No Marx for Positivism

Brian asked:

Why and on what basis Marxism regards Positivism as an idealist philosophy?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Brian, here’s my take on the issues. I’m not sure that Marxists regard Positivism as an Idealist philosophy. Rather, it is regarded as a variant of Empiricism — a philosophical approach connected with ‘bourgeois’ philosophers such as John Locke, August Comte and the like.

Firstly, Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism argued against fellow Bolshevik Aleksandr Bogdanov’s ‘Empiriomonism’ which, attempted to incorporate Ernst Mach’s philosophy of Empirio Criticism into a Marxian world-view. That is, Mach maintained that all human beings could know were isolated sensations — much in the same way as George Berkeley held that human knowledge consisted only of immaterial ideas. On this basis, the materialist element of epistemology was downgraded and the ‘idealist’ element emphasised. Further, the examination of existing material conditions — the hallmark of the materialist conception of History or Historical Materialism as it became known — was bypassed in favour of emphasising human will and action. Revolutionary change became a matter of ‘Willing’. This was dismissed as vacuous Voluntarism which ignored an appreciation of and analyses of, actually existing socio-material conditions.

Secondly, Positivism is used by Marxists such as George Lukacs (see his History and Class Consciousness esp: the essay ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism?’ and Karl Korsch Marxism and Philosophy) to describe the methodology of ‘bourgeois’ sciences which they were critical of. The latter emphasises the recognition and analyses of ‘Positives’ (see Auguste Comte) or ‘Facts’ in the summation of social analyses. These are subsequently constitutive of immutable, universal Laws. This empirical approach took an atomised, particularist approach to phenomena without connecting them to the larger social totality.

As Lukacs remarks in ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism?’, in Capitalist society, ‘Fetishism’ (the apparent independence of creations, relations from their human creators) encourages the quantitative abstraction of ‘things’ so that isolated facts, complexes of isolated facts encourages the establishment of separate, specialist disciplines to analyse such ‘facts’ (economics, law, sociology and so on). Here we have ‘bourgeois’ sciences and their empiricist, positivist approach.

For Marxists such as Lukacs, the underlying ‘essence’ or connections between such ‘facts’ must be discerned from the isolated, immutable ‘factual’ appearance. This following Marx’s words that ‘the whole of science would be superfluous if the appearance of things coincided with their essence’ (Capital III, p. 797). The inter-connection between phenomena cannot be accounted for by Positivism but can be accounted for by the Dialectic. The latter recognises and accounts for the transitory nature of social and historical life i.e. that such phenomena change, exist in a process of movement or becoming. As Lukacs writes:

“Only in this context which sees the isolated facts of social life, as aspects of the historical process and integrates them into a Totality, can knowledge of the facts hope to become knowledge of reality. This knowledge starts from the simple (and to the capitalist world), pure, immediate, natural determinants described above’ It progresses from them to the knowledge of the concrete totality i.e., to the conceptual reproduction of reality.” (p. 8 ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’)

Finally, Positivism is used by Marxists to critically describe the writings, theories of other Marxists. More specifically, it is used by Hegelian Marxists to condemn as wrong, those Marxists who rely on the Natural sciences as evidence for the existence of a Dialectic of Nature (Engels’ Dialectics of Nature for example) which then supposedly justifies the operation of the Dialectic in social and Historical phenomena. Thus ‘Dialectical Materialism’ the Philosophy of Marxism — underpins Historical Materialism. So for example, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology and Theory and Practice from the standpoint of Dialectical Materialism by Nicolai Bukharin were judged to exhibit Positivistic tendencies. They relied too heavily on the natural sciences as a justification for the correctness of the Marxist Dialectic. This Positivist approach is taken to be wrong as it subsumes human activity and consciousness under ‘scientific laws’ when, the issue is much more complex than ‘vulgar Marxists’ can appreciate. Indeed, many Marxist Philosophers dismiss the attempt to justify Dialectics of Nature as Positivism.

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