A short note on Marx as a scientist

Marx’s claim that his work amounted to scientific theory are the one aspect of his thought that has been comprehensively debunked in the time since he wrote. There is no doubt that the idea that Marx uncovered “iron laws” of history akin to the law of gravity is utterly implausible.

And yet.

I’ve been reading “Linked” by Albert-Lazlo Barabasi and reflecting on my reading of “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman about Marx’s method. I can’t help but think that there are similarities between the thought process used by Barabasi in his exploration of networks and the processes used by Marx.

Take for example these excerpts from Barabasi’s book on the science of networks:

By distancing ourselves from the particulars, we glimpsed the universal organising principles behind these complex systems.

(Barabasi 2014, p. 89)

it was clear from the beginning that the topology of real networks was shaped by many effects that we had ignored for the purpose of simplicity and transparency.

(Barabasi 2014, p. 225)

These are very similar to Marx’s method of using abstraction as described by Ollman. Specifically in the first quote Barabasi is describing his use of a ‘level of generality’ type abstraction that enabled him to see the outlines of the overall system that colours the individual parts.

In the second quote Barabasi is describing how using an ‘abstraction of extension’ allowed him to exclude factors which were not directly required in the analysis in question, and therefore see more clearly.

Both these approaches can be seen at work in Marx, most obviously at the beginning of Capital Volume 1 in the chapters on the commodity and money.

I’m also reminded of Thomas S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” which expresses many of the mechanisms of contradiction and the links between quantity and quality in the process of change which Marx uses in his work on both history and political economy, as well as the impact of vantage point on the development of scientific theory.

Is Marxism a science in the Newtonian sense of a set of laws which rigidly determine outcomes? Definitely not. But perhaps it might be said that Marx is approaching political economy in a scientific way, or at least in a way that has similarities to modern scientific method. And that’s an interesting thought.

Linked, Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, Basic Books New York, 2014.

Dance of the Dialectic, Bertell Ollman, University of Illinois Press Urbana, 2003.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn, University of Chicago Press London, 2012.

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