Revolution#111, December 9, 2007


Marxism as a Science—Refuting Karl Popper (continued)

Editors’ Note: The following is the seventh in a series of excerpts from a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA earlier this year (2007). This has been edited for publication and footnotes have been added (among other things, in preparing this for publication, the author has considerably expanded the section on Karl Popper). These excerpts are being published in two parts. Both Part 1 and Part 2 are now available in their entirety, as two documents, at; the excerpts comprising Part 2 will also be published as a series in Revolution after the conclusion of the present series of excerpts. The following is the second part of Bob Avakian’s discussion of Karl Popper. The first part, which appeared in our last issue, examined Popper’s use of the concept of scientific falsifiability and applied it to Marxism. This week’s excerpt turns more directly to Popper’s attempts to discredit Marxism.

If we turn more directly now to Karl Popper’s attempt to discredit Marxism, this can shed further light on what has been discussed so far, in terms of Marxism as a scientific theory, and it will bring to light some of the main ways in which Popper’s attack on Marxism is in reality not only a distortion of communism but also a distortion of, and in reality an apology for, capitalism-imperialism.


Popper includes Marx and Marxism, along with Hegel and others, in what he characterizes as “historicism,” by which he means a certain kind of determinism, akin or equivalent to teleology: the notion that there is some design or purpose in nature, and/or history, and that things are all being directed, in accordance with this design or purpose, toward some predetermined end. And Popper attempts to show that such theories, including Marxism, lead in reality to totalitarianism. This is linked to Popper’s claim that Marxism cannot meet, and in fact fails, the test of falsifiability. Here, I will not attempt to speak to and refute everything that is wrong with not only Popper’s conclusions but his basic approach and method—to do that might well require more volumes than Popper’s original material—but I will focus on a few elements which are central to Popper’s thesis and which, upon scientific examination, reveal at least some of the basic flaws not only in Popper’s conclusions but in his method and approach as well.

Let’s begin with the question of capitalism’s development into imperialism and, along with that, the fact that the class contradictions in the imperialist countries themselves, rather than being intensified, as Marx and Engels had originally predicted, became mitigated and modified. Already, toward the end of the 19th century, Engels in particular had begun to analyze how the widespread British colonial empire—and the exploitation and depredation that British imperialism carried out in its colonies—had led to changes in the condition of sections of the British working class.

But here is what Popper says about Engels’ analysis:

“Forced to admit that in Britain the prevailing tendency was not towards an increase in misery [among the working class] but rather towards a considerable improvement, he hints that this may be due to the fact that Britain ‘is exploiting the whole world’; and he scornfully assails ‘the British working class’ which, instead of suffering as he expected them to do, ‘is actually becoming more and more bourgeois’.” (Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2, Hegel and Marx, p.187)

Here it is Popper who has insinuated into the discussion a certain method, and certain motives, which he attributes to Engels. Engels is angry, according to Popper, because the British working class did not suffer as he expected—and, the implication is, wanted—them to suffer; and this, says Popper, is the reason Engels is speaking about this British working class in the “scornful” terms he does. Note that here Popper in effect ignores, or sidesteps, the question of whether Engels is right (and, as we shall see presently, when Popper does try to show that Engels is not right, Popper falls into assertions that are not only false but fatuous). Popper is out to show that Engels (along with Marx) was proceeding according to an apriorist and instrumentalist theory, and when reality (in this case in the persons of the British workers) did not conform to this apriorist and instrumentalist theory, then the conclusion was that there was something wrong with reality (with the reality of the British working class) rather than with the theory.

So argues Popper. And he further elaborates on this with the comment that

“Marx blamed capitalism for ‘proletarianizing the middle class and the lower bourgeoisie’, and for reducing the workers to pauperism. Engels now blames the system—it is still blamed—for making bourgeois out of workers. But the nicest touch in Engels’ complaint is the indignation that makes him call the British who behave so inconsiderately as to falsify Marxist prophecies ‘this most bourgeois of all nations’.” (Popper, p. 188)

Note that here Popper smuggles in the concept of “prophecies”—attributing this religious orientation to Engels, and Marx—and paints them as fanatics who are bent on forcing reality to conform to their essentially religious-teleological convictions. This is a canard common to the “anti-totalitarian” theorists, such as Popper. And Popper extends this as well to Lenin and his analysis of capitalism’s development into the stage of imperialism and its effects on the working class in countries like England. Speaking of Lenin’s description of how imperialism has led to the bourgeoisification of a part of the British proletariat, Popper remarks: “Having given such a pretty Marxist name, ‘the bourgeoisification of the proletariat’, to a hateful tendency—hateful mainly because it did not fit in with the way the world should go according to Marx—Lenin apparently believes that it has become a Marxist tendency.” (Popper, p. 188, emphasis added here)

But the truth is that Engels, as well as Lenin, was applying Marxism—the scientific theory of communism—to analyze what had actually happened in objective reality, while it is Popper himself who is proceeding according to an apriorist and instrumentalist theory (namely, the theory that Marxism is not a science but a “historicist” approach which attempts to shape reality to its teleological conceptions…and becomes infuriated when reality refuses to oblige). Popper’s own apriorism and instrumentalism in this regard becomes strikingly clear when he attempts to refute the analysis of Engels—which was carried further and generalized by Lenin with the further development of reality, in the first part of the 20th century—concerning the effects of imperialism in the imperialist countries themselves, as well as in the colonized world. Listen to what Popper is not embarrassed to argue:

“There are countries, for instance the Scandinavian democracies, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, to say nothing of the United States, in which a democratic interventionism secured to the workers a high standard of living, in spite of the fact that colonial exploitation had no influence there, or was at any rate far too unimportant to support the hypothesis…. Furthermore, although the misery imposed upon the natives through colonization is one of the darkest chapters in the history of civilization, it cannot be asserted that their misery has tended to increase since the days of Marx. The exact opposite is the case; things have greatly improved. And yet, increasing misery would have to be very noticeable there if the auxiliary hypothesis [about the effects of colonialism and imperialism] and the original theory [of Marx] were both correct.” (Popper, p. 189, emphasis added here)

It is hard to know which is more astounding: the fact that someone who claims to be making a serious argument, by way of critiquing Marxism, can actually state things such as this, which are so flagrantly and demonstrably in conflict with reality (and this was clearly the case at the time that Popper wrote this); or that such a person, authoring such statements, can apparently be taken seriously by people who think of themselves as seriously engaging reality, and many of whom consider themselves “progressive” opponents of the injustices in the world.

Here, I don’t believe it is necessary to cite much of the great abundance of facts and analysis which give the lie to Popper’s claims (and in particular the ones highlighted in the passages above), since the stinging refutation that reality itself provides is there for anyone willing to see, or to do even minimal investigation into the matter. But let me just introduce a few basic facts into the picture. In Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, at the beginning of chapter 5 (“Imperialism, Democracy, and Dictatorship”) I cited a few statistics which point to the profound disparities in the world, particularly between the imperialist countries, on the one hand, and the colonies (or neo-colonies) of the Third World, on the other hand. For example: the gross national product, per capita (in relation to each person) was then (the early 1980s) more than 35 times greater in Great Britain than in India; more than 25 times greater in France than in Senegal; and more than 40 times greater in the U.S. than in Haiti; and so on. In the 20 or so years since that was written, with the effects of things like IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs in many Third World countries, and the opening up of these countries and their peoples to even more unfettered exploitation and plunder by imperialism, the situation for great numbers of people in the Third World has only grown worse. (And it has been estimated, for example, that with regard to things like nutritional standards, the people in Latin America are worse off than their ancestors were at the time of the invasion by the Spanish and other European colonialists, 500 or so years ago.) The recent book by Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, provides a compelling picture of the desperate situation and extreme misery of literally billions of people throughout the Third World, whose lot today is hardly better than it was in “the days of Marx.”

In short, the words of Marx, in characterizing the results of the capitalist accumulation process—words which Popper cites in order to mock Marx—stand out as all the more profoundly true today, and the reality that these words capture (even while they cannot do so fully) stands as a stinging rebuttal to Popper, especially as this is viewed not simply within the narrow circle of a handful of imperialist countries but rather on a world scale: “The accumulation of wealth at the one pole of society involves at the same time an accumulation of misery, of the agony of toil, of slavery, ignorance, brutalization, and of moral degradation, at the opposite pole.” (Marx, as cited in Popper, p. 186) For anyone with a willingness to look honestly at the situation in the world, there can be no doubt that the kind of thing that is cited above from Popper, in his attempt to discredit the Marxist and Leninist analysis of imperialism and its effects, should be dismissed as monumental foolishness if it were not for the very sinister intent and effect of Popper’s denial and distortion of reality.1

The state, bourgeois democracyand dictatorship

Popper does not fare any better when it comes to his attempt to refute the basic Marxist analysis of the state. Consistent with his overall approach, Popper argues that in the Marxist view of the state—which recognizes that the state is an instrument of class dictatorship—there is a strong element of “essentialism.” This is another way of saying that Marxism attempts to impose “categories” on reality, rather than examining what actually happens in reality. So, Popper asserts: “Instead of making his demands or proposals concerning the functions which he wants the state, the legal institutions or the government to perform, he [Marx] asks, ‘What is the state?’; that is to say, he tries to discover the essential function of legal institutions.” (Popper, p. 119, emphasis in original)

This is like criticizing a man as an “essentialist” because, when seeing a gun pointed at his head, he focuses on the danger it poses (the “essential nature” of the gun and the bullets it can fire), rather than “making his demands or proposals concerning the functions which he wants…[the gun] to perform”! Here it has to be said that this concept of “essentialism” is completely erroneous, and harmful, if it is applied to mean that one should not try to determine what the essence of something actually is. While taking into account that all things, all forms of matter in motion, themselves involve internal contradiction and are constantly moving and changing (and interacting with other forms of matter in motion), and that particular forms of matter in motion have a beginning and an end (come into existence and eventually go out of existence), it is not wrong, and in fact it is very important, to recognize that these particular forms of matter in motion have a certain identity, or essential character, in any given circumstances, and to identify what exactly that identity or essential character is. (As Mao Tsetung pointed out, the essence of a thing is defined by its principal aspect. That essential character is not something unchangeable—it may change, and will change if the principal aspect changes, as a result of struggle; but the particular nature of that change, what it gives rise to, will be influenced and largely shaped by the nature of the thing itself, and of its contradictory aspects—this change and what it gives rise to cannot result from, and be determined by, the subjective wishes or desires of anyone—here we see another parallel with evolutionary changes in the natural world and the role of constraints in relation to that, as spoken to earlier.2)

Here, as we will see again, Popper is actually proceeding according to an apriorist and instrumentalist approach: he wants to argue that reform, not revolution, is what is called for, in order to deal with certain ills of capitalism that he does not feel inclined to deny, and in accordance with that he fashions attempts to refute the validity of the Marxist analysis of the state—attempts which, upon examination, do not really even address, let alone refute, that analysis. In short, instead of making wrong-headed accusations about “essentialism” with regard to the Marxist analysis of the (essence of the) state, what is required, in order to refute this analysis, is to show that it is wrong. And when Popper attempts to do this, the flaws in his method and approach once again forcefully assert themselves.

Popper’s essential argument on this (so to say) is that where a people can remove their political leaders, there cannot be a dictatorship but there is rather a democracy (as is common, Popper suggests that where there is democracy there cannot be a dictatorship, and vice versa, rather than recognizing the reality that a certain kind of democracy—bourgeois democracy—can be, and often is, a useful form for the exercise of dictatorship by the bourgeoisie). Here is the crux of Popper’s attempted refutation of the Marxist theory that the state is an instrument of class dictatorship:

“Moreover, from the point of view we have reached, what Marxists describe despairingly as ‘mere formal freedom’ becomes the basis of everything else. This ‘mere formal freedom’, i.e. democracy, the right of the people to judge and to dismiss their government, is the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power; it is the control of the rulers by the ruled.” (Popper, p. 127, emphasis added here)

Although it was not written as a response to Popper, in a real sense the whole of my book Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? constitutes, objectively, a refutation of this statement by Popper and the whole line of thinking of which it is a typical expression. Particularly in the third chapter of that book—very appropriately titled “The Illusions of Democracy”—I demonstrated how, in a bourgeois dictatorship in the democratic form (which Popper, along with many others, simply refers to as “democracy,” without regard to, or in denial of, its actual class content and character), while it may be true that the people can “dismiss” (vote out of office) particular politicians, they cannot by this means—or any means, other than revolution—“dismiss” the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) which in reality rules society, which exerts control over the electoral process itself, and which in any case dominates the political decision-making process, and, most essentially, exercises a monopoly of “legitimate” armed force. As I have emphasized, in Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? and elsewhere, no serious—and certainly no genuinely scientific—analysis of the dynamics of political power and of the political decision-making process in “democratic” countries, such as the U.S., can lead to any other conclusion than that all this is, in reality, completely monopolized and dominated by the ruling class of capitalist-imperialists, and that others, besides this ruling class, are effectively excluded from the exercise of political power and meaningful political decision-making, notwithstanding the participation of the populace in elections. And, with no apologies to Popper, it can, and must, be said that this is owing to the essential nature of the capitalist system and the state which arises on the basis of and serves to maintain this system.

Thus, Popper is profoundly wrong—he turns things precisely upside down—when he argues that the followers of Marx (and, as Popper sees it, of Plato and Hegel as well) “will never see that the old question ‘Who shall be the rulers?’ must be superseded by the more real one ‘How can we tame them?’” (Popper, p. 133) In reality, who—that is, which class—rules, and more specifically in today’s world, whether there is rule by the bourgeoisie or by the proletariat, makes all the difference, in terms of what kind of society, and world, there is going to be. Under the rule, the dictatorship, of the bourgeoisie, the masses of people can never in any meaningful sense “tame” those who rule over them, nor more fundamentally can they change the basic character of society. But, with the overthrow of the capitalist dictatorship, and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the door is finally opened to putting an end to all relations of domination, oppression, and exploitation—and, in fact, to finally abolishing the state (dictatorship) in any form, with the achievement of communism throughout the world. Of course, as experience has clearly demonstrated, to maintain rule by the proletariat, once it has been achieved—and, moreover, to continue, with this rule, to transform society, overcoming step by step the division between mental and manual labor, and other major social contradictions characteristic of class-divided society, drawing the masses of people increasingly into the process of decision-making and administration of society, and continuing the advance toward communism as part of the overall world revolutionary struggle—all this requires a profound, protracted and epochal struggle. Later in this talk, I will return to some of the most important lessons, positive and negative, that can and must be drawn from the experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat so far. But what needs to be emphasized here is that a decisive, qualitative change in the nature of the state, in who rules society, and how it is ruled—the overthrow of bourgeois dictatorship and the establishment and exercise of the dictatorship of the proletariat—is the necessary, and first great, leap that must be made in order to enable the masses of people to truly become masters of society, and then finally to reach the point where there are no longer class divisions, no more exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed, and therefore no need, and no basis, for the existence and role of an institution—the state—whereby one class rules over and suppresses the classes whose interests are antagonistic to its own.

Capitalist exploitation

Next, let’s turn to how Popper attempts to refute Marx’s theory of exploitation (of the creation of surplus value through the exploitation by the capitalists of the wage-labor of the proletarians) and to show how this theory, too, is “essentialist or metaphysical” and is insufficient without, less important than, and dependent upon the mechanism of supply and demand (see Popper, p. 174). It is not really possible here to discuss everything that is wrong with Popper’s argument in this case. Suffice it to say that here, as elsewhere, Popper does not understand, and/or deliberately misrepresents, Marx’s analysis. To cite just one aspect of this, Marx amply shows how the mechanism of supply and demand, while it can explain the “ups and downs” in the prices of things, does not, and cannot, determine the value of things. This is why, for example, supply and demand may influence the price of a candy bar, on the one hand, and an airplane on the other hand, but no variation in supply and demand is likely to make the prices of a candy bar and an airplane the same, for the basic reason that the actual value of each is, as Marx demonstrates, determined by something other than supply and demand—it is determined by the total amount of socially necessary labor time that goes into the production of each. Thus, Popper has stood reality on its head: the mechanism of supply and demand is subordinate to and less important than the theory of value and surplus value developed by Marx, which explains how particular items have the value that they do, and also explains how capitalists accumulate profit (surplus value) through the exploitation of the wage-labor of the proletarians—through paying the workers an amount equal to the socially necessary labor time that is involved in producing the requirements of life of the workers, while in fact the workers, in the course of their working hours, produce value beyond that which is equivalent to the value embodied in their requirements of life, extra value which goes to the capitalist. And, as Marx also demonstrated, commodities and commodity exchange existed well before and independently of capitalism, and it is not merely the production and exchange of things as commodities that is the distinguishing feature of capitalism, and the secret of its accumulation process, but rather the conversion of labor power itself (the ability to work in general) into a commodity, a commodity with the particular quality of being able to produce more wealth through its use (its employment, in one form or another, in the production process under capitalism). As explained in the book America in Decline, in a discussion of the basic principles of Marxist political economy:

“Capital is value which generates surplus value. Capital is both a social relation and a process whose essence is the domination of labor power by alien, antagonistic interests, a social relation and a process whose inner dynamic is to constantly reproduce and extend itself.” (Raymond Lotta, with Frank Shannon, America in Decline, An Analysis of the Developments Toward War and Revolution, in the U.S. and Worldwide in the 1980s [Chicago: Banner Press, 1984], p. 44, emphasis in original)

Philosophy and method

In his pathbreaking dissection and analysis of capitalism and its inner tendencies—and of the development of human society overall—Marx examines, in a living way, the real mainsprings and dynamics involved and, yes, points to the direction in which the underlying contradictions are driving things. The method of Marx, and of Marxism as it has developed since the time of Marx, is anything but a metaphysical approach that proceeds from abstract principles and categories and seeks to superimpose them on reality. On the contrary, Marx—who, after all, spent more than 10 years in the library of the British Museum, sifting through voluminous studies of different economies and societies and subjecting to critical analysis different theories with regard to political economy, as well as philosophy and other subjects—this actual Marx (as opposed to the distortions of Marx concocted by his enemies, including Popper) investigated reality, in a deep and all-sided way, and drew theoretical conclusions from that investigation and study, through the application of scientific principles and methods. And, in the time since Marx, while certain of his conclusions, or predictions, have not been borne out, overwhelmingly the decisive things that he brought to life have been shown, in reality, to be true; and Marxism has continued to develop, as all genuinely scientific theories do, by applying and testing in practice its basic principles and methods, drawing conclusions through that process and, yes, discarding or modifying—or, on the other hand, amplifying and further developing—particular aspects of this theory.

Although Marx and Engels were inspired by and learned a great deal from Hegel and his dialectical method, they also moved beyond Hegel and his philosophical system in qualitative ways; as they made very clear, they cast aside the idealist and metaphysical core of Hegel’s philosophical system, with its teleological constructs, but they carried forward, further developed and, in a real sense, reconstructed his dialectical method, on a materialist foundation.3

Marxism, scientific communism, does not embody, but in fact rejects, any teleological (or, as Popper would have it, “historicist”) notion that there is some kind of will or purpose with which nature, or history, is endowed. As I put it more than 20 years ago now:

“Neither the emergence of the human species nor the development of human society to the present was predetermined or followed predetermined pathways. There is no transcendent will or agent which has conceived and shaped all such development, and nature and history should not be treated as such—as Nature and History. Rather, such development occurs through the dialectical interplay between necessity and accident and in the case of human history between underlying material forces and the conscious activity and struggle of people.” (First cited in Ardea Skybreak, Of Primeval Steps & Future Leaps, An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, The Source of Women’s Oppression, and the Road to Emancipation [Chicago: Banner Press, 1984]).4

But this does not mean that history is all accident—or, as Popper essentially argues—that history is whatever we make of it. To return again to another crucially important insight of Marx’s: People make history, but not in any way they wish—they do so on a definite material foundation, which is independent of their will, not in the sense that they cannot act to change this material reality, but that they can do so on the basis, and only on the basis, of correctly understanding what that material reality is, and how it is moving and changing, and the possibility this opens for radical change of one kind or another. While there is no will or purpose—and no predetermined end—to human history, there is, as Marx also pointed out, a certain coherence to it. As Marx explained:

“Because of the simple fact that every succeeding generation finds itself in possession of the productive forces acquired by the previous generation, and that they serve it as the raw material for new production, a coherence arises in human history, a history of humanity takes shape which becomes all the more a history of humanity the more the productive forces of men and therefore their social relations develop.” (Marx, Letter to P.V. Annenkov, December 28, 1846.)

And, as Engels expanded on this point, elucidating further the dialectical—as opposed to mechanical and determinist—materialism of Marxism:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure…also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular.” (Engels, Letter to J. Bloch, September 21-22, 1890, as cited in For a Harvest of Dragons, p. 29, emphasis in original)

From all this, it can be seen that Popper’s attack on Marxism constitutes a distortion of Marxism and a rather crude and clumsy apology for the system of capitalism-imperialism, and that the best refutation of this is…Marxism itself—the real Marxism, a living science which, like all real scientific theories, is constantly developing, including through interrogation of itself.

Science and scientific truths

Popper’s distortions of Marxism are in fact closely linked with his misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what science in general is, and what science enables human beings to know. In the “Addenda” to the second volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies—ironically, in the course of a polemic against relativism (“Facts, Standards, and Truth: A Further Criticism of Relativism,” 1961), Popper reveals the significant elements of relativism in his own outlook and approach. Popper insists that “though we may seek for truth, and though we may even find truth (as I believe we do in very many cases), we can never be quite certain that we have found it.” And: “we cannot establish or justify anything as certain, or even as probable, but have to content ourselves with theories which withstand criticism.” (Popper, pp. 375, 379)

But this is clearly wrong. Some things can be known with certainty, and some theories can be determined, with a high degree of certainty, to be true, as is the case, for example, with the theory of evolution. The fact that I have used here the phrase “with a high degree of certainty” is a reflection of the fact that, as Lenin emphasized in his philosophical writings (most notably “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”), Marxism rejects relativism philosophically, but it recognizes that even within absolute truth there is an element of the relative. As Mao wrote, in “On Practice”:

“Marxists recognize that in the absolute and general process of the development of the universe, the development of each particular process is relative, and that hence, in the endless flow of absolute truth, man’s knowledge of a particular process at any given stage of development is only relative truth.”

It is relative truth, but it is truth—such are the (again, no apologies to the likes of Popper) dialectics of the matter.

The way in which Marxism differs with, and is in opposition to Popper’s theory of knowledge, including its relativist elements, also stands out in the emphasis Marxism places on the centrality of practice, precisely within the acquisition of knowledge—its insistence that, while theoretical abstraction, and engagement and grappling in the realm of theoretical abstraction, is extremely important and indeed indispensable in the development of knowledge, practice is the ultimate point of origin and point of verification of theoretical knowledge. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx put it this way: “The question whether objective truth can be attained by human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question.” And:

“In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness, of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” (Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” emphasis in original)

In opposition to this, to what is in fact the correct understanding and approach, while Popper recognizes a role for practice in the pursuit of knowledge—and he writes that “In the realm of facts, we do not merely criticize our theories, we criticize them by an appeal to experimental and observational experience” (Popper, p. 388, emphasis in original)—he does not place practice in the central and determining role in regard to the development of human knowledge. Rather, he assigns this role to criticism. That is the meaning of his statement that “we cannot establish or justify anything as certain, or even as probable, but have to content ourselves with theories which withstand criticism.” (Popper, p. 379, emphasis added) And he goes on to assert that

“we learn from our mistakes, rather than by the accumulation of data…. the role of thought is to carry out revolutions by means of critical debates rather than by means of violence and warfare; that is the great tradition of Western rationalism to fight our battles with words rather than with swords. This is why our Western civilization is an essentially pluralistic one, and why monolithic social ends would mean the death of freedom: of the freedom of thought, of the free search for truth, and with it, of the rationality and dignity of man.” (Popper, p. 396)

Here, in a sense, we have the “good fortune” of seeing Popper’s relativist aspects, his rather rank “Western chauvinism” and his prettifying of the nature of “Western civilization” and its relation with the rest of the world (his ignoring, or covering over, the fact that “Western rationalism” has quite often been used to rationalize wars of aggression as well as colonial conquest and plunder, and exploitation at home and abroad), together with his bourgeois “pluralism.” Just as in the political sphere—and specifically with regard to the nature and role of the state—Popper ignores, or refuses to recognize, the way in which class relations—relations of class domination—influence everything in the capitalist society he idealizes. As applied to the field of science, for example, while such things as “peer review” of scientific discoveries, theories, etc.—subjecting them to the criticism of others with specialized knowledge and experience in the particular field—can play an important positive role, it can by no means guarantee that the truth will win out, in any given circumstance. It has, unfortunately, been demonstrated repeatedly that when something touches on the essential interests of the ruling class in such a society, those considerations (of interest) will often overrule matters of objective truth, in various disciplines and even in academia overall. If, as with Popper, we were to place “criticism,” in place of practice, in the central role in our evaluation of theories and ideas in general, we would rob ourselves of the most solid objective basis for determining what is true.

But for Popper that is not important, since he denies that it is possible to determine what is true, or even more probable: we must, he insists, content ourselves with what best withstands criticism. Here again, the relativism of Popper stands out. For, if it is impossible even to determine what is most probable—and if, as Popper argues, the development of human theories and knowledge consists only in the replacement of one theory by what seems, at the time, to be a better one—then, even though Popper allows that there is truth, and even that humanity can advance in its knowledge of the truth, in reality and objectively he is saying that there is no truth, or in any case that we cannot really advance in our approximation of the truth, because after all if it is only a matter of a “better” theory replacing one that has proved to be less good, then really there is no way of knowing whether either of them is—or even whether either one of them stands in any way closer to—the truth.

Again, this is fine with Popper because, with his bourgeois “pluralist” outlook, what is important is the—illusory—ideal that all ideas and theories have “equal opportunity” (my phrase) to be expressed. Like all bourgeois “pluralist” ways of thinking, this ignores the fact that, in reality, and particularly in a society ruled by an exploiting class, including the “Western democracies,” all ideas will not have an equal opportunity to be expressed and considered, and certain ideas, which are considered subversive of the established order—and particularly when this subversive nature is regarded as posing a significant threat to that order—will be actively suppressed by the ruling class and its state. As I pointed out in Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, in reality, the workings of the “free market place of ideas” within capitalist society work out in the same way as the literal market, in the context of the underlying dynamics of capitalist accumulation: not in equality, even in the form of equal right to compete, but in domination by those who have achieved, and are determined to maintain, a monopolizing and controlling position.

As for communists and the scientific theory of communism, we recognize and insist upon the possibility of arriving at the truth—even with the relative element within objective truth, as spoken to here—and the importance of the search for the truth. We recognize that the way in which it is possible to continually acquire more knowledge, and to be able to determine that this knowledge in fact corresponds to objective reality, is to proceed on the basis of the store of knowledge that has been acquired—and that has been shown to be true through the application of the scientific method and its handling of the dialectical relation between practice and theory—and in this way to further engage reality, to accumulate further “raw materials” of knowledge through this process, then to synthesize this, raising it to the level of theory, and then again returning this to practice, in order to test, and to learn more about, the reality that this theory aims to concentrate. And we recognize the importance of the clash of ideas, of the struggle in the realm of ideas—and all the more so as this is unfettered from relations of class domination. The communist method and approach is to apply, as consistently and systematically as possible, scientific principles in engaging—in learning about and transforming—reality; and, as I have emphasized, this involves and requires acting on what is understood (through the application of this scientific approach) to be true, at any given time, while “being open to the understanding that you may not be right about this or that particular, or even about big questions.” (See “The Struggle in the Realm of Ideas,” in Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, p. 6)5

This series will continue in the next issue of Revolution.

1. Footnote by the author: As for Popper’s references to “the Scandinavian democracies,” etc., Lenin, in his analysis of imperialism, spoke to how even small and “neutral” countries like Switzerland took part in and benefited from the overall imperialist domination and plunder of the colonies.[back]

2. The discussion of changes in society and their analogy to natural evolutionary changes is earlier in the talk, in the first segment of this series which appeared in Revolution #105, October 21, 2007.[back]

3. Footnote by the author: Even though it is not my focus here, I cannot help but register a protest, or rebuke, to the shoddy and smugly philistine way in which Popper discusses Hegel. Dealing to a large extent in ad hominem attacks, Popper treats Hegel as little more than a “charlatan” (this is the word he repeatedly uses to describe Hegel) and as a tool of the German monarchal state, as someone whose philosophical theories were in essence little more than a conscious crafting of a rationalization and apology for that state. For example, Popper writes: “There is nothing in Hegel’s writing that has not been said better before him. There is nothing in his apologetic method that is not borrowed from his apologetic forerunners. But he devoted these borrowed thoughts and methods with singleness of purpose, though without a trace of brilliancy, to one aim: to fight against the open society, and thus to serve his employer, Frederick William [the absolute monarch] of Prussia.” (Popper, p. 32) And Popper asserts not only that Hegelianism can be reduced to merely “an apology for Prussianism” (p. 35), but even that “the reason why he [Hegel] wishes to admit contradictions is that he wants to stop rational argument, and with it scientific and intellectual progress.” (p. 40) Perhaps sensing that this treatment of Hegel—as in effect a babbling mercenary of the Prussian autocratic state—may not sit well with some readers, Popper feels obliged to observe that “some may contend, all this, even if it is true, does not prove anything against the excellence of Hegel’s dialectic philosophy, or against his greatness as a philosopher.” But then Popper’s immediate rejoinder is to refer again to a characterization of Hegel and his philosophy by Schopenhauer, which does not really speak to the objection Popper has just cited. (See Popper, p. 46)

Where he does attempt to treat Hegel’s philosophy, and in particular his dialectical method, Popper betrays a glaring lack of appreciation of what Hegel’s dialectical method consisted in and what it actually liberated in the field of philosophy. Especially in light of this, it is worth reading Engels’ discussion of this, in works such as Anti-Duhring and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, where Engels provides a much more—dare we say it?—dialectical evaluation of Hegel’s philosophy and its impact. Consider, for example, the following from Engels—and contrast it with Popper’s narrow-minded, shallow, and instrumentalist treatment of Hegel and his philosophy.

“No philosophical proposition has earned more gratitude from narrow-minded governments and [note well—BA] wrath from equally narrow-minded liberals than Hegel’s famous statement: ‘All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.’ That was tangibly a sanctification of things that be, a philosophical benediction bestowed upon despotism, police government, Star Chamber proceedings and censorship. That is how Frederick William III and how his subjects understood it….

“Now, according to Hegel, reality is, however, in no way an attribute predictable of any given state of affairs, social or political, in all circumstances and at all times. On the contrary, the Roman Republic was real, but so was the Roman Empire, which superseded it. In 1789, the French monarchy had become so unreal, that is to say, so robbed of all necessity, so irrational, that it had to be destroyed by the Great Revolution, of which Hegel always speaks with the greatest enthusiasm….In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.

“But precisely therein lay the true significance and the revolutionary character of the Hegelian philosophy…that it once and for all dealt the death blow to the finality of all product of human thought and action. Truth, the cognition of which is the business of philosophy, was in the hands of Hegel no longer an aggregate of finished dogmatic statements, which, once discovered, had merely to be learned by heart. Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering so-called absolute truth, a point at which it can proceed no further, where it would have nothing more to do than fold its hands and gaze with wonder at the absolute truth to which it had attained….

“But at the end of the whole philosophy, a similar return to the beginning is possible only in one way. Namely, by conceiving of the end of history as follows: mankind arrives at the cognition of the self-same absolute idea, and declares that this cognition of the absolute idea is reached in Hegelian philosophy. In this way, however, the whole dogmatic content of the Hegelian system is declared to be absolute truth, in contradiction to his dialectical method, which dissolves all dogmatism. Thus the revolutionary side is smothered beneath the overgrowth of the conservative side….

“The inner necessities of the system are, therefore, of themselves sufficient to explain why a thoroughly revolutionary method of thinking produced an extremely tame political conclusion….

“But all this did not prevent the Hegelian system from covering an incomparably greater domain than any earlier system, nor from developing in this domain a wealth of thought, which is astounding even today.” (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, part 1 “Hegel”)[back]

4. Footnote by the author: I have myself raised certain criticisms of what I view as elements of metaphysics within the way Marx, and in particular Engels, presented the dialectical method—elements which, in fact, were carried forward from concepts found in Hegel, in particular the notion of the “negation of the negation.” But to the degree that such tendencies existed in Engels, and even in Marx, they were very definitely of a secondary character, and did not define their view and application of the dialectical method, of dialectical materialism. And, as Marxism has continued to develop, it has increasingly moved away from these metaphysical tendencies; this can be seen in the works of Lenin and Mao, and is reflected in the criticisms I have referred to here.[back]

5. Footnote by the author: What has been said here, by way of refutation of Popper, and his claims that Marxism is not a science and fails the test of science, also stands more broadly as an answer to the claim, which is not infrequently made, that there is, and there can be, no such thing as social science, and in particular no science of human society and its historical development. As I have spoken to at length here, Marxism is in fact a science. Often people distort and narrow and constrict what Marxism is. Marxism is not merely a social science. Dialectical materialism is a concentration of reality in the largest sense, and it embraces “natural reality,” that is, the processes in nature, as well as social reality. But Marxism is also a social science—and it is a social science. The matter in motion that constitutes human beings and their social interrelations is also capable of being subjected to scientific analysis and synthesis, no less than other forms of matter in motion.

Once you rupture with idealism and metaphysics, and specifically with Cartesian ideas of the duality of existence—the notion, identified with the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes, that there is material reality, and then there’s the human mind, which is somehow something else—once you rupture with notions of that kind (that human beings and their society are something other than particular forms of matter in motion), then why wouldn’t you understand that this sphere of matter in motion would be amenable, or susceptible (whatever word you want to use), to scientific analysis and synthesis, just as much as any other particular form of matter in motion?[back]

Part 2 of
Now on Web

Revolution is excited to announce that Part 2 of Bob Avakian’s new talk, MAKING REVOLUTION AND EMANCIPATING HUMANITY, is now available at The second part is entitled EVERYTHING WE’RE DOING IS ABOUT REVOLUTION, and goes into essential thinking on the actual content of building a revolutionary and communist movement. The talk will be serialized in Revolution at the conclusion of the serialization of part 1.

In an important sense this second part of MAKING REVOLUTION AND EMANCIPATING HUMANITY sets out an essential scaffolding for building such a revolutionary movement. There is surely work to be done in construction, and further thinking to do as we carry out and sum up that work, and as the world develops—but this talk sets out a coherent framework and approach for doing that work. It also applies—and exemplifies—a method that everyone can learn from and utilize: it gives a living sense of the multilayered and multilevel and dynamically changing character of reality and a way to comprehend reality in its motion and development and to transform it. In doing this, it builds off the first part of the talk, now being serialized, with its discussion not only of the overarching goal of the struggle, but also of the scientific method.

Every revolutionary and every person intent on, and grappling with, how to make, fundamental social change should get into this talk. We look forward to your comments and response on this work.

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