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Marxism and (Natural) Science:

Karl Marx, Michael Polanyi, and Max Weber; Some Theodor Adorno, Helmut Gollwitzer, C.F. von Weizsäcker, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

by Peter D. S. Krey     April 1, 2019

After reading this introduction, if you can read German, this book can be purchased in the Scholar Store.

An Introduction to  this Work

This book was handwritten in German, when I left Berlin in 1975. Then in 2011, I revised it with my word processor, adding new material and learning as I went. It was dedicated to Fred Wentz, who was the president of the seminary, that I attended,[1]  because he asked me, “How can Marxism claim to be a natural science?” His question led me to investigate Marxism more closely, but also natural science and the objectification effect it had on the humanities and modern people, if it became scientism. At some point I hope to translate, update, and revise this work in English, although most of my sources are in German. 

Rereading it today, I realize how it is a development of my work on Christian-Marxist dialogue in my seminary years (1967-1971). But rather than use religion as compared to Marxism, I go to Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and critique Marxism through his insights, meanwhile giving credence to the social truths of Marxism. Polanyi has very valid critiques of the latter, but he also introduced me to his critique of the sciences (in English that means the natural sciences)[2] that is, for an objectivism that they as well as Marxism as a “science,” propagate, eclipsing human subjects, who are the agents of history and the authors of science.[3] The problem involves their objectification, because science can investigate objects, but the humanities cannot make objects out of subjects to attain the scientific authority natural sciences tend to impose.[4]

I also bring in the help of Sartre (Marxism and Existentialism), Adorno (Essays toward a Social Theory and Methodology), and Gollwitzer (The Capitalist Revolution).[5] The latter argues that the capitalist revolution has captured science, placing it in its servitude. It is pretty obvious that a great deal of scientific research was financed by the military-industrial complex and much of it is still at the service of multinational corporations.[6] The servitude of the natural sciences for capitalist production, Gollwitzer argues in his radical way, violates nature and exploits society. He writes:

The greater the human control achieved through science and the greater the appropriation of the forces of nature it makes possible, and thereby the greater the impact of technology upon nature, the greater the urgent question becomes, who is here the employing, planning, controlling, and thereby the responsible subject and by what criteria is such employment decided?[7]

Adorno includes “subjects of society” where I only champion subjects as the agents of history and authors of science. His emphasis is slightly different from mine in that I think mostly in terms of the individual versus the collective methodologies investigating society, while he speaks of the false consciousness of positivism, which objectifies its own subjectivity in place of the concrete society, thereby tacitly supporting the injustice of the latter. Adorno’s dialectical (Hegelian/Marxist) methodology also includes an analysis and critique of our particular concrete economic society. A thought system can be oblivious to an economic, social, and political system in which the thinker is a subject. Adorno does not argue that the superstructure is determined by the base, which is a vulgar Marxism, but questions why a positivist thinker’s subjectivity does not include a cognizant and critical relationship with the base, (to use Marxist terms) and most likely (again) it is because of the thinker’s tacit support of an unjust status quo.

Only with Adorno do I touch upon positivism, because it is the target of his critique. But his critique of positivism is very relevant to Marxism’s claim to being a science. Marxism is also guilty of scientism because Marx argued that his dialectical materialism superseded philosophy and replaced religion. What, according to him, masqueraded as religion was merely the opiate of the people. He preceded the Vienna Circle of the 1920’s who launched logical positivism. This circle of thinkers held that progress represented movement from religion to metaphysics to science, so that in a sense, like Marxism, their concept of science usurped metaphysics and religion. Ethical, metaphysical, and religious sentences were not verifiable, and therefore meaningless. In this way their concept of science went way out of bounds and became scientism, a false faith and false consciousness. Wittgenstein applied the verifiable principle to the verifiable principle and found that it too failed verification. Adorno with his dialectics does not tire criticizing positivist scientism arguing that even ignoring relations of production or socio-political relations is to support injustice. 

In this work, Gollwitzer comes between my first comparison of Polanyi’s personal knowledge with Marxism’s social insights and then my second comparison of Max Weber’s sociology and Marxism. Thus the Christian-Marxism dialogue with which I began, has gone over to personal and social levels and continues with the problem of a mature science as opposed to an immature one, whose scientism violates its appropriate boundaries. Weber characterizes Marxism as a genetic idealtype or model that should not confuse itself with unfathomable realities that it is investigating. Marxism with illicit claims to totality distorts and violates realities, rather than improving them.

Marxism is also a philosophy of praxis, which brings about added difficulties. The action-reflection-action strategy is age-old, but when controlled by an ideology with an inadequate anthropology and unaware of all the other sources of evil, outside of exploitation, it can become problematic. As opposed to a collective praxis, Weber insists on individual persons making decisions and concerning themselves with means and ends, while acting mindfully with respect to the meaning and purpose of their lives.

But how does a methodological individualism relate to a holistic methodology, (say for example, systems-thinking), where human beings are personal and social. Marx has an edge on the latter. Individualism and collectivism are, however, half-truths.  (The philosopher Berdyaev argues that the general can also act like a particular, which may support methodological holism. I did not yet introduce Berdyaev and Teilhard de Chardin into this work; nor Habermas, who divides the political and economic systems, – which Marx should have divided, and which exist for the sake of the life-world and not vice versa.) Who can doubt that social, economic, and political forces act on individuals and that Marx is very much more in touch with such forces.

Perhaps a capitalism with a human face or socialism with a human face could be worth striving for. The latter was brutally crushed in Dubček’s Czechoslovakia by Russian tanks, or, perhaps we need a whole new paradigm, when considering the short-comings of the capitalist or socialist genetic-idealtypes. But let us call to mind the realism, that no earthly paradigm can make a claim to being ultimate, which is no excuse, however, for not struggling for a penultimate one with a greater approximation of justice (Reinhold Niebuhr).


This is a Postscript, because my thinking has, of course, developed from the place where this book left off.

First, relating to the political talk of socialism today, one can speak of percentages of capitalism and socialism in a political economy. D’Anghel Rugina (1913-2008), a Romanian social economist, whose economics class I took at Northeastern University in Boston, argued that every economy is a mix of both models.[8] 100% capitalism represented complete freedom for him. He would chant “Freedom! Freedom!” in class. 100% socialism represented slavery for him. But an economy could be 80% capitalist and 20% socialist or 50/50 or 20% capitalist and 80% socialist. He argued that capitalism is the most productive economy, but it had to be regulated like the cockpit of a jet with all the dials and instruments to keep it from also bringing harm to a domestic society, as well as those of third world countries. As a social economist, he believed that ethics was a central field of economics, because unethical behavior could bring the whole economy down. This mixture of models does not attempt to come to a new paradigm, but it does describe our mixed economy.

The question becomes what fields of our economy work best under which model? When the communication industry was deregulated, it blossomed into many wonderful new products and ways to communicate from I-phones to computers to face to face calling, texting, and what not. Before Bell Telephone had a monopoly that provided a land-line and telephone booths, which were also called “cell phones”. (Now a telephone booth is as scarce as a typewriter.) On the other hand, when electricity was deregulated in California, Enron in Texas did a number on California’s people. Corporations that could purchase huge amounts of electricity received very low rates and suddenly households received $20,000 electric bills. The capitalist model simply did not work as it did in the communication industry. Airlines deregulated reducing the price of air travel by the intense competition that resulted, but the service has been reduced to a minimum and the luxury of early air travel is a thing of the past, unless one can afford to fly first class. The health-care industry probably requires a public socialist model to bring prices under control. Education, prisons, and military contractors are very controversial when placed into a capitalist, privatized economic model. Military contractor corporations could be hired by powerful multi-national corporations to compete with and violate sovereign nations. Some governments can be “of the oil companies, by the oil companies, and for the oil companies” to the misfortune of the people.

My work, here in German, however, is much more theoretical, searching for a new paradigm beyond the models of socialism and capitalism.

Pierre Bourdieu dismisses both methodological individualism and holism, influenced by the philosophy of Husserl. He finds Karl Marx to have most succinctly described his view of society, when he wrote in Grundrisse (1971:77) “Society does not consist in individuals: it expresses the sum connections and relationships in which individuals find themselves.”  Thus Bourdieu’s key sociological concept is not a system or life-world and two systems, like the model of Habermas.  Bourdieu uses such concepts as habitus and fields, (in his words and that of his student Loïc Wacquant) which designate bundles of relations. A field consists of a set of objective, historical relations between positions anchored in certain forms of power (or capital), while habitus consists of a set of historical relations “deposited” within individual bodies in the form of mental and corporeal schemata of perception, appreciation, and action.[9] So where one used to speak inadequately of “changing the system,” Habermas has the life-world and two systems,[10] while Bourdieu has fields, with their structure, forces, positions, dispositions, and specialized capital.[11] Thus a government could consist of nine fields, with all the positions, dispositions, capital, etc. involved in each, rather than thinking about the government simply in the over-generalized terms of a political system.

In his Gifford Lectures, C.F. von Weizsäcker, a German scientist, published in The Limits of What Science Can Bear,[12] argues that in the last two centuries the faith of the West by default has become a faith in science and its ambiguity makes it an unreliable scientism. Early Christianity was radical and contrary to the domestic and compromised Christianity of today, its earlier version shared many moments resembling the movement of Marxism. (He held his lectures in Scotland in 1964.) As a movement today, Marxism has ground to a halt, but there is no question that it resembled the movement of Lutheranism launched in the sixteenth century, Mohammed’s Islam of the eighth century, and that of early Christianity. Christ proclaimed the kingdom of heaven, which sounds quaint to us today, but it challenged Caesar’s empire of that day. Luther wrote, “For the Word of God comes, whenever it comes, to change and renew the world.” And Marx wrote, “Philosophers have all variously described the world; the point, however, is to change it.” There is a sense, in which Marx was like a new Moses trying to lead workers by another exodus into a promised classless society, flowing with milk and honey. Had he not mistakenly thought science required atheism and exclaimed, “Workers of the world, in God’s name revolt!” he may have left Russia and China as rich as medieval monasteries, which held all property in common, despite their vows of poverty! – chastity and obedience.

Weizsäcker provides only a diagnosis of our modern alienation and cannot offer a cure. He argues that the natural sciences would not have been possible without Christianity, despite their early modern conflict. Science importantly requires continuous retesting of results and self-correction of its truths and, he argues that no philosophy or religion should hold its truths as absolute today, but also always be open to critique and self-correction as well. He finds Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, the plants and the weeds growing together in a field, a perfect description of our modern situation with religion as well as Marxism and science, especially when it has become scientism.

I usually interpret secularism as the stepchild of Christianity, the neutral space required for believers to become convinced of its truth. (Islam does not allow for that space.) Weizsäcker interprets secularism as a heresy, because it takes only a part of the whole Christian truth and absolutizes it. But it also represents the old truth that this world needs changing, but without recognizing its own ambiguity, it cannot see that there is another side to the truth it stands on.

To build upon Weizsäcker’s thought, if Christianity still challenged the world head-on as it did in its first days, then it would not have left a vacuum that Islam[13] and Marxism tried to fill. It also would not have forced science to become scientism, an ambiguous Ersatz (substitute) religion, in order to give modern folk something authentic to believe in.

    _______________________ Endnotes

[1] Hamma School of Theology, Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.

[2] In German a distinction is made between the natural sciences (natur Wissenschaften) and human sciences (geistes Wissenschaften) (our humanities), while for us science is understood to be only the former.

[3] I will make this assertion  more nuanced and precise, but I first want it to provide self-esteem and a heightened sense of value for ourselves as subjects, who are often objectified in our consumer society as products, who have to sell ourselves. Bernard Lonergan, the Jesuit thinker, speaks of neglected, truncated and alienated subjects in his famous lectures of 1968: The Subject: (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1968.

Now more nuanced and precise:

The term, “authors of natural science and the subjects of history,” tries to depict the grandeur of human beings, but the actual relation of a person or a community to history and to natural science is far more intricate and complex. Then we would have to distinguish what we mean by history: a) history as written b) the course of events c) evaluation of the past by progeny; and for natural science, for example, a) what is written b) the work of research in laboratories c) fields of research d) technological development. It is easy to write in a vague way, but then only confusion results. Subjects of history refers first of all to agents affecting the course of events, while the other senses history follow. All the senses of the term “science” could be affected by subjects as authors.

[4] How often do we hear, “Psychology? It isn’t really a science.” “Philosophy? Science has made it obsolete.” “We need more university students in science, math, and technology. We can close the humanities department.”

[5] I’ve translated these German titles into English.

[6] This is still mostly true, although some scientists moved from biology to ecology, as I remember in in my college days in 1970, and now, of course, many scientists are lifting an apocalyptic voice because of climate change.

[7] Helmut Gollwitzer,  Die Kapitalistische Revolution, (The Capitalist Revolution), (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1974), page 49. (My translation). In a conversation I once had with him, he asserted that the old Soviet Union actually had a form of state capitalism and socialism has not been able to obstruct the course of the capitalist global revolution. This statement would, of course, be controversial to a Marxist.

[8] For a much more detailed and nuanced presentation of Rugina’s economic theory in this regard, see Peter Krey, “Anghel Rugina: Blogging my thoughts about Government in the Economy,” (peterkrey.wordpress.com, September 21, 2012), https://peterkrey.wordpress.com/tag/anghel-rugina/

[9] I am following Loïc Wacquant closely here in his book authored along with Pierre Bourdieu: An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, (University of Chicago Press, 1992), page 16.

[10] Peter Krey, “The Life-World and the Two Systems,” in Scholardarity, (2002 and 2004) http://www.scholardarity.com/?page_id=807. Or stop the economic system from colonizing the political system and the life-world.

[11] Peter Krey, “Our Financial and Economic Crisis and Pierre Bourdieu,” November 28, 2008: https://peterkrey.wordpress.com/?s=Bourdieu.

[12] C.F. von Weizsäcker, Die Tragweite der Wissensschaft, vol. I, (Stuttgart: S. Hirzel Verlag, 1964). I do not have his volume 2.

[13] Robert Bellah in a comparative religions class: try this thought experiment: Old King David, did not take Jerusalem to be all but universalizing faith in one God, became a conqueror, taking armies into one country after another and spreading the faith. There you have Mohammed.

After reading this introduction, if you can read German, this book can be purchased in the Scholar Store.

pr. peter d.s krey, Ph.D.

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