Learning from Greece: Strategic questions of our own

Photo: Nicolette Attente

Kasama has been sharing interviews and observations from the Winter Has Its End reporting team in Greece.

Yesterday we posted a remarkable interview with ten young communists active in the profound crisis shaking official politics and everyday life. The discussion digs into how revolutionaries seek to transform a crisis into a revolution -- how they make analysis, how they study and respond to the needs of the people, how they seek to help connect as communists with the radicalization of millions.

by Nicolette Attente

From reading just the start of this interview, I feel like I need to stand up and fight. To become more active, to learn, and not just to hold a sign and shout some witty chant but achieve real change. I am too a young communist, and I have so much more to learn. And I have so many more questions that need answering.

I want to understand how to achieve this reality we all fight for. What can I learn from these different uprisings?

“We must unite all the struggles of the people”

How do we do this?


Whenever I think about the struggles of the people, I have to remind myself that we are people, human beings living in a world that is destroying us as people. It is hard to act in solidarity and to convince others to do the same. Because everyone believes that their struggle is the greatest. So how do we as communists handle this? We can’t lose our humanity. We can’t forget that these people we are trying to organize are also people trying to survive, and not just tools for revolution.

How do we fight the reality we are living in? We must fight in the reality of the people but how? Reality is relative as is struggle.

So we must create a new situation, and have faith in the people. And through their struggle they will transform, their consciousness will rise?

This is a place where I get confused and I start going around in circles.

We have to have faith in the people. This I agree with. But which people? All people? No? Yes?

I then think of the categories that people get placed in the advance, the intermediate, and the backward. How does this all factor in?

“We want the people to fight but we also need to give them a life”…

We need to give them a new reality. We all live in a reality. We wake up, we eat, work, sleep, repeat. The world we live in is so set in its ways and people are scared to change. They are in their comfort zone and don’t want to leave. So how do we convince them?


Occupy tried to give people a new reality and we were crushed like movements before. But it is growing and evolving. We have to have faith in the people that they will transform through struggle. And we, communists, have to keep pushing forward showing them this reality and have faith that they will follow?

Unite all struggles in to one reality and work with the people to achieve this? My thoughts evolve more as I read.

As people struggle they will transform, their consciousnesses will rise, as will they. So spontaneous movements will emerge and as communists we must be open and flexible to these and move with them like a current in a river.

We, the left, are fragmented, it’s full of dogmatists, people stuck in old movements that are no longer relevant, or wound up in book worship.

Should we break away from this old left?

How do we attract the youth?

I have trouble learning from my own experiences. I became radicalized through Occupy but also through being close to many communists. So how do I/we reach these kids who haven’t had those kinds of experiences?

Kasama is really one of the best organizations out there but… It still needs much more organization. How can it lead people? How can it organize people? How can we go from being a network to becoming a communist organization?

How do we keep from becoming dogmatic? We can get fixated on this theory and that theory and miss new theory that isn’t in a book.

Also when trying to reach the youth.. how do we speak outside of left jargon that young communists can’t understand?

We need to break away from old ways of thinking and old ways of organizing.

We only want the world, we only want to achieve the impossible. We have a chance to color the zebra purple but we are sill coloring in black and white. We no longer have lines to stay in. So why do we? Where is our creativity?

We are held back by fear of the unknown. We are in out comfort zone and we don’t want to leave. But how will we change the reality of the people if we continue to live by it ourselves.

How do we break through this fear? What about this fear of the unknown is holding us back?

The world is changing, we must too.

But how do we prepare for something that we don’t know is coming?

What in reality do we need to fight?

How do we even understand society?

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Nicolette Attente

    I understand I ask very big questions. They have no easy answer and I'm not looking for one. What I want is to take the time to discuss this. To understand. To grow.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    For what it's worth from someone who's been around a while:

    The first step is to understand who you are--a dynamic and critical force, but not the main force.

    The second step is to understand who is the main force, how it makes history, but not just as it chooses.

    The third step is to sort out friends from adversaries, and find a way not to have to fight all your adversaries at once, but step by step.

    Once you're clear on these, embrace the idea that organization is your primary weapon, all sorts of organizations. Study! Teach! Organize! Organization is the central task, revolutionary education is the key link.

    Good luck! You'll need some of that, too. Theory is gray, life is green.

  • Guest - Nicolette Attente

    Here what I'm thinking: If we are going to look at ourselves as forces, what are we acting on?

    If that object is society or the people, then that object is not in equilibrium. There are many other forces acting on it.

    Achieving communism is no physics question. The variables are constantly changing with no way to calculate.

    So I state again.
    <blockquote>"The world is changing, we must too.
    But how do we prepare for something that we don’t know is coming?
    What in reality do we need to fight?
    How do we even understand society?"</blockquote>

    I want to urge us all to think strategically, to challenge ourselves and others. Look past the superficial. There is no luck. We are communist. Everything we have we must fight for. We must struggle. We must rethink the way we organize and thus we need to change the way we think.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    We are SOCIAL forces, which are not the same as physics and physical force. For one thing, social forces are full of wild cards, ie, humans making choices. But yes, there are a good number of them on the playing field at any one time, not just the communists and the bad guys. You have to constantly keep examining and re-examining, since they are always changing. Don't worry about making mistakes here, just keep at it. The biggest mistake of all is to avoid the task, by falling back on dogma or simply your own desire.

  • Guest - People2thePower

    Nicolette writes that society is not a "physics question." Because the human world is continually in flux, there is "no way to calculate" the variables.

    She wisely rejects a mechanistic approach to social change that assumes the existence of iron-clad rules which, once understood, provide statistically-predictable outcomes.

    Gramsci criticized such vulgar Marxism as the dogma of "pocket geniuses." He wrote out that human society is marked by an "infinite variety and multiplicity" that grows even more turbulent in times of intense political change, utterly destroying any hope of predicting change with statistical precision.

    I would argue, however, that we can understand the workings of society and make reasonable predictions.

    Gramsci wrote that we can construct ideas about the social world and political programmes based on "an empirical compilation of practical observations." These ideas and strategies for action become part of the "objective reality" we are attempting to engage and alter. "Reality is a product of the application of human will to the society of things," he wrote. [Or, as Mao put it, ideas become a material force.]

    Properly understood, this is a dialectical, scientific approach -- not idealism or voluntarism.

    Gramsci continues:

    <blockquote>"The active politician is a creator... If one applies one's will to the creation of a new equilibrium among forces which really exist and are operative...one still moves on the terrain of objective reality."

    I would add that, contrary to what Nicolette writes, luck does exist.

    The universe is both ordered and random. It is a dialectical unity; you can't have one without the other. We can predict with some certainty that the Sun will rise tomorrow morning. On the other hand, there is also a chance that the Earth will be demolished by an asteroid or baked by gamma rays from supernova millions of light years away. Such events occur all the time throughout the universe.

    Chance operates in the social world, as well. A financial crisis, a scandal, or the sudden death of a leader could suddenly derail (or advance) our political plans. Such events happen every day, throughout the world.

    How we DEAL with chance events is a matter of political skill.

  • Guest - Keith

    I would gladly defend the view that society is much more of a "physics question" then some might think. It is anything but "vulgar Marxism." It is Marx at the height of his powers, at his best. Indeed, das Kapital remains the high water mark of human self understanding. But, I don't have time to engage now.

    We did discuss this question pretty thoroughly in the past. here is an example:


    If you haven't studied das Kapital then you are wasting your time with Gramsci. Gramsci is a candle in Marx's sun.

  • Guest - vc666

    First of all, even if society was a “physics question”, that would not mean that we could solve it. One of the hard lessons of 20th century science is that past a certain point of complexity, physical systems are fundamentally unpredictable.

    Society, of course, is a human question, which is even worse, as every human being is itself a system so complex as to be unpredictable.

    And we have about 7 billion of us at last count.

    Stan Goff had some interesting things to say about the subject:



  • Guest - People2thePower

    Keith: The notion that the workings of social systems can be quantified and future events extrapolated with the same precision as physical systems is the very essence of vulgar Marxism -- a mechanistic, deterministic view of social evolution. Isn't that one of the central critiques of Soviet revisionism articulated by Mao?
    Marx identified important historical forces and contradictions that play out in real -- and, in some broad sense, predictable -- ways over the long haul (e.g. recurring economic crisis, structural unemployment, overproduction, the commodification of frackin' everything...). But look at Marx's mode of analysis in "The Class Struggles in France," for example. He dissects events with a fine, journalistic eye. He examines the particulars, and he does so by applying his class understanding retrospectively -- after the fact. He did not pretend that certain outcomes were inevitable, pre-ordained by grand theories. Can you please provide examples of where Marx -- a very prolific writer -- made specific, detailed predictions of how short-term events would play out? If you can, I would love to see them.
    Also: 1) Please don't assume that those with whom you disagree "have not studied Capital." That is condescending and an bald appeal to received wisdom -- Wholly contrary to the tone and quality of Kasma's discussions. 2) Are we in some sort of cheer-leading squad? "Gramsci is a candle. Marx is the Sun!!" What is THAT all about?

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    I think Keith's point is that physics these days isn't all that 'mechanical,' either, especially at the quantum level or events far from equilibrium. But I would still find useful hierarchies starting from the inorganic, then the organic, then the social, then the intellectual--if for no other reasons than that's how they emerged over time, at least in our corner of the universe.

  • Guest - Keith

    I am leaving for a camping trip, I apologize for being glib and flippant in previous post. I can only be brief here.

    I just want to register my dissent from what is becoming a new consensus. The consensus is that social science is not possible or at least not in the way that natural science is. Human society is contingent, indeterminate, post modern, chaotic etc etc,

    I disagree strongly. Marx certainly thought that the critique of politicly economy was capable of the "precision of natural science" (Preface, to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:" He likened his method of abstraction to a biologists microscope (one of the prefaces to Das Kapital). In other words, Marx believed that he was engaged in a scientific project in the strictest sense. The difference between natural and social science, then, is determined by the object of study.

    I don't know exactly what is meant by "vulgar Marxism." I usually think of it as Second International Marxism. If that it what is meant then I am against it as well.

    I don't think that we can understand Marx much if we deny his basic presuppositions. Scientific knowledge is essentially knowledge of cause and effect. Causes and effects can be determined with precision if determinants are isolated by controlling variables. Marx does this in Das Kapital by making assumptions. Sometimes they are broad assumptions held throughout most of as text (volume one assumes out circulation and assumes that values are easily realized and assumes out the price mechanism etc. Volume 2 assumes out development of the productive forces --that assumption cause Rosa Luxemburg trouble because she didn't understand that it was an assumption made to isolate other variables and not a reflection of reality). Other times the assumptions are made and changed quickly like when figuring out the laws of supply and demand.

    In any event, like any scientist, Marx is looking for laws and necessity, and he wants to exclude accident and necessity.

    I don't know that Marx made short term predictions. But he shows how capital comes into being matures and dies. One of the more useful things to come out of the discussion that I linked in my previous comment is the idea that the critique of politicla economy is the science necessary to overthrow a capitalist system. Previous socialist revolutions have been against pre-capitalist modes of production.

  • Guest - Keith

    apologies, there is a typo in the above. "Marx is looking for laws and necessity and wants to exclude accident and contingency"

  • Guest - People2thePower

    Again, I must respectfully disagree. Take evolution. Evolutionary scientists can explain a great deal about the development of plant and animal species, but no evolutionary scientist is able to predict how animals and plants will change in the short- or even medium-term. There are simply far too many variables that cannot be factored out or controlled -- encroachment by other species, changes in climate or available resources, diseases, etc. Human social life is equally complex. We can utilize theory to explain historical developments and make some broad, long-term projections. We can adopt policies with the reasonable expectation that they will produce certain results. But there are far too many variables acting and interacting to allow us to predict specific events and outcomes. Other sciences (e.g. chemistry and physics) allow us to isolate and control variables to a much greater degree and, therefore, to make very precise, specific predictions. That is simply not true of human social life.

  • Guest - JB Connors

    Nicolette. a thoughtful piece. the swirl of practical questions that confront painted in poetic strokes. i'll try to make some time in the next few days to write something more substantive on it.

  • Guest - carldavidson

    I am not a postmodernist, ie, one who thinks reason takes a back seat to narrative and text. Yet I see a difference between physical, biological and social sciences, manly in degrees of complexity. Political economy is a social science, not a physical one, and Marx is a social scientist of political economy par excellence.

    The main point I take from Keith is this. If you want to understand capitalism in order to change it, you do well to study Marx's Capital, especially if you want to be among those considered 'professional revolutionaries' or the 'organic intellectuals' of the working class. There really isn't any way around this. One can be a fierce fighter or a revolutionary soldier in the class struggle without studying Marx and Capital, and those who have studied Marx will always be a minority, even among communists. But we still need more of them, urgently, to make that minority even larger, especially among the younger generation.

  • Guest - People2thePower

    I, too, agree that we need to study Marx in order to understand capitalism. We need to treat revolutionary theory very seriously if we hope to build a movement that can overturn capitalism and advance towards communism.
    But the main point I took from Keith's remarks on this thread was a tendency towards dogmatism -- as if what Marx wrote in Volume One of Capital is fully consonant with the contents of Volumes Two and Three; as if what Marx wrote is fully sufficient, leaving no room for subsequent insights (based on empirical research as well as revolutionary practice) into human psychology, class relations, economics, and other vital matters.
    We need to be guided by revolutionary theory that is organic and alive -- not by holy writ.

  • Guest - carldavidson


    I think you misread Keith. He stresses things the way he does, IMO, because too many others dismiss Marx with faint praise or ignore him with lip service. Marx is a starting point, not the end point or holy writ. But it doesn't help much, in winning a marathon, to ignore the start and jump into it in the middle. But let him speak for himself when he get back from the woods.

  • Guest - Keith

    I want to respond to some of the points that P2P makes. A number of those points are a part of a new developing consensus that is responding critically to the codification of theory into “Marxism-Leninism,” or “DIAMAT.” I agree with this line of criticism. Bob Avakian is claiming that his personality cult is a “scientific” question and while this is an extreme form of charlatanism it is also the logical outcome of the five heads and labeling things “scientific” when there is no way to have scientific knowledge of such things. Mao was a brilliant politician but I don’t think he wrote anything that qualifies as science. I don’t remember reading anything by Lenin that is science. But, Marx did develop the critique of political economy in a series off books and these books conform to the definition of science. Not everything Marx wrote qualifies as science; brilliant insights and revelatory journalism still are not science.

    Again, science is about determining cause and effect, by controlling variables so causes can be determined.
    A correct critique of our history and tradition has led us into a corner where we are bending the stick too far. So, I do sometimes bend the stick far back in the other direction.

    The problem with the new consensus is often revealed in the use of the term “dogmatic.”

    P2P called my comments "dogmatic." It is not easy to draw out exactly what is meant in this context but the term is often mis-used. When Marx is quoted directly it is often labeled dogmatism. When the theory is defended vigorously against shabby and uninformed critics, the “dogmatic” label is often brought forth.

    The term “dogma” has a long history. But for our purposes we can be brief. Kant opposed his “Critical Philosophy” to “dogmatic philosophy.” And Kant wrote a series of “Critiques” (“Critique of Pure Reason”, “Critique of Practical Reason” etc. and to foreshadow, Marx wrote “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy”). Hegel asserted he was a “critical philosopher” so while he was critical of Kant he saw himself working within that paradigm. Marx, famously, “turns Hegel on his head” but Marx is not negating Hegel and he is working within the critical tradition as well.
    Critical as in “critical philosophy” has the same meaning as “scientific.” Critical philosophy can be “proven.” Dogmatic philosophy cannot be proven (religious revelation for example, or mystical experience) and dogma is then assertion without proof.

    If I am to make a scientific argument and build it upon previous scientific knowledge I will be forced to cite the previous studies. If I say that smoking correlates with lung cancer and you ask me to “prove it,” I can only cite studies. You can attack those studies. You can show that other scientist were unable to replicate those results or you can show that the studies were somehow flawed, perhaps, by failing to effectively control variables. The point is that citing Das Kapital is not evidence of dogma.

    In fact, P2P makes a dogmatic assertion by implying that volume one and volumes two and three are not “fully consonant.” No evidence or citation is provided. So yes, I do think the three volumes of Capital are consonant. You have to read all three volumes to know that. There isn’t a short cut. On the other hand if P2P were to provide some reference, citation, or argument that the three volumes are somehow inconsistent then I could address that argument. As it is, P2P just dogmatically asserts that Marx is not “fully consonant.” (This is a common (dogmatic) way of attacking Marx. “How could it possibly be right, so much has changed since he wrote.” “He didn’t know about corporations” etc etc. )
    Along with the (convoluted) charge of “dogmatism” it is common for the new consensus to say that anyone who upholds the scientific nature of the theory is treating it as “scripture” or “holy writ.” This is actually a plea for eclecticism. It is very unfashionable to critique eclecticism. But eclectic thinking abandons the theory at the first sign of difficulty (“Marx died before the formations of corporations!” “The theory is fucked!” “Corporations are new!” “We need a new theory!!!” “A new synthesis!” It’s a new stage of capitalism!” “Everything’s changed!” Eclecticism, like dogmatism, makes these assertions without evidence, or argues as if it is self evident. )

    Holy Scripture is revealed knowledge. It is irrational by definition. Irrational knowledge, like a mystical experience, is based on experiences that cannot be duplicated by others. (You can be guided into having a mystical experience, for example, take some LSD and listen to the Beatles “Revolver.” It might work, it might not, you may see God, you may see the clear light, you may believe that love is the answer, or you may just have a really shitty time because your friends suck, or for some reason you are not inclined to mystical experiences and dissolving your ego – that’s why it is irrational)

    Scientific knowledge is rational because it is universal, it is knowledge available to anyone. You don’t have to sit in special way or clear thought from your mind. You can duplicate Marx’s results (but you have to read the books). To say, as I do, “I have read the books, I don’t find them to be inconsistent, I find that Marx proved what he says he proved” is not to treat the theory like scripture. The theory is incomplete in a number of ways. Marx planned to write companion books on the state, foreign trade, and the world market. This work still needs to be complete. Corporations are new forms but they are not so hard to grasp. I think that Resnick and Wolff do a more than adequate job explaining their structure using only Marx’s conceptual tools (See their “Knowledge and Class”). The current economic crisis has not yet be adequately explained although the theory is capable of apprehending it.

    Finally, we do indeed need to be guided by a living and developing theory. The question, then, is how do we accomplish that desirable outcome?

    If I want to be an innovative surgeon who develops new techniques and advanced medical science what should I do? Have my Mom volunteer, grab a scalpel and see if I can fix her up? Or should I do some kind of medical school first? If I want to be a physicists and assist in the quest to find a unified theory should I jump in and get to work maybe after reading “A Brief History of Time” or should I study what is already known about physics first with some intensity, before I attempt to innovate on the theory. Likewise, if I want to play the saxophone, should I expect to go beyond Coltrane a few days after I first put reed to lips or will I need to study the instrument and music a bit first. I think it is obvious that if you want to be a great saxophone player – and an innovative one—you will have to put in years of study—including serious study of past masters, likewise, medicine, or physics. Why would revolutionary theory be different?

  • Guest - Jim Monaghan

  • Guest - People2thePower

    I want to start by dialing-back the emotional tone of this exchange. The more I read Keith’s (and Carl’s) comments, the more I believe we are united on some important points, including the belief that too many anti-capitalists today wrongly dismiss Marx as outmoded or seriously flawed. I firmly believe that a successful revolutionary movement against capitalism must be rooted in Marx in much the same way that a proper understanding of evolution or modern physics must be rooted in the works of Darwin, Einstein and Bohr. I am quite serious about that, and I believe we are in agreement here.
    Let me make a self-criticism, too. Keith apologized for being too flippant and glib in his remarks earlier in our exchange, and I want to own up to the same thing. When I consider what Keith wrote more closely, it was unfair of me to suggest that he treated Capital as “holy writ” or showed a “tendency towards dogmatism” when he wrote in praise of Marx.
    So, let me return to my original points in response to Nicollete and Keith in hopes that we can engage these issues of clearer, less emotional ground. I was arguing, first, that that Marxist theory (historical materialism/scientific socialism) does not have predictive powers akin to physics or chemistry. Second, I was pushing back against what I perceived hasty, dismissive treatment of Antonio Gramsci.
    Let’s begin by considering the nature of science, and the differences between the social and physical sciences. I view science as an evidence-based method for interrogating reality, creating hypothesis, testing them, and drawing provisional conclusions. I do not view science as a store of knowledge but as a method for asking new, deeper questions and further developing (or abandoning) our prior conclusions about the world. As such, no body of scientific knowledge is ever complete or whole unto itself. This was the point I tried to make (however clumsily) about Marxist theory. My assertion that Marx’s thinking—and that of Engels—evolved over the course of their lifetimes was not offered as evidence that their theories are somehow internally inconsistent or fatally flawed. I don’t believe they are to any meaningful degree. It was an assertion that Marx and Engels continued to interrogate their world and to develop their understanding, as scientists should. [My reference to Capital Volumes 1-3, was a careless, shorthand reference to the evolution of their work, overall. I don’t want to go back and forth on this point, citing work, after work, after work. That would take this discussion way off track, and it would be tiresome. One of the saddest lines Avakian wrote in defense of his “new synthesis” was his plea that he had read hundreds of books. So what? If we cannot agree that the ideas of Marx and Engels evolved over time, I guess we do have major differences which I doubt could be reconciled.]
    In sum, we cannot expect any one scientific work to provide all the answers we need—be that work Capital, The Origin of Species, or The General Theory of Relativity. Science (including the science of revolution) is forward-moving and organic. Each advance in our knowledge and practice sets the stage for new and deeper questions.
    It is important to note, as well, that all theories are bounded. Theories “stake out” specific portions of reality for study, and omit others. And they define concepts and processes within their areas of inquiry in precise, specific ways. The answers that theories provide are, therefore, also limited to their particular spheres of inquiry (although the knowledge may have implications outside that specific field).
    Furthermore, some theories explore macro-level phenomena—broad forces and trends acting over large distances or long spans of time. Examples of macro-theory might include evolutionary biology, physical cosmology, and – I would argue – historical materialism. Other theories deal with meso- or micro-level phenomena in more localized areas or more limited time frames. Examples might include the study of genomic mutations, fluid dynamics, or the behaviors of social movements and organizations. “Macro theories” can explain a great deal about why plants and animals, the cosmos, or the political-economic world are the way they are. They allow us to understand the forces that shaped the world we know, and that constrain or facilitate the interactions of more localized, observable phenomena in the “here and now.” While a “Macro theory” (evolution, for example) explains the terrain within which we operate—and this is essential information—it cannot explain or predict why a specific gene might mutate under certain conditions. Physical theories about how the cosmos formed cannot explain or predict the characteristics of a particular airplane wing. And theories of how political-economic systems evolve cannot explain or predict (except in the most general, broad-brushed way) the development of social struggles in specific cities or countries.
    To really understand the dynamics and trajectories of specific, localized struggles (including revolutionary movements), we need to incorporate theories of social movements, organizations, social psychology, and related fields—theories that are specifically designed to examine meso- and micro-level events. As Marxists, we should seek out “Meso-“ and “Micro-level” theories that are materialist and dialectical, and that assume a world that is structured by unequal power relations, not a world that operates according to democratic-pluralistic ideals.
    This brings me to my second main point: Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, a revolutionary Marxist, sought to explain so many Italians, including workers with a long, proud “red” tradition, fell under sway of Mussolini’s fascists. His signal contribution (written in prison) was a sociological and psychological analysis of how ruling classes maintain their dominance. He argued, correctly I believe, that dominance requires more than coercion from above – more than formal laws and brute force by the police and military. He noted that oppressed and subordinated people often “buy into” beliefs and processes that quite clearly reinforce their own oppression and subordination. Gramsci explored the power of cultural norms and traditions that make people believe that certain things are just or unjust, normal or offensive, possible or impossible, thinkable or “beyond the pale.” People are socialized into a “common sense” view of how life is. They may not always like the world they live in, but they accept it, more or less, because virtually everything they do, see, and hear from the day they are born (including the very phrases people use) serve to reinforce and justify existing social relations. According to Gramsci, one of the chief dilemmas facing revolutionaries is to how “use common sense to subvert common sense”: in other words, he argued that revolutionaries must connect with people by using words and symbols that are understood and find ways to turn these words and cultural symbols against the ruling classes. Conceptually, I find Gramsci’s ideas very similar to Mao’s observations that we need to engage people where they are (“We must raise the bucket from the ground”) but develop that dialogue to draw out questions and new ideas that can radically transform our collective understanding of the world—what Mao called practicing the Mass Line.
    My point here is not to argue whether Gramsci was correct or not (though I do think he has a great deal to offer, and his work has sparked a couple of generations of inquiry into radical communications). My point is to argue that communists should welcome—indeed, encourage— efforts to extend Marxist theory into communications, psychology, and other important areas that his theories of political-economy were never designed to address.
    Finally, and I will close with this, it is important to recognize that social sciences do not offer the same predictive powers that many of the physical sciences do, for all the reasons noted in my previous posts. If I am studying chemical reactions, I can isolate samples of various chemical substances. I can ensure the samples are identical in mass and composition. I can expose them to identical, closely controlled conditions (temperatures, pressures, humidity, etc.), manipulate particular conditions, then observe and record the results. I and others can precisely replicate my experiment and predict outcomes w+ith considerable confidence and accuracy. I can establish cause and effect.
    But it is impossible, really, to isolate and control human subjects to a similar extent. And if you do manage to isolate and control people to that degree, the experimental conditions will be so far removed from real world experience that your results will have little value. To test and predict human behaviors, we need to use random sample populations. My background is communications, so suppose I’m testing a message about single-payer health care. If I do this correctly, I can “even out” differences between people in terms of their attitudes towards insurance companies, their experiences with doctors, and so forth. I can set up control groups and then test how the experimental subjects felt before and after receiving particular messages. Properly done, the results will give me a high degree of confidence concerning about how my message on health care will be received by the intended audience.
    But how well will those predictions hold up tomorrow, if a huge scandal involving the health insurance industry were to erupt? Or if a major pandemic appeared? Or if a group of prominent politicians united in favor of a single-payer plan? Events in the social world are infinitely more complex and less predictable than events in a chemistry lab. People experience every sort of cross-pressure, every minute of every day—religious, family-based, peer pressure, economic. People’s disposition can change depending on what role they are playing—parent, teacher, sibling, friend . External events can powerfully affect our ideas and actions—floods, monetary inflation, political developments. In social life, the chain of cause-and-effect becomes very, very hard to pin down. Consequently, the knowledge gained from even well-designed social research (and the predictive value of that research) is far less robust than what we are able to glean from research in many of the physical sciences.
    Let me close with this: Our ability to use theory to predict outcomes is weak even in physical sciences when many interacting variables are present. Think the massive amounts of high-quality data we have available about the Earth’s climate systems from satellites, ground and water monitors, balloons, and historical records. Think of all we know about evaporation, convection currents, tides, and jet streams, and how long we’ve studied these things. You would think that by now we (and our super-computers) could predict world-wide weather patterns with a great degree of certainty. But our ability to do so remains shaky because of the sheer number of variables and the complexity of their interactions. We cannot isolate and test the variables (tides, temperatures, humidity, etc.) and obtain meaningful results because weather systems are highly integrated, complex phenomena. Much the same can be said about our poor ability to predict earthquakes, or developments in the eco-system. We’re getting better at these things, and someday I expect we will get pretty good. But we are still a long ways off.
    Human systems are at least as complex as the weather or the movements of the ground, but there is an additional factor that must be added in: human agency. People are not evaporation rates, or pure chemical samples. We do not respond in uniform, predictable ways, even hour to hour. It is possible that someday we will understand individual and group behaviors so thoroughly that we can make reasonably robust predictions concerning future events. But we are not even close to being able to do so today. And most assuredly, the theoretical and methodological tools for doing that are not available in the pages of Capital.

  • Guest - Keith

    I appreciate your effort to have a productive exchange, and I appreciate your self critical remarks. I also spoke in a hasty and admittedly stupid way regarding Gramsci.

    It seems we agree on a lot. Even on Gramsci. I think Gramsci is an important Marxist.

    And, if you are game (and/or anyone else of course!) I would like proceed with a friendly exchange of views.

    We agree on the nature of science. Controlling variables, determining cause and effect -- this is really a very high level of unity.

    I also agree that scientific knowledge is bounded by the object of inquiry and by our ability to apprehend and control for the studied phenomenon's complexity. It is likely possible that with the further development of the productive forces our ability to understand and engage in scientific investigation will improve.

    Perhaps you will agree that, say Mao (or Lenin) was not doing science, in the sense that we have been discussing (controlling variables to determine cause and effect). This is a very important point.

    I want to make a very strong claim for the scientific nature of Marx's project but at the same time I want to make it clear that not everything Marx wrote was scientific. Marx's scientific writings are contained in the critique of political economy.

    Journalism is not science. Most things that subsequent Marxists have written are not science either. The critique of political economy does not figure prominently in "political Marxism" (the five heads) largely because most political Marxism was engaged in struggle against pre-capitalist social formations. The critique of political economy is the theory of anti-capitalist struggle proper-- that is struggle against capitalist social formations; that is why I think Marx's critique of political economy is most important today as we are actually struggling against global capitalism and not feudal remnants like are worthy predecessors.
    I read Marx like a (Leo) Straussian would. I begin by noting that Marx is smarter than me, better educated, and one of a handful of truly great minds in human history. (I also know that Lebron James is a better basketball player than me, and no matter how hard I practice, Lebron will always be better. If some people are better at basketball why wouldn't some people be smarter?). I acknowledge this not because Marx is beyond criticism but because a thorough understanding must precede any criticism. To date, I have yet to read a criticism of Marx that was not based on an elementary misunderstanding of his thought. So I proceed with due caution and read as closely and as carefully as possible.

    I make the above comment because often Marx scientificity is attributed to "vulgar Marxism" or Marx's own formulations are dismissed because of how they have been used by others. So, I want to start by looking at how Marx understood the scientificity of his enterprise.

    Marx argues, specifically in the "Preface" to "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," that "the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, can be determined with the precision of natural science." I ask you to recall this well known comment because Marx believed that he engaged in a project capable of the precision of natural science. There are a couple of important things to note here. First, this comment appears in Marx's first published work of the critique of political economy. Second, he makes no distinction between natural science and social science and in fact likens the two.

    The preface to the First Edition of Das Kapital contains a number of important additional comments on the scientific nature of the project and its method. Early in the text Marx writes, "In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both."

    Again Marx compares his project to the natural sciences. The object of inquiry determines the tools and methods. In this case, "abstraction" is political economy's answer to the biologist’s microscope.

    I think that this is a crucial passage for an understanding of the possibility of a social science as precise as natural science and for an understanding of Marx's mature and most sophisticated project.

    In Das Kapital Marx uses the "force of abstraction" to control variables and determine cause and effect. If I can make an even stronger (more controversial) claim, Marx's critique of political economy is MORE scientific than natural science because he can much more effectively control variables. How does it work? In the text you will see Marx say bluntly "abstract out use-value from the commodity and you are left with exchange value." Then he examines exchange value. This is done in thought. Exchange value is necessarily a relation (you can't exchange something in any meaningful way with itself). If two different things can be exchanged then they have something in common that is comparable. Abstract out the things that make the two commodities unique and we are left with what makes them similar enough to compare: human labour. Human labour is what is exchanged. Marx proves this. He proves this in a way that, say, climate science cannot prove that humans cause global warming (they cannot control all the variables, they use models that do not include all variables, and the system is so complex it has variables that they do not even know about).

    Marx is using abstraction when he makes assumptions. He wants, say, to understand the laws of supply and demand. We don't have to go to a market and observe exchanges to figure this out. We can do it by making assumptions. If supply rises relative to demand prices will fall (there are more goods then buyers, sellers will compete for buyers by lowering prices), if demand rises relative to supply prices will rise (there are more buyers then sellers so buyers will compete with each other by bidding up prices) -- these are relatively easily provable predictions, but if supply and demand are equal then what determines prices? Value, ie. labor times. In volume one Marx assumes commodities exchange at their values un-problematically. This is an assumption that allows Marx to focus on the production process. In volume 2 Marx assumes out technological change to allow him to focus on circulation.

    Throughout the text Marx abstracts out issues by making assumptions to isolate determinants or causes. The assumption are changed to figure out other determinants and at various points in the analysis assumptions are abandoned to see how the system works in total. This is how Marx controls variables. And he is able to do it in a very precise and systematic way, with more precision then an experiment in the natural world.

    The point, for Marx, is revealed in the following comment in the same preface: “Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. “

    The capitalist mode of production has natural laws. The laws work themselves out in the social process and Marx claims “towards inevitable results.” Marx here is speaking in a language that is embarrassing to many “post Marxists.” “Natural laws,” iron necessity,” “inevitable results.”

    Again, I am prepared to defend this view. Take the central contradiction of the capitalist mode of production as expressed most profoundly and concisely in the “Preface” to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.” It is the contradiction between the continuous development of the productive forces and the relations of production. The most important of these relations of production is the value relation. The value relation is the relation between socially necessary labor time determined by the level of development of the productive forces and surplus labor time (the time where labor is exploited – working without compensation). At some point, according to Marx, the relations of production become a fetter to further development of the productive forces (this can be determined "with the precision of natural science," recall from earlier point in the text previously quoted). This is expressed in the law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit. The falling profit rate is an expression of the continued development of the productive forces hitting the barrier of the value relation. This is predictable and the necessary outcome of capitalist development. Marx proves this in a couple thousand pages of text so I can only offer the briefest and most schematic of outlines.

    Of course Marx is not Nostradamus. He is not predicting the date and time of capital’s demise. But he does show that capitalism will necessarily end and how that end will come about and he does so with precision that any unprejudiced natural scientist would envy.

  • Guest - People2thePower

    Keith: I agree that Marx's use of abstraction -- his application of rigorous logic to historical evidence and to his analysis of the commodity -- constitute science. Darwin used the same approach to study historical evidence of life forms and develop his theory of evolution. I wonder how well Marx's assertion that “the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, can be determined with the precision of natural science” translated from the original German into English. What exactly (precisely??) did he mean by "precise"? The physical sciences commonly generate results accurate to 30 decimal places or more -- experimental results that can be repeatedly confirmed, time and again. I don' t know any social science that evens makes such a claim. And I sincerely doubt that Marx would have stood up in a debate and insisted that his work was "precise" in the same way as Newtonian mechanics.

    That does not mean that Marx's theories are imprecise. It simply reflects the fact that the results of social science (and in this case science by pure abstraction -- excluding mathematics) cannot be precise in the same way, because the objects of study cannot be quantified and controlled with the same exactitude. (You don't see Darwin, for example, providing mathematical data demonstrating the branching-off of various sub-species.) Precision means different things according to the theories, methods, theories and data available to the researcher.

    You asked whether the writings of Mao, Lenin -- and the more "journalistic" works of Marx -- constitute "science"?
    Without thumbing through their writings work by work, I would argue that those individuals skillfully applied the science of dialectical/historical materialism to their analyses of real-world conditions. To me, applying the scientific method constitutes practicing science.

    Perhaps, we're into the differences between constructing new scientific theories and applying/refining theories. [Since I mentioned Gramsci early on, I recommend reading his analyses of Italian history and politics.] By applying the science of dialectical/historical materialism, Lenin and Mao discovered unexpected, unorthodox solutions for the revolutionary movements in their respective countries. Lenin determined it was possible to "break the weak link" and make socialist revolution in an underdeveloped capitalist country, and Mao determined that peasant uprisings could provide the major impetus for a revolutionary communist movement. I cannot agree that applying and refining revolutionary theory is not science, or that is less scientific or less important than creating original theories. I view the science as single, iterative process -- a dialectical unity of theory and practice. You can't have one without the other.

  • Guest - Gary

    So, in the same way as life-forms are the object of biology, plants the object of botany, animals the object of zoology, chemicals the object of chemistry, physical motion the object of physics---"the commodity" is the object of "the science of dialectical/historical materialism"?

    If not, what IS the subject matter of this "science"? The history of human society? The history of production?

    In my view the treasure-house of Marxism applies scientific principles to the analysis of a wide range of phenomena. But to call it "a" science, as though it ranks and should be included in curricula alongside biology, chemistry etc. is misleading and unhelpful. It feeds the dogmatic Marxist's notion that he/she is by virtue of being Marxist a "scientist" (as the RCP encourages). We should be humbler.

  • Guest - carldavidson

    The commodity is simply the best place to begin in unfolding a critique of capitalist political economy, using both dialectics and materialism as a method. Do so is a social science, but one capable of fairly rigorous analysis, and some degree of precision. We can make predictions in a general way, and with some degrees of probability even. But exact precision? Not on some levels--otherwise we could play the Wall St markets and make a killing to fund the revolutionary movement. A few have tried their hand at it, and an even smaller number have had a little success. But it's a tad easier to recruit those who have made a killing in those spheres, or their children, once the fortunes are already amassed! In brief, work on it, but don't put most of your eggs in that basket.

Leave your comments

Post comment as a guest

0 Character restriction
Your text should be more than 10 characters
Your comments are subjected to administrator's moderation.