MARX E LA SCIENZA
Actuel Marx en Ligne n°3
1. Lo stretto rapporto che Marx ha intrattenuto con la scienza del suo
tempo è provato non solo da tutta la sua storia intellettuale privata e
pubblica, ma soprattutto dal fatto che non si può conprendere a fondo
nessuna categoria del Capitale senza riferirsi al complesso
sostrato scientifico che esse implicano. Da questo punto di vista,
diventa essenziale tanto capire quale sia stata la comprensione che
Marx ed Engels hanno avuto della razionalità scientifica ottocentesca,
quanto scoprire quale esito essa abbia poi avuto nel processo di
formazione dei concetti marxiani e nel disegnare il loro contenuto
Marx, Marxism, and science
The relationship between a critical analysis of society and science is the essential feature of a moderne and renewed Marxism, and in any case of every interpretation of capital. Without this vital connexion there is no future for Marx’s thought and for a social analysis inspired by his theory. The current decline of historical Marxism is another clue that reveals the tight bond existing between them, for this Marxism never had any idea about the scientific roots of Marx’s social interpretation. To go beyond such crisis it is essential today to say a firm farewell to the old tradition that the history of this century gave us.
Rethinking the scientific impact on Marx’s conception of the capitalist mode of production is the sole way to give a positive answer to our needs, the main road - not taken until now – following which we may open up new prospects to our social theories.
During his exile in London, from 1850 to the end of his life, and particularly until the publishing of Das Kapital in 1867, Marx continued to study intensively the scientific works of different scholars. Using the rich collections of the British Museum, Marx perfectioned his personal knowledge of science reading a large amount of volumes on technology, astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy, geology, as well as depicted an almost complete frame of the recent discoveries and advances in the scientific field.
He did not do only this. Discussing almost daily with his friend Friedrich Engels he tried to update constantly his bibliografical information and materials on scientific thought. Moreover, following private lessons and courses in mechanics and anatomy, he kept himself in touch with the then raising new evolutionary paradigm and the application of science to the processes of production.
From this complex background Marx borrowed a set of concepts that he
used in the analysis of the
capitalistic system. Sometimes his categories carry the same meaning of their
scientific source. Other times they change in a subtle way their content,
adapting it to the analysis of a different object: society. Finally, some
epistemological tendencies of science remained unknown to him, causing
conceptual problems to his theory
One of the most important idea Marx takes from the science of his time is, no doubt, the specific relationship physics established between causes of phenomena and their empirical, observable and measurable effects.
In fact, this epistemological principle is the basic notion
underlying the major methodological rules of Marx’s conception. As a
matter of fact, it is the logical foundation of his distinction between
appearance and essence, form of expression or manifestation and the intrinsic
nature of capital.
Based on scientific ground, this difference allowed Marx to define the
peculiar characteristic of those forms. For their existence is mediated by the
specific process of reproduction of capital, apparently they represent social
instances without any cause, functioning in an autonomous way. In this manner
they conceal their derivative and dependent nature, presenting themselves to the
subject mind as the unfounded beginning of everything in society: history,
politics, social change, and above all ways of knowing.
With that postulate, Marx explains instead how those social institutions
– from profit to market competition, from intentional agents to their global
system – are preformed by the inner logic of capital, hence showing their
historically subordinate nature.
The theory of value is a basic concept of Marx’s thought. It is derived from nineteenth-century science, particularly physics, statistics, and astronomy, and at the same time it represents a sophisticated explanation of the invisible thread that connects prices and profits to their root.
Value is the inner cause of its forms - prices and profits – but
simultaneously it does not appear directly as their ground. As the physical
causes of Laplace’s physics or Condorcet’s mathematics, Marx’s value
connects itself to its effects in a very mediated and complex way that helps us
to understand how capital shapes and sets in motion the entire economic system.
From this point of view, value explains which secret and not visible
mechanism is responsible of the lawlike structure of economy. Irrational market
anarchism and rational entrepreneur activity are not what they seem, that’s to
say the solely determinants of social reality. On the contrary, they are
consequences of a process of development stirred up by value. If apparently they
determine everything, substantially they function as mere (essential but
subordinate) nuts and bolts of a different “engine”. This fact therefore is
a confutation of the economists’ positivistic logic, according to which it can
exist only what can be mesured.
Despite their intensive readings of scientific works, Marx and Engels
had not a clear understanding of the real epistemological status of
nineteenth-century science. Even if they appreciated Darwin’s work for its
historical impact upon biblical tradition, their criticism of him was wrong.
A particular scientific method strictly based on empiricist ground had
never existed in England, Darwin had never used an inductivist approach in his
research on the transformation of species. As a matter a fact, at the beginning
of the Victorian Age, British science teemed with different epistemological
models in which a new approach was emerging.
The hypotetico-deductive attitude in scientific research programs was
then transforming the study of the physical and the living world, inaugurating a
different representation of what was knowledge in the scientific field.
Trapped in their dislike for every “idealism”, Marx and Engels did
not notice the new trend, and continued to interpret the scientific thought of
their time in a traditional way, as a rational understanding of an objective
world outside the observer.
Even on the question of metaphysics, the evaluation of Marx and Engels was substantially incorrect. Darwin’s explanation of the living realm did not imply a final exclusion of every a priori or unjustified presupposition from scientific reasoning.
Even if observation, facts and empirical phenomena were for sure basic
touchstones for every scientific inquiry, at the same time they were not without
theoretical and unverifiable basis. Preliminary assumptions were in any case at
work in the logic of science.
From this point of view, the argument against Natural Theology and
Naturphilosophie was groundless and above all not able to refute either of
them. These two philosophical schools, as well as the <<scientific
realism>> of many German socialist intellectuals against which Marx and
Engels fought for a long time, were instead complex and flexible (id est,
adaptive) explanations of the world in a certain sense parallel with science.
From an epistemological viewpoint, all of them shared a common principle
with scientific rationality, that’s to say the observer’s attitude to form
conjectures, hypotheses and speculations through which to interpret the physical
reality and the organic world. This common ground introduced the subject mind
into scientific knowledge, demonstrating that some postulates, not subject to
experimental control, were in any case an essential feature of the scientific
This concluding paragraph is in fact a plea for a renewed Marxism capable of interpreting both its history and this social system in a critical way. From my point of view, it is necessary today to leave definitively that complex tradition called historical Marxism and transform profoundly its categories.
Its fundamental concepts are completely useless, and even misguiding,
for a clear understanding of capital, and especially for a rational explanation
of the inner laws and tendencies that characterize the dynamic nature of our
We must learn from science, and drop those ideas and theories recognised
as refuted by modern scientific thought. In particular, in my opinion, we should
rethink the basic principles of Marx’s conception of history and the
traditional Marxist interpretation of knowledge. Without such a radical revision
there is no future for a critical analysis of the capitalist mode of production
and its social formation, at least from a Marxist point of view.
Agosto 2000 Franco Soldani