[This essay was written for some friends in February, 1997. I generally abbreviate "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism" as "Marxism-Leninism" or "Marxism" or just "MLM". See section 13 for comments about why Marxism-Leninism-Maoism has the name it has.]
1. You say that Marxism (or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) is a science. To most non-Marxists it seems like a dogma, not a science. Why do you say it's a science?
It is not a trivial matter to say what a science is. Why is physics a science? Or biology? Why is astronomy a science, while astrology is not?
As a first approximation we can say that a science is a discipline covering a certain range of phenomena, consisting of "facts" and "theories" (hypotheses which mold these facts into systems), both of which are continually tested against reality, and which are modified or discarded when sufficent evidence warrants.
(Dictionaries define 'science' in terms such as "a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study" and "knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method" Scientific method is then defined in terms such as "principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses" As can be seen, any adequate definition of science must at least allude to scientific method, since that is where its essence lies. My brief definition of science focuses on the most central element of scientific method, namely the testing of accepted facts and theories against reality.)
Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is a science because it covers a wide range of (primarily) social phenomena, systematizes these social phenomena with carefully developed theories, formulates numerous facts in terms of these theories, and tests both these facts and theories against reality through its practice in trying to change society and individual human beings. Like many other sciences it has made substantial progress in learning how to change the world, though like all the other sciences it still has a long way to go towards answering all such questions in its sphere of interest. Like the other sciences, it has itself changed and developed as it has been tested against reality. Since its beginnings in the 1840s...
2. So then, are you saying that Marxism is a science because it has some similarities to the physical sciences?
To be properly considered a science, any discipline must be sufficiently like the other sciences in the relevant ways. Marxism is a science in the same sense that physics, biology, astronomy, etc. are sciences. This can be demonstrated by pointing out many relevant analogies to the other sciences, and by explaining why certain apparent disanalogies are irrelevant.
No two sciences are exactly alike, of course, nor are the methods used to advance the various sciences always completely identical. "Scientific method" itself varies somewhat from science to science. You don't hear much about experiments with "blind controls" in astronomy, for example, though this is a very common, and indeed frequently essential, method in many of the biological sciences.
There are important differences between the social sciences and the natural sciences, just as there are important differences between the physical sciences and the biological sciences. But there are sufficient, relevant similarities or analogies between them that fully justify calling them all sciences. The same is true of Marxism.
3. Are you saying then that Marxism is the same as social science, properly understood, and that all genuine social science is actually part of Marxism?
Yes, more or less. There is however an important part of MLM, namely its philosophy, dialectical materialism, that goes beyond just social science. In fact this philosophy is itself just the most general and abstract science, consisting of the principles which have been summed up and abstracted from all the other sciences, not just social science.
It is probably also fair to say that there are some specialized aspects of society and social interactions which are not part of MLM, but rather should be called social psychology, sociolinguistics, etc. Still, our view is that, for the most part, genuine social science is nearly coextensive with Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Those esoteric areas of genuine social science which are not directly part of Marxism are at least very strongly informed and influenced by it.
Many of the sorts of issues raised in contemporary bourgeois "social psychology", for example, are adequately analyzed only within Marxism. What for example is the primary motive force behind people's social activity? The Marxist answer is that it is the desire of people to advance their own group interests—and in class society, that means their own class interests. This is obviously a very basic element of Marxist theory. This is why I say that if there are parts of social psychology that are not part of Marxism, or at least immediately dependent on it, they must be the more esoteric parts. The same is true of sociolinguistics, etc.
4. What about sociology, as it is taught in the universities?
Sociology, as it presently exists, is pretty much a joke—as even most people involved in the other sciences recognize. Someone once remarked that the basic approach in sociology is to "put the obvious in terms of the unintelligible". Why do sociologists use such obsurantist language? Because they are trying to obscure, not clear things up. When they are asserting "the obvious" they must use highfalutin' language to lend a false air of profundity to their remarks. And when, more often, they are attempting to hide the real truths about society (e.g., how privileged classes exploit and oppress the vast majority, both at home and abroad), they naturally have to use even more obscurantist language and twisted logic.
It is worth noting that bourgeois sociology has largely developed as a discipline opposed to, and fearful of, Marxism. Its basic reason for existence is to attack Marxism and to try to cook up some alternative to Marxism that is acceptable to the ruling class.
The true science of society, the true sociology, is Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. But unfortunately the name "sociology" has been appropriated by bourgeois pseudo-science.
5. How about economics? Almost all the prominent economists dismiss Marxist economics out of hand.
Of course they do! That is how they have been indoctrinated and what they are paid to do—represent the economic interests of the capitalist ruling class, and "explain" ad nauseam why only capitalism can possibly work, and why the exploitation of labor is perpetually "necessary". (They don't actually use forbidden phrases like the "exploitation of labor", of course—code words are always used instead. Even capitalism itself is generally referred to with euphemisms such as "the free enterprise system" or (bizarrely enough) "democracy". The task of bourgeois social "science" is always more to hide the truth, than to proclaim it.
(I say it is bizarre for the ruling class to use the word 'democracy' to refer to the capitalist system for two reasons: First, through the history of capitalism, only some capitalist countries have been "democracies"; fascist and other authoritarian countries are also capitalist (though they often try to hide it). Secondly, and more importantly, bourgeois democracy is always a fraud—democratic in name only, as far as the ordinary people are concerned. Real democracy means the people having control over their own lives, which is certainly not the case in the U.S. except for the upper classes.)
Bourgeois economics, like sociology, is basically a pseudo-science. To this very day, they cannot even give a coherent explanation as to why there is such a thing as a business cycle under capitalism, why there are booms and busts, depressions and recessions. In fact in every boom period many bourgeois economists step forth to proclaim that business cycles are now a thing of the past—a proclamation that is hastily swept under the rug the moment a new downturn starts.
It is well known that their predictions and explanations for economic events are seldom in agreement with each other. This is another way of saying that it is all pretty much guess-work, not science. They are the modern equivalent of the court astrologers of old.
To the extent that bourgeois economics has any real substance at all, it lies entirely in protecting, promoting, and enhancing the economic "rights" and interests of the capitalist class against the working people, the unemployed, and the poor. Marxist economics, which we call political economy, openly proclaims its political nature, and determination to represent the interests of the working class and its allies. We can be open and truthful about our partisanship—because we are partisan towards the broad masses. However, bourgeois economics must hide the fact that it represents the interests of the small capitalist class against the workers; all bourgeois social "science" must necessarily lie about its goals and whose interests it serves.
6. Sciences make predictions. It seems like few of the predictions that Marxism has made have turned out to be correct.
Says who? Primarily the bourgeois enemies of Marxism, that's who! (Or else those whose only "education" comes from such people.) Consider this quote, for example:
Since none of Marx's predictions have come true (except the one in The German Ideology that socialism imposed on underdeveloped countries would make those countries poorer), it is no longer even pretended that Marxism is a "science." Thus freed from empirical reality, it has become for its desciples an esoteric system of enlightenment (not unlike medieval Kabbala) which need not concern the rest of us—for the time being, anyway.
This is a comment by one George Sim Johnson in the local newspaper. And who might he be? Some expert on Marxism, perhaps? Actually, he is "a former vice president of a major investment bank" and a contributor to various right-wing periodicals such as National Review. And every single statement in the quotation is incorrect—even the statement that the ruling class no longer worries, or needs to worry about Marxism. (The very fact that he wrote these words gives the lie to that one!) We Marxists do not indeed "pretend" that Marxism is a science—we insist that it be a science, demanding that it be pursued and further developed as a science. Even his comment about the effect of socialism (while it lasted) in "underdeveloped" countries (Russia & China) is wrong; the welfare of the vast majority of people in these countries improved tremendously during the socialist periods (as even most non-Marxist authorities readily admit), though they by no means managed to catch up with the living standards in the imperialist countries.
And as for the predictions of Marx, and other Marxists, a great many of them—though, admittedly, not all of them—have turned out to be demonstrably correct. Our record in this regard is far, far better than those who reject Marxism.
An American journalist visited Karl Marx in his old age and asked him what he foresaw in the future. "In a deep and solemn tone, he replied, 'Struggle'." Contrast this with the almost universal attitude of educated bourgeois people during the Victorian era, in which the march of European civilization seemed so assured it was scarcely necessary to even debate the matter. Peaceful progress was the well-nigh universal bourgeois expectation at that time, and only the great shock of World War I put an end to it. Look back at the 120 years since Marx made this basic prediction, with its world wars, invasions, mass genocides, ferocious class struggles, revolutions, nationalist struggles, religious struggles, and the like. Who was right? Marx or the Victorian bourgeois social-peace scenario?
Is Marx's prediction of struggle too vague for you, even if the Victorians didn't have a clue about it? Well then consider a very specific prediction made by Lenin (who died in 1924), as reported by the American liberal journalist George Seldes writing in 1929:
On another occasion he [Lenin] showed the same stubborn prejudices which characterize all the revolutionary leaders.
"When is the war between Japan and America coming?" he asked. He was assured there would be no war because there are no causes for war. "But there must be war," he insisted, "because capitalist countries cannot exist without wars."
Of course the funny thing about this is not that the Marxist Lenin proved so very prescient about a future war between Japan and the U.S. (at a time when few if any others saw it coming), but that the bourgeois journalist Seldes was so cock-sure that Lenin must be wrong about it!
Not just Lenin, but Marxists in general predicted World War II, even though "The Great War" (World War I) was still proclaimed by many bourgeois ideologists as "the war that ended all wars". On umpteen occasions we Marxists have predicted (and still predict) future imperialist wars, while liberals at least (if not all reactionaries) predict eras of peace. On umpteen occasions we predicted (and still predict) class struggle between workers and capitalists within every capitalist country—while many capitalist-indoctrinated people imagine there can be social peace under this system.
7. Well, perhaps Marxists have been correct in predicting a protracted era of struggle, war, and revolution, over the past century. But what other successful predictions can you point to?
A huge number of Marx's predictions, big and small, have come true. To mention just a few that pop immediately to mind:
8. But haven't Marxists made many false predictions too? Didn't Marx predict the increasing immiseration of the working class for example, when in fact workers have improved their lives greatly over the decades?
It is true that sometimes Marxists have made erroneous predictions. It is not correct to say, however, that Marxism cannot be a science because Marxists have occasionally made partly or completely false predictions, any more than it is true to say that physics is not a science because prominent physicists have sometimes made false predictions. Consider these two gems from Lord Kelvin, for example, who was one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, and the president of the Royal Society: "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" and "Radio has no future." These kinds of statements have gotten to be so numerous that Arthur C. Clarke even created a generalization about them: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
No science is "complete" and no scientist ever has a total grasp of even his/her own specialty as it stands at the given time. Thus there will always be some erroneous expectations, predictions, and generalizations in every science. Nevertheless, those with a good grasp of some science will be much more likely to be correct in their expectations and predictions than other people. Furthermore, if the discipline is a genuine science, those false expectations and predictions will lead to a revision of the theory so that it is much more likely to allow successful predictions in that area from then on.
Marx expected socialist revolution in Europe long before now; this was at least an implicit prediction of his, though I don't believe he ever proclaimed that revolution was certain by such-and-such a date. Similarly, he expected the immiseration of the European working class to develop much more systematically and thoroughly than it has in fact. There is a single error behind both of these misexpectations, or mispredictions if you will. Namely, he did not fully take into consideration the internationalization of many aspects and features of capitalism. (Lenin did this later; it is an example of how Marxism has corrected its errors as they have become apparent, and thus developed as a science.)
Thus major revolutions have in fact occurred—the heart of the prediction was true—, but they have tended so far to be on the periphery (Russia) or in the so-called Third World countries, the countries most viciously exploited and oppressed by imperialism (China, Vietnam, etc.).
Similarly, viewed on a world-wide basis, the expectation/prediction of the immiseration of the working classes has also proven to be quite correct. Of the six billion people in the world today, five billion live on less than $2 per day. Of course the cost of living varies considerably around the world, but no matter where you are you are clearly living in extreme poverty if you have to get by on less than $2 per day.
However, the greatest poverty and misery is once again in the countries dominated and oppressed by imperialism, the countries of Asia, Latin-America and Africa primarily. The bourgeoisie, in order to keep some relative peace and stability at home, allowed (though only very reluctantly and under intense pressure) some measure of increasing wages and benefits to flow to the lower classes in the imperialist heart-lands; that is what the New Deal and the welfare state were all about. The ruling class adopted the position of Joseph Kennedy, who remarked that he was willing to give up a part of his fortune in order to hang on to the rest. But this concession was never more than a temporary necessity, in their eyes; and the capitalists and their politicians are now rapidly reversing the welfare state, and driving down the working class again (and also the middle classes). They see this as possible now that socialism is not viewed as a viable alternative to the workers (for the moment!), and a "necessary" thing now that capitalism is becoming more and more internationalized, with the necessity to drive wages down to the lowest international level "in order to compete". Thus even to the extent that it was once true in the dominant imperialist countries that the workers were becoming gradually better off than before, the trend for at least 25 years has been downward—to gradually take back the small concessions. And the rate of immiseration worldwide is now increasing rapidly.
Marxism is a science and that is why we have made changes to it, and why we are not bothered by the fact that some of Marx's original ideas and expectations have not turned out to be true, or completely true. Some of Galileo's ideas, and Newton's, and Darwin's have also turned out to be false, but this in no way lessens our great respect for these individuals, nor shows that physics and biology are not sciences. Just the opposite!
9. Most well-developed sciences have central organizing theories; for example, quantum electrodynamics in chemistry, evolutionary theory in natural history, and plate tectonics in geophysics. What, if any, is the central organizing theory in Marxism?
Most generally (i.e., philosophically), the central organizing theory of MLM is dialectical materialism. Specifically with regard to society, the central organizing theory of MLM is called historical materialism, which is the result of the application of dialectical materialism to society, economics and politics. Some of the main points of historical materialism are:
Within each sub-sphere of Marxism, there are also central organizing theories, such as Lenin's theory of modern imperialism, or Mao's theory of correct Marxist leadership (the "mass line").
10. If Marxism is a science, how come there is so much criticism of it? I suppose you'll say that it's because the rulers of this country find it dangerous to them, and pay thousands of intellectual "prostitutes" to attack it. But can you really maintain that so many critics are all just bought off?
It is not quite as simple as them just buying people off, though that happens too. The dominant ideas of any age are those of the rulers, and not just because they try very hard to suppress all other ideas or because they pay lots of people to promote their viewpoint. The main reason that most people, including their paid propagandists, promote ideas favorable to the ruling class is because they themselves have been brought up to share the outlook of their rulers, to one degree or another. They themselves have been indoctrinated from the cradle by the all-pervasive torrent of rich-man's attitudes, distorted facts, unscientific social theories, along with plenty of outright lies. From TV cartoons for pre-schoolers to journals of sociology, from kindergarten through grad school, in the Boy Scouts, in churches and organizations of all kinds, on radio and TV, in virtually all newspapers and magazines—the bourgeois world view is drummed into people. It would be considered treasonous if every football game did not start with a display of obeisance to the ruling class (the Pledge of Allegiance).
Moreover we Marxists think that people tend to believe what it is in their own interests to believe (unless powerfully indoctrinated with contrary views). If you make it clear to reporters, and economists, teachers and professors, that their own career advancement depends upon their trumpeting a certain point of view, it is remarkable how "true" that point of view will begin to seem to them.
11. But you still can't deny that Marxism is a whole lot more controversial than most other sciences!
We don't deny it at all, but it is easy to explain. In his fine book, The Science of Revolution, Lenny Wolff remarks that
Some have attempted to deny the scientific character of Marxism because of the controversy surrounding it; but controversy alone cannot rule a theory unscientific. Darwin's theory of evolution, after all, touched off something of a cataclysm in the scientific community, as did Einstein's theory of relativity. Scientists, as well as much of the rest of society, divided into contending camps over these theories; in both cases the struggle and eventual triumph of the proponents of the radical new theories had profound social ramifications.... [Marxism] has most deeply divided society—and most affected it—that alone cannot make it unscientific. That a scientific theory directly hitting the tenderest nerve of bourgeois society—its exploitative class relations and its tendency toward proletarian revolution—causes the most unprecedented and far-reaching controversy is hardly surprising!
And it is not just evolution and relativity that were controversial when first introduced, but virtually all great new scientific theories which cover a wide range of phenomena. Copernicus's theory that the earth goes around the sun (rather than vice versa) was certainly controversial for a long time. It got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake by the Church, and almost Galileo too. It was "outlawed" in some areas for a couple centuries or more! In geophysics, Alfred Wegener provided plenty of good arguments and lots of evidence for continental drift at the beginning of the 20th century, but his theory was rejected until the 1960s by almost all geophysicists who just couldn't believe that something as big as a continent could "move around". Now plate tectonics is universally accepted. So controversy and rejection by many conservatives are almost the norm in science, for varying lengths of time.
Most people have little direct experience with science and its constant controversies, however. We've all learned most of what science we know from school books that treat it as a collection of dead issues, devoid of controversy, and portray only the final consensus on a large number of once very controversial ideas that are no longer controversial.
12. But surely the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of the rest of the Communist regimes in the world has shown that Marxism is not a science after all, but rather a completely failed—if perhaps noble—utopian experiment!
I will discuss the Soviet Union in detail elsewhere, but for now I'll just say that what collapsed in 1991 was not at all a Marxist, nor socialist, let alone a communist country. From our point of view socialism ended in the Soviet Union with Khrushchev's revisionist takeover during the 1953-1957 period. And socialism itself did not "collapse" at that time—it was overthrown by a new group of exploiters who came to power within the Communist Party.
It is true, of course, that this seizure of a socialist state by a newly risen state-capitalist class within the Party could not have happened if there had not been serious weaknesses in Soviet society. But these weaknesses were not—as you have probably been led to believe—economic. (The economic weaknesses, the stagnation and even hidden recessions, developed in the revisionist era with the introduction of state capitalism.) In fact, in 1955 industrial production in the Soviet Union stood at twenty-five times the level in 1913! And this was in spite of having to fight two devastating world wars on its soil, a terrible famine after World War I, the disruptions of the revolution, and much worse than the revolution itself, the civil war that followed which included the invasion by 13 capitalist countries (including the U.S.). Despite all of these disruptions, the very backward capitalist state of 1913 had become a powerful industrial economy by the 1950s. No matter what capitalist ideologists may say now, the Soviet working class clearly proved that socialist economics works, and that it can work better than capitalism.
So where then were the fatal weaknesses that led to the revisionist coup? There are a variety of social and political reasons, but in my opinion the most important was in the way that Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party tended to rule on behalf of the working class, rather than leading the working class to directly rule society itself and watch out for its own collective interests. This paternalism disarmed the people, and they were not able to recognize the seizure of power by their class enemies when it first came. When they did finally throw off the usurpers 35 years later, socialism had long since been wrecked.
But the point for now is just that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 in no way proves that Marxism has failed. Instead it proves the need for a far more consistent and thoroughgoing socialist state run more directly by the masses themselves. Socialism, as a constantly changing and transitional system, is inherently unstable; it must either degenerate back into capitalism, or else go forward to the solid stability of communist society.
13. So why does Marxism, or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, have such a strange name if it is a science? None of the other sciences are named after individuals.
That's not quite true; evolutionary theory is often called Darwinism, for example. The more contention there is over a science the more likely it is that the names of individuals will become prominently associated with it, or even be used as a name for the science. And of course, this is bound to be especially true in social science where the interests of groups of people are represented or threatened by various social theories.
Marx and Engels themselves called their theory "scientific socialism", to distinguish it from the various earlier, pre-scientific forms of socialism (utopian socialism). However today, that is no longer such a good name for the science, even from the point of view of us Marxists. For one thing, in the past century 'socialism' has come to mean just what Marx called "the first stage of socialism" while the final goal (what Marx called "the second stage of socialism") we now call 'communism'. Furthermore, the name 'socialism' has become somewhat discredited by the anti-working class attitudes and actions of most of those who have called themselves "socialists".
If the world were more rational, the best name for Marxism-Leninism-Maoism would just be something straight-forward, like "social science" or "sociology". But those names are taken, as I mentioned above, by the ruling class establishment pseudo-science of sociology. Since the ruling capitalist class (or bourgeoisie) dominates the language through its ownership and control of the media, and has corrupted such phrases, we have had to fall back on the term Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, after the three greatest leaders and developers of the theory, or sometimes just "Marxism" for short. We can at least be sure that the capitalists will have a very much harder time co-opting a science named after these great revolutionaries who they hate!