid., p. 242)

Marx has thus been successfully exposed as an enemy of science. Once he has been identified as such, it is quite clear that the harmful consequences attributed to his method also constitute the entire content and motive of his ‘doctrine’ – even his teacher is said to have been inspired by nothing other than the desire to put an end to science:

“And the reason why he [Hegel] wishes to admit contradictions is that he wants to stop rational argument, and with it scientific and intellectual progress.” (ibid.)

But that’s still not the main accusation Popper makes against Marx:

“It is much more important that he misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. Marx is responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society.” (ibid., p. 284)

And one has to let this accusation sink in: The man of science suddenly sees himself challenged to speak out of moral responsibility toward the community on which he bestows the honorary title of ‘open society’ – thereby elevating his respect for this community to its essential characteristic without the slightest scientific scruple! In his capacity as spokesman of a science that understands the correct way of dealing with social problems, he also declares himself the spokesman of the ‘Open Society’s’ circle of friends and declares his hostility to a thinker who, with his non-science that subscribes to historical prophecies, is said to have sinned against the socially useful mission to which Popper believes science is committed:

“I should like to characterize the point here reached as the most central point in our analysis. It is only here that we can begin to realize the significance of the clash between historicism and social engineering, and its effect upon the policy of the friends of the open society.” (ibid., p. 324)

He cheerfully goes on to assert that undesirable practical consequences are reasons to reject a theory:

“For if there was to be . . . historical prophecy, the main course of history must be predetermined, and neither good-will nor reason had power to alter it.” (ibid., p. 287)

For him, the unforgivable crime of Marxism is that it denounces as a vain endeavor what Popper spells out for the social sciences as their higher mission: that in their findings they should provide nothing but useful services to the community within the framework of rational social planning. Marx is said to have taken the view:

“Social engineering is impossible, and a social technology therefore useless. We cannot impose our interests upon the social system; instead, the system forces upon us what we are led to believe to be our interests . . . It is vain . . . to hope that circumstances may be improved by improving men.” (ibid., p. 313)

Popper certainly did not grasp the objective nature of the necessities that Marx identified in private property and the capitalist mode of production, in law and the rule of the bourgeois state – after all, as a scientific methodologist, he does not even engage with the content of a theory. However, he has certainly somehow noticed that somebody wants to have recognized objective necessities that are determined by these authorities and institutions which first need to be overthrown before we can think about a sensible organization of social concerns. True to the motto: “We won’t let anybody tell us not to sing” [a hit German pop song in 1974 – trans.], he insists that what ‘we’ consider desirable must nevertheless be possible, and thereby makes clear how much ignorance his idea about the useful function of science for society is based on. And, vice versa, he reproaches Marx for not taking up the same programmatic ignorance:

“Instead of making his demands or proposals concerning the functions which he wants the state, the legal institutions or the government to perform, he asks, ‘What is the state?’” (ibid., p. 317)

What a monstrosity to inquire, as a scientist, into the reason and purpose of political rule, instead of approaching it with proposals on how it could do everything better!

[1] In the third volume of Capital, in the seventh section on “Revenues and their Sources” under the heading “The Trinity Formula” and in even greater detail in the Theories of Surplus Value under the heading “Vulgar Political Economy,” Marx devotes himself to the irrationality of these forms. In Capital, we also find a summary critique: ““Vulgar economy actually does no more than interpret, systematize and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations. It should not astonish us, then, that vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations in which these prima facie absurd and perfect contradictions appear . . . ”

To this day, bourgeois economic theorists don’t even think of dealing with the objections raised here against the basic dogmas of their science!

[2] This is the rational content of the famous passage from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, which many other Marx exegetes besides Mannheim also knew how to take the wrong way: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” On the logic of this consciousness see “Methodological postscript on the ‘necessary false consciousness’ of the proletariat”