The following is another exchange, continuing a previous discussion regarding Marx’s theory.

The questions are from Pavle Pavlović, PhD student from the Philological Faculty, University of Belgrade. The answer is from Paul Prew, Associate Professor of Sociology, Minnesota State University – Mankato.

Pavle Pavlović:

Does Marx ever say that his own epistemological methodology is historically contingent and that it is conditioned by a particular historical moment?  So in the nineteenth century, his interpretations are good enough and, maybe, efficient. In the nineteenth century, one could say it is scientific. However, in the 20th century, it is not anymore scientific.

Paul Prew:

Yes. Marx was very conscious of the historical specificity of the analysis of the contemporary social system, as well as the historical specificity of the struggle to overcome it. A very nice sketch of how Marx understood this historical specificity is in the Grundrisse. There is a short chapter called, “The Method of Political Economy.”  In it, Marx distinguishes between abstract concepts like labor that can be found in all historical epochs and their specific historical forms under feudalism or capitalism, for example. Also, more specific to your question, he outlines how our understanding of a system must be a historical understanding analyzing the relationships in their specific historical time period.

The strength of the Marxist analysis is that ability to use the historical method to adapt to contemporary specificities. One of the central tendencies Marx highlighted, for example, was the concentration and centralization of capital. He analyzed this process in his own historical period, and used data from his era to substantiate his analysis. It is important to update his analysis with more current data, and check to see if the thesis holds. There does tend to be a consensus that the concentration and centralization of wealth is a real tendency of the system, checked only by government intervention.

Another tendency outlined by Marx was the tendency toward the growing immiseration (impoverishment) of the working class. While Marx seemed to find data to support his claims, how do we understand this notion today? While concentration and centralization seem to have clear empirical support, the growing poverty among workers seems to be more contestable.

I think this is a phenomenon that helps us wrestle with what Marx meant by tendency. He spoke of them as “tendential laws” (Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall) which is an odd juxtaposition. How can a tendency be a law? I think of it as similar to gravity. Planes routinely defy the “law” of gravity. Does the fact that planes are able to stay in flight violate the law of gravity?

With Marx’s tendencies, government may intervene to break up monopolies, workers struggle for higher wages, capitalists innovate their production to improve profit rates, etc. I do not see the specific historic countervailing phenomenon as a refutation of the tendency, but a specific historical understanding of how the system adapts and struggles against these tendencies.

We should also not accept Marx’s tendencies as incontestable. They should be empirically tested, but they should also be tested with the historical specificity in mind. Simply because we do not have one giant monopoly in each commercial sector is not a refutation of the tendential law of the concentration and centralization of capital.

As social scientists, what is important is to be able to test, in the contemporary context, Marx’s concepts and theories with a number of questions in mind. First, does the specific theory or hypothesis hold in society at all (were Marx’s ideas or data flawed?)? Second, does the theory or hypothesis operate slightly differently in the given contemporary context? This is the issue most specific to your question. Marx would certainly continue to revise and polish his ideas with more current physical and social scientific data. He was an avid researcher in both the physical and social sciences. He most certainly would update his analysis and conclusions. Third, are there ideas or issues Marx did not analyze due to time, interest, etc. that may be studied using the historical method of political economy?

The best use of Marx is a critical analysis that roots itself in the historical-materialist method of political economy, making use of Marx’s contributions, but clearly crafting the analysis to contemporary social circumstances. As with any theory, Marxism should be subject to rigorous empirical analysis, which is a critical component of the method of political economy. I think he would see the need to constantly revise the historical conclusions and analysis, and perhaps even modify the theory to change with current circumstances.

One certainty is that Marx’s analysis of capital is exactly that: an analysis of capitalism in his lifetime. Marx’s conclusions regarding capitalism do not apply to other historical moments such as feudalism or socialism. What does apply is the method of political economy. Each historical moment must be understood in its specific historical context. While there may be abstract concepts like labor that cross historical moments, each social system (mode of production) must be understood by analyzing its own internal logic.

When applying Marx’s body of work, there are concepts and ideas that retain their relevance, virtually unchanged from how Marx understood them. Alienation, tendency of the concentration and centralization of wealth, metabolism, central logic of accumulation, etc. are all very much alive in the contemporary context. I think there are some other terms like the labor theory of value and the subsequent analysis of the working day that are very complex and readily understood by few scholars. I feel these have strong relevance to contemporary society, but more difficult to demonstrate empirically, to the satisfaction of critics. There may be other notions that are less fully articulated or discussed like class and world market that benefit from more current research and analysis.

There is another question regarding the scientific and non-scientific nature of Marx, which is inherent in the 11th Theses on Feurbach. We must study the world, but the point is to change it. The changing portion is the practical realization of the scientific understanding of society. Science should be used to inform the movement for change, but reality is not always that simple. Social movements may not always be clearly rooted in a social scientific understanding of the need for the movement.

One recent example is the environmental movement. What I find interesting is a parallel development of a theoretical incorporation of multiple inequalities in environmental degradation and a growth of a “total liberation” social movement perspective. Theories of environmental degradation have increasingly integrated race, class, species, and gender into an analysis of environmental degradation. Conterminously, social movements are also integrating those same concerns into their movement. David Pellow calls this the “total liberation” environmental frame. I am curious about how much the theory has informed the activism. My impression of the current literature is that they are not well linked, based on the fact that social movement research rarely mentions the influence of theory on movement participants.

What this example shows is the tenuous links between theory and praxis. An understanding of the centrality of multiple inequalities has developed simultaneously in theory and social movements. My personal assessment is that these two processes have developed simultaneously, but I have not been able to spend much time investigating the issue. I am interested in the clear links between the theoretical advances and the social movement perspective, but it appears as though the social movements have proceeded relatively “unscientifically” to their conclusions. I use the term “unscientifically” specifically in relation to academic study. I acknowledge there are a variety of ways to understand the world, so this is a very crude contrast meant to specifically speak to your question about scientific and non-scientific study. These movements have adopted these strategies and ideas through their own social movement practice.

What the environmental social movement demonstrates is that knowledge can be gained through multiple paths. As Marx argued, we do not create history as we please. The connections between theory and praxis may not appear direct, but the social science understanding of environmental inequality and degradation filters into society, and the social concerns and movements also generates interest in research. There is a dialectical relationship between theory and praxis, even if it is not direct. Social movement participants do not have to have conducted research or read the latest social scientific findings to be influenced by the growing understanding of the interrelatedness of ecological issues. Researchers need not have been directly involved in protests to be influenced by currents in social movement priorities.

For me, I think the scientific analysis is necessary, but we should not limit social movements to only those that are rooted in a formal scientific analysis. In concrete social movement action, it may well be that social science research can point out the omissions and errors of the movement, but the movement may also demonstrate the limitations of applying the theory and research to practical action. Marxism, in its praxis, acknowledges this reality. The scientific understanding is no guarantee of action, but action is no guarantee that the movement accurately understands the cause of its perceived issue. The imperfect nature of the dialectic between knowledge and action is the reality of social change and revolutionary social movements. The scientific and “unscientific” understandings of society proceed together in any social movement context.