Marx Myths and Legends. John Holloway

The Tradition of Scientific Marxism

Source: “Change The World Without Taking Power. The Meaning of Revolution Today,” © John Holloway 2002, Chapter 7. Published by Pluto Press. This chapter used with permission of the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.


The concept of fetishism implies a negative concept of science. If relations between people exist as relations between things, then the attempt to understand social relations can proceed only negatively, by going against and beyond the form in which social relations appear (and really exist). Science is critical.

The concept of fetishism implies, therefore, that there is a radical distinction between ‘bourgeois’ science and critical or revolutionary science. The former assumes the permanence of capitalist social relations and takes identity for granted, treating contradiction as a mark of logical inconsistency. Science, in this view, is the attempt to understand reality. In the latter case, science can only be negative, a critique of the untruth of existing reality. The aim is not to understand reality, but to understand (and, by understanding, to intensify) its contradictions as part of the struggle to change the world. The more all-pervasive we understand reification to be, the more absolutely negative science becomes. If everything is permeated by reification, then absolutely everything is a site of struggle between the imposition of the rupture of doing and the critical-practical struggle for the recuperation of doing. No category is neutral.

For Marx, science is negative. The truth of science is the negation of the untruth of false appearances. In the post-Marx Marxist tradition, however, the concept of science is turned from a negative into a positive concept. The category of fetishism, so central for Marx, is almost entirely forgotten by the mainstream Marxist tradition. From being the struggle against the untruth of fetishism, science comes to be understood as knowledge of reality. With the positivisation of science, power-over penetrates into revolutionary theory and undermines it far more effectively than any government undercover agents infiltrating a revolutionary organisation.


It is convenient to see the positivisation of science as being Engels’ contribution to the Marxist tradition, although there are certainly dangers in over-emphasising the difference between Marx and Engels: the attempt to put all the blame on to Engels diverts attention from the contradictions that were undoubtedly present in Marx’s own work.[1]

The classic claim for the scientific character of Marxism in the mainstream tradition is Engels’ pamphlet, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, which probably did more than any other work to define ‘Marxism’. Criticism of scientificism in the Marxist tradition often takes the form of a critique of Engels, but, in fact, the ‘scientific’ tradition is far more deep-rooted than that would suggest. It certainly finds expression in some of Marx’s own writings (most famously in the ‘1859 Preface’ to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy), and is developed in the ‘classical’ era of Marxism by writers as diverse as Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and Pannekoek. Although Engels’ writings possibly have relatively few explicit defenders today, the tradition which Engels represents continues to provide the unspoken and unquestioned assumptions upon which a great deal of Marxist discussion is based. In what follows, our principal concern is not who said what, but to draw out the main constituents of the scientific tradition.

In speaking of Marxism as ‘scientific’, Engels means that it is based on an understanding of social development that is just as exact as the scientific understanding of natural development. The course of both natural and human development is characterised by the same constant movement: ‘When we consider and reflect upon Nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions, permutations and combinations, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away.... This primitive, naďve but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.’ (1968, p. 43)

Dialectics is the conceptualisation of nature and society as being in constant movement: it ‘comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin, and ending... Nature is the proof of dialectics, and it must be said for modern science that it has furnished this proof with very rich materials increasing daily, and thus has shown that, in the last resort, Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically.’ (1968, p. 45) Through dialectics we can reach an exact understanding of natural and social development: ‘An exact representation of the universe, of its evolution, of the development of mankind, and of the reflection of this evolution in the minds of men, can therefore only be obtained by the methods of dialectics with its constant regard to the innumerable actions and reactions of life and death, of progressive and retrogressive changes.’ (1968, p. 46) For Engels, dialectics comprehends the objective movement of nature and society, a movement independent of the subject.

The task of science, then, is to understand the laws of motion of both nature and society. Modern materialism, unlike the mechanical materialism of the eighteenth century, is dialectical: ‘modern materialism sees in [history] the process of evolution of humanity and aims at discovering the laws thereof... Modern materialism embraces the more recent discoveries of natural science, according to which Nature also has its history in time, the celestial bodies, like the organic species that, under favourable conditions, people them, being born and perishing... In both aspects, modern materialism is essentially dialectic...’ (1968, pp. 47-48)

It need hardly be underlined that Engels’ understanding of the dialectic method is an extremely diluted one. Lukács brought upon himself the wrath of the Party by pointing this out in History and Class Consciousness: ‘Dialectics, he [Engels] argues, is a continuous process of transition from one definition into the other. In consequence a one-sided and rigid causality must be replaced by interaction. But he does not even mention the most vital interaction, namely the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process, let alone give it the prominence it deserves. Yet without this factor dialectics ceases to be revolutionary, despite attempts (illusory in the last analysis) to retain ‘fluid’ concepts. For it implies a failure to recognise that in all metaphysics the object remains untouched and unaltered so that thought remains contemplative and fails to become practical; while for the dialectical method the central problem is to change reality.'(Lukács 1971, 3) Dialectics, for Engels, becomes a natural law, not the reason of revolt, not the ‘consistent sense of non-identity’, the sense of the explosive force of the denied. It is no doubt for this reason that some authors, in their criticism of the orthodox Marxist tradition, have been concerned to criticise the whole idea of a dialectical method.[2]

For Engels, the claim that Marxism is scientific is a claim that it has understood the laws of motion of society. This understanding is based on two key elements: ‘These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus-value, we owe to Marx. With these two discoveries Socialism becomes a science. The next thing was to work out all its details and relations.’ (1968, p. 50)

Science, in the Engelsian tradition which became known as ‘Marxism’, is understood as the exclusion of subjectivity: ‘scientific’ is identified with ‘objective’. The claim that Marxism is scientific is taken to mean that subjective struggle (the struggle of socialists today) finds support in the objective movement of history. The analogy with natural science is important not because of the conception of nature that underlies it but because of what it says about the movement of human history. Both nature and history are seen as being governed by forces ‘independent of men’s will’, forces that can therefore be studied objectively.

The notion of Marxism as scientific socialism has two aspects. In Engels’ account there is a double objectivity. Marxism is objective, certain, ‘scientific’ knowledge of an objective, inevitable process. Marxism is understood as scientific in the sense that it has understood correctly the laws of motion of a historical process taking place independently of men’s will. All that is left for Marxists to do is to fill in the details, to apply the scientific understanding of history.

The attraction of the conception of Marxism as a scientifically objective theory of revolution for those who were dedicating their lives to struggle against capitalism is obvious. It provided not just a coherent conception of historical movement, but also enormous moral support: whatever reverses might be suffered, history was on our side. The enormous force of the Engelsian conception and the importance of its role in the struggles of that time should not be overlooked. At the same time, however, both aspects of the concept of scientific socialism (objective knowledge, objective process) pose enormous problems for the development of Marxism as a theory of struggle.

If Marxism is understood as the correct, objective, scientific knowledge of history, then this begs the question, ‘who says so?’ Who holds the correct knowledge and how did they gain that knowledge? Who is the subject of the knowledge? The notion of Marxism as ‘science’ implies a distinction between those who know and those who do not know, a distinction between those who have true consciousness and those who have false consciousness.

This distinction immediately poses both epistemological and organisational problems. Political debate becomes focussed on the question of ‘correctness’ and the ‘correct line’. But how do we know (and how do they know) that the knowledge of ‘those who know’ is correct? How can the knowers (party, intellectuals or whatever) be said to have transcended the conditions of their social time and place in such a way as to have gained a privileged knowledge of historical movement? Perhaps even more important politically: if a distinction is to be made between those who know and those who do not, and if understanding or knowledge is seen as important in guiding the political struggle, then what is to be the organisational relation between the knowers and the others (the masses)? Are those in the know to lead and educate the masses (as in the concept of the vanguard party) or is a communist revolution necessarily the work of the masses themselves (as ‘left communists’ such as Pannekoek maintained)? .

The other wing of the concept of scientific Marxism, the notion that society develops according to objective laws, also poses obvious problems for a theory of struggle. If there is an objective movement of history which is independent of human volition, then what is the role of struggle? Are those who struggle simply carrying out a human destiny which they do not control? Or is struggle important simply in the interstices of the objective movements, filling in the smaller or larger gaps left open by the clash of forces and relations of production? The notion of objective laws opens up a separation between structure and struggle. Whereas the notion of fetishism suggests that everything is struggle, that nothing exists separately from the antagonism of social relations, the notion of ‘objective laws’ suggests a duality between an objective structural movement of history independent of people’s will, on the one hand, and the subjective struggles for a better world, on the other. Engels’ conception tells us that the two movements coincide, that the former gives support to the latter, but they do not cease to be separate. This duality is the source of endless theoretical and political problems in the Marxist tradition.

Engels’ notion of the objective movement of history towards an end gives a secondary role to struggle. Whether struggle is simply seen as supporting the movement of history or whether it is attributed a more active role, its significance in any case derives from its relation to the working out of the objective laws. Whatever the differences in emphasis, struggle in this perspective cannot be seen as self-emancipatory: it acquires significance only in relation to the realisation of the goal. The whole concept of struggle is then instrumental: it is a struggle to achieve an end, to arrive somewhere. The positivisation of the concept of science implies a positivisation of the concept of struggle. Struggle, from being struggle-against, is metamorphosed into being struggle-for. Struggle-for is struggle to create a communist society, but in the instrumentalist perspective which the positive-scientific approach implies, struggle comes to be conceived in a step-by-step manner, with the ‘conquest of power’ being seen as the decisive step, the fulcrum of revolution. The notion of the ‘conquest of power’, then, far from being a particular aim that stands on its own, is at the centre of a whole approach to theory and struggle.


The implication of Engels’ analysis, namely that the transition to communism would come about inevitably as a result of the conflict between the development of the forces of production and the relations of production, did not satisfy the revolutionary theorists-activists of the early part of the century. They insisted on the importance of active struggle for communism, yet they retained much of the dualism of Engels’ presentation of ‘Marxism’.[3]

The problems posed by the dualistic separation of subject and object came to the fore in the revolutionary turbulence of the beginning of this century. Virtually all the debates of the ‘classical’ period of Marxism (roughly the first quarter of the twentieth century) took place on the assumed foundation of the ‘scientific’ interpretation of Marxism. Despite their very important political and theoretical differences, all the major theorists of the period shared certain common assumptions about the meaning of Marxism — assumptions associated with key words such as ‘historical materialism’, ‘scientific socialism’, ‘objective laws’, ‘Marxist economics’.

This is not to say that there was no theoretical development. Perhaps most important, attention in this period of upheaval came to focus on the importance of subjective action. Against the quietistic, wait-and-see interpretations of historic necessity favoured by the main body of the Second International, all the revolutionary theorists of the period (Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Pannekoek and so on) stressed the need for active revolutionary intervention. But this emphasis on the subjective was seen in all cases as complementary to (if not subordinate to) the objective movement of capitalism. Now that the theoretical criticism of Engels as the ‘distorter’ of Marx has gained such wide diffusion, it should be emphasised that the assumptions of scientific Marxism were accepted not only by the reformists of the Second International but by most if not all the major revolutionary theorists.

The dualist concept of Marxism as science has, it was seen, two axes: the notion of an objective historical process and the notion of objective knowledge. The theoretical-political problems connected with both of these axes provided the stuff of theoretical debate in this period.

The first of these axes, the concept of history as an objective process independent of human will was the main issue in Rosa Luxemburg’s classic defence of Marxism against the revisionism of Bernstein, in her pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, first published in 1900. Luxemburg’s pamphlet is above all a defence of scientific socialism. For her, the understanding of socialism as objective historic necessity was of central importance to the revolutionary movement: ‘The greatest conquest of the developing proletarian movement has been the discovery of grounds of support for the realisation of socialism in the economic condition of capitalist society. As a result of this discovery, socialism was changed from an ‘ideal’ dream by humanity for thousands of years to a thing of historic necessity’ (1973, p. 35).

Echoing the distinction made by Engels between scientific and utopian socialism, Luxemburg sees the notion of economic or historic necessity as essential if the emptiness of endless calls for justice is to be avoided. Criticising Bernstein, she writes: ‘"Why represent socialism as the consequence of economic compulsion?” he complains. “Why degrade man’s understanding, his feeling for justice, his will?” (Vorwärts, March 26th, 1899) Bernstein’s superlatively just distribution is to be attained thanks to man’s free will, man’s will acting not because of economic necessity, since this will itself is only an instrument, but because of man’s comprehension of justice, because of man’s idea of justice. We thus quite happily return to the principle of justice, to the old war horse on which the reformers of the earth have rocked for ages, for the lack of surer means of historic transportation. We return to that lamentable Rosinante on which the Don Quixotes of history have galloped towards the great reform of the earth, always to come home with their eyes blackened.’ (1973, pp. 44-45)

The scientific character of Marxism is thus seen as its defining feature. The scientific basis of socialism is said to rest ‘on three principal results of capitalist development. First, on the growing anarchy of capitalist economy, leading inevitably to its ruin. Second, on the progressive socialisation of the process of production, which creates the germs of the future social order. And third, on the increased organisation and consciousness of the proletarian class, which constitutes the active factor in the coming revolution’ (1973, p. 11).

The third element, the ‘active factor’, is important for Luxemburg: ‘It is not true that socialism will arise automatically from the daily struggle of the working class. Socialism will be the consequence of (1) the growing contradictions of capitalist economy and (2) the comprehension by the working class of the unavoidability of the suppression of these contradictions through a social transformation’ (1973, p. 31). Thus, although Luxemburg, in common with all the revolutionary theorists, rejects the quietistic interpretation of the inevitability of socialism favoured by many in the German Social Democratic party, the emphasis on the importance of subjective action is located against the background of the objective, historic necessity of socialism. Socialism will be the consequence of (1) objective trends, and (2) subjective comprehension and practice. The focus on the subjective is added to the understanding of Marxism as a theory of the historic necessity of socialism; or, perhaps more precisely, Marxism, as a theory of objective necessity complements and fortifies subjective class struggle. Whichever way around it is put, there is the same dualist separation between the objective and the subjective — ‘the classic dualism of economic law and subjective factor’. (Marramao 1978, p. 29)

The central issue arising from this dualism was the question of the relation between the two poles of the dualism — between historic necessity and the ‘active factor’. The terms of the question posed by scientific socialism already suggest an endless debate between determinism and voluntarism, between those who attribute little importance to subjective intervention and those who see it as crucial. The argument, however, is about the space to be granted to the subject within an objectively determined framework. The space is essentially intersticial, the argument being over the nature of the interstices.

Whatever the weight attached to the ‘active factor’, the argument is about how to reach the objectively determined ‘final goal’. Luxemburg opens her argument against Bernstein in Reform or Revolution by accusing him of abandoning the ‘final goal’ of the socialist movement. She quotes him as saying ‘The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.’ (1973, p. 8) To this Luxemburg objects: ‘the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the social democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labour movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order...’ (1973, p. 8) And what is this final goal, according to Luxemburg? ‘The conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labour’. (1973, p. 8)

The goal, then, according to Luxemburg, is to bring about social revolution through the conquest of political power. ‘From the first appearance of class societies having the class struggle as the essential content of their history, the conquest of political power has been the aim of all rising classes.’ (1973, p. 49) ‘It is necessary to extract the kernel of socialist society from its capitalist shell. Exactly for this reason must the proletariat seize political power and suppress completely the capitalist system.’ (1973, p. 52) Class struggle is instrumental, the aim being ‘to extract the kernel of socialist society from its capitalist shell’. Struggle is not a process of self-emancipation which would create a socialist society (whatever that might turn out to be) but just the opposite: struggle is an instrument to achieve a preconceived end which would then provide freedom for all.

In the classical debates of Marxism, the issue of the relation between the ‘active factor’ and ‘historic necessity’ was focused most clearly in the discussions surrounding the collapse of capitalism. These discussions had important political implications since they centred on the transition from capitalism to socialism, and therefore on revolution and revolutionary organisation (although the different positions did not follow any simple left-right split (cf Marramao 1978)).

At one extreme was the position usually identified with the Second International, and formulated most clearly by Cunow at the end of the 1890s (Cunow 1898-99): since the collapse of capitalism was the inevitable result of the working out of its own contradictions, there was no need for revolutionary organisation. Those who argued that the collapse of capitalism was inevitable did not all draw the same conclusions, however. For Luxemburg, as we have seen, the inevitable collapse of capitalism (which she attributed to the exhaustion of the possibilities of capitalist expansion into a non-capitalist world) was seen as giving support to anti-capitalist struggle rather than detracting from the need for revolutionary organisation.

The opposite view, the view that collapse was not inevitable, also led to diverse political conclusions. For some (Bernstein, for example) it led to the abandonment of a revolutionary perspective and the acceptance of capitalism as a framework within which social improvements could be sought. For others, such as Pannekoek, the rejection of the idea of the inevitability of capitalist collapse was part of an emphasis on the importance of revolutionary organisation: he argued that the objective movement of capitalist contradictions would lead not to collapse, but to ever more intense crises, which must be understood as opportunities for subjective action to overthrow capitalism (1977). It is interesting that Pannekoek, the leading theorist of left or council communism, denounced by Lenin in his Left-Wing Communism — An Infantile Disorder, accepted, in spite of all his emphasis on the importance of developing the ‘active side’, the framework of Marx’s ‘economic materialism’ as the analysis of the objective movement of capitalism. His emphasis on activism did not take the form of challenging the objectivist interpretation of Marx, but of arguing that it was necessary to complement the objective development by subjective action.

The second axis of scientific Marxism, the question of scientific knowledge and its organisational implications, formed the core of the discussion between Lenin and his critics.

In Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party, the organisational implications of the positive notion of scientific knowledge are developed to the point of creating a sharp organisational distinction between the knowers (those who have true consciousness) and the non-knowers (the masses who have false consciousness). In the pamphlet which spelt out the theory of the vanguard party, What is to be Done?, Lenin argues the point very explicitly. After discussing the limitations of the strike movement of the 1890s, he makes his central point about class consciousness and socialism: “We said that there could not yet be Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. This consciousness could only be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., it may itself realise the necessity for combining in unions, for fighting against the employers and for striving to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals. According to their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. Similarly, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose quite independently of the spontaneous growth of the labour movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of ideas among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.’ (1966, pp. 74-75)

It has been suggested (by del Barco 1980) that the clear separation of theory (developed by bourgeois intellectuals) and experience (that of the workers) was a reflection of the particular history of the Russian revolutionary movement. Lenin’s own references, however, suggest that his ideas have a wider basis within the Marxist tradition. He quotes both Engels and Kautsky at length. Particularly significant is the passage quoted with evident approval from an article by Kautsky, in which Kautsky writes: ‘Of course, socialism, as a theory, has its roots in modern economic relationships just as the class struggle of the proletariat has, and just as the latter emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. Indeed, modern economic science is as much a condition for socialist production as, say, modern technology, and the proletariat can create neither one nor the other, no matter how much it may desire to do so; both arise out of the modern social process. The vehicles of science are not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia [K.K.’s italics]: it was in the minds of some members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduced it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without (von aussen Hineingetragenes), and not something that arose within it spontaneously (urwüchsig). Accordingly, the old Hainfeld programme quite rightly stated that the task of Social-Democracy is to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its tasks. There would be no need for this if consciousness emerged itself from the class struggle.’ (1966, pp. 81-82)

The quotation from Kautsky makes clear that the central issue is not the peculiarities of the Russian revolutionary tradition: however important those peculiarities might have been, ascribing the problems of Leninism to them lets mainstream Marxism off the hook. The central issue is rather the concept of science or theory which was accepted by the main stream of the Marxist movement. If science is understood as an objectively ‘correct’ understanding of society, then it follows that those most likely to attain such an understanding will be those with greatest access to education (understood, presumably, as being at least potentially scientific). Given the organisation of education in capitalist society, these will be members of the bourgeoisie. Science, consequently, can come to the proletariat only from outside. If the movement to socialism is based on the scientific understanding of society, then it must be led by bourgeois intellectuals and those ‘proletarians distinguished by their intellectual development’ to whom they have transmitted their scientific understanding. Scientific socialism, understood in this way, is the theory of the emancipation of the proletariat, but certainly not of its self-emancipation. Class struggle is understood instrumentally, not as a process of self-emancipation but as the struggle to create a society in which the proletariat would be emancipated: hence the pivotal role of ‘conquering power’. The whole point of conquering power is that it is a means of liberating others. It is the means by which class-conscious revolutionaries, organised in the party, can liberate the proletariat. In a theory in which the working class is a ‘they’, distinguished from a ‘we’ who are conscious of the need for revolution, the notion of ‘taking power’ is simply the articulation that joins the ‘they’ and the ‘we’.

The genius of Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party, then, was that it developed to their logical conclusion the organisational consequences of Engels’ notion of scientific socialism. From being a negative concept in Marx (science as the negation of fetishised appearances), science in Engels becomes something positive (objective knowledge of an objective process), so that ‘unscientific’ then denotes the absence of something: absence of knowledge, absence of class consciousness. The question that Marx leaves us with (how can we, who live against and in fetishised social relations, negate this fetishism?) becomes turned around to become ‘how can the workers acquire class consciousness?’ ‘Simple’, replies Lenin, ‘since their consciousness is limited to trade union consciousness, true consciousness can only come from outside, from (us) bourgeois intellectuals.’ The inconvenient question of the material source of the bourgeois intellectual consciousness is lost, since it is seen as just the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

Marxist practice then becomes a practice of bringing consciousness to the workers, of explaining to them, of telling them where their interests lie, of enlightening and educating them. This practice, so widely established in revolutionary movements in all the world, has its roots not just in the authoritarian tradition of Leninism but in the positive concept of science which Engels established. Knowledge-about is power-over. If science is understood as knowledge-about, then there is inevitably a hierarchical relation between those who have this knowledge (and hence access to the ‘correct line’) and those (the masses) who do not. It is the task of those-in-the-know to lead and educate the masses.[4]

It is not that scientific Marxism simply reproduces bourgeois theory: clearly the perspective is revolutionary change, the point of reference is a communist society. It introduces new categories of thought, but those categories are understood positively. The revolutionary character of the theory is understood in terms of content, not in terms of method, in terms of the what, not the how. Thus, for example, ‘working class’ is a central category, but it is taken to refer, in the manner of bourgeois sociology, to a definable group of people, rather than to the pole of an antagonistic relation. Similarly, the state is seen as the instrument of the ruling class rather than as one moment in the general fetishisation of social relations, and categories such as ‘Russia’, ‘Britain’ and so on go entirely unquestioned. The concept of revolutionary theory is much too timid. Revolutionary science is understood as a prolongation of bourgeois science rather than a radical break with it.

The Engelsian concept of science implies a monological political practice. The movement of thought is a monologue, the unidirectional transmission of consciousness from the party to the masses. A concept that understands science as the critique of fetishism, on the other hand, leads (or should lead) to a more dialogical concept of politics, simply because we are all subject to fetishism and because science is just part of the struggle against the rupture of doing and done, a struggle in which we are all involved in different ways. Understanding science as critique leads more easily to a politics of dialogue, a politics of talking-listening, rather than just of talking.[5]

The great attraction of Leninism is of course that he cut through what we have called the tragic dilemma of revolution. He solved the problem of how those who lacked class consciousness could make a revolution: through the leadership of the Party. The only problem is that it was not the revolution that we (or they) wanted. The second part of the sentence ‘we shall take power and liberate the proletariat’ was not, and could not be, realised.


The concept of scientific socialism has left an imprint that stretches far beyond those who identify with Engels, Kautsky or Lenin. The separation of subject and object implied by the idea of scientific socialism continues to shape the way that capitalism is understood in much modern Marxist debate. In its modern form, scientific socialism is sometimes referred to as ‘structuralism’, but the impact of the ‘scientific’ position is not limited to those who would recognise themselves as structuralists. Rather, the ‘scientific’ separation of subject and object is expressed in a whole series of categories and specialised fields of study developed by people who do not feel themselves addressed in any sense by criticisms of Engels or of modern structuralism. It is important, therefore, to get some sense of just how much modern Marxism has been marked by the assumptions of scientific socialism.

The basic feature of scientific socialism is its assumption that science can be identified with objectivity, with the exclusion of subjectivity. This scientific objectivity, it was seen, has two axes or points of reference. Objectivity is understood to refer to the course of social development: there is a historical movement which is independent of people’s will. It is also taken to refer to the knowledge which we (Marxists) have of this historical movement: Marxism is the correct ‘discovery’ of the objective laws of motion that govern social development. In each of these two axes, the objectivity shapes the understanding of both object and subject.

Although the notion of scientific Marxism has implications for the understanding of both subject and object, in so far as science is identified with objectivity, it is the object which is privileged. Marxism, in this conception, becomes the study of the objective laws of motion of history in general, and of capitalism in particular. Marxism’s role in relation to working class struggle is to provide an understanding of the framework within which struggle takes place. Marxists typically take as the point of departure, certainly not a denial of the importance of class struggle, but an assumption of it which amounts to virtually the same thing: class struggle becomes an ‘of course’,[6] an element so obvious that it can simply be taken for granted and attention turned towards the analysis of capitalism.

A special role falls to ‘Marxist economics’ in the analysis of history and especially of capitalism. Since the driving force of historical development is seen as lying in the economic structure of society, since (as Engels puts it) the key to social change is to be found in economics and not in philosophy, the Marxist study of economics is central to the understanding of capitalism and its development.

Marx’s Capital is the key text of Marxist economics, in this view. It is understood as the analysis of the laws of motion of capitalism, based on the development of the central categories of value, surplus value, capital, profit, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, and so on. Thus, recent discussions in Marxist economics have focused on the validity of the category of value, the ‘transformation problem’ (concerning Marx’s transformation of value into price), the validity of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and the various theories of economic crisis. As in mainstream economic discussion, much attention is devoted to defining the terms, to establishing precise definitions for ‘constant capital’, ‘variable capital’, and so on.

The understanding of Capital as a book on economics is certainly supported by some of Marx’s own comments, but it owes much to the influence of Engels. Engels, who was responsible for the editing and publication of Volumes II and III of Capital after Marx’s death, fostered through his editing and his comments a certain interpretation of Marx’s work as economics. In the ten years which separated the publication of Volume II (1884) and Volume III (1894), for example, he promoted the so-called ‘prize essay competition’ to see if other authors could anticipate Marx’s solution to the ‘transformation problem’, the problem of the quantitative relation between value and price, thus focussing attention on the quantitative understanding of value (cf. Howard and King (1989) pp. 21ff; Engels’ Preface to Vol. III of Capital). In a supplement which he wrote to Volume III on the “Law of Value and Rate of Profit,” he presents value not as a form of social relations specific to capitalist society but as an economic law valid “for the whole period of simple commodity-production ... a period of from five to seven thousand years” (Marx 1972a, pp. 899-900). It was through Engels’ interpretation that the later volumes of Capital were presented to the world. As Howard and King put it: ‘he conditioned the way in which successive generations of socialists viewed Marx’s economics, both in his editions of Marx’s writings and in what he left unpublished’. (1989, p. 17)

For the Marxists of the early part of this century, Marxist economics was the keystone of the whole structure of scientific Marxism, that which provided the certainty which was the crucial moral support for their struggles. In more recent times, Marxist economics has continued to play a central role in Marxist debate, but it has acquired the newly important dimension of also dovetailing with the structure of university disciplines: for many academics Marxist economics has come to be seen as a particular (albeit deviant) school within the broader discipline of economics.

The defining feature of Marxist economics is the idea that capitalism can be understood in terms of certain regularities (the so-called laws of motion of capitalist development). These regularities refer to the regular (but contradictory) pattern of the reproduction of capital, and Marxist economics focuses on the study of capital and its contradictory reproduction. The contradictory nature of this reproduction (understood variously in terms of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, underconsumption or disproportionality between the different departments of production) is expressed in periodic crisis and in a long-term tendency towards the intensification of these crises (or towards the collapse of capitalism). Class struggle does not play any direct part in this analysis of capitalism. It is generally assumed that the role of Marxist economics is to explain the framework within which struggle takes place. Class struggle is intersticial: it fills in the gaps left by economic analysis, does not determine the reproduction or crisis of capitalism, but affects the conditions under which the reproduction and crisis take place.[7] Thus, for example, the left Marxists of the early part of the century, it was seen, argued that class struggle was essential to convert the crisis of capitalism into revolution: class struggle was seen as an ingredient to be added to the understanding of the objective movement of capital.

The understanding of Marxist economics as an alternative approach to a particular discipline (economics) suggests the possibility of complementing it with other disciplinary branches of Marxism, such as Marxist sociology and Marxist political science[8]. Marxist sociology focuses principally on the question of class and the analysis of class structures, while Marxist political science has the state as its principal focus. Neither of these disciplinary approaches is as well developed as Marxist economics, but they start from the same basic understanding of Marx’s work and of the Marxist tradition, according to which Capital is a study of economics, which needs now to be complemented (since Marx did not live to do it) by similar studies of politics, society, etc.

What all these modern disciplinary strands of Marxism have in common, and what unites them with the underlying concept of scientific Marxism, is the assumption that Marxism is a theory of society. In a theory of society, the theorist seeks to looks at society objectively and to understand its functioning. The idea of a ‘theory of'’ suggests a distance between the theorist and the object of the theory. The notion of a theory of society is based on the suppression of the subject, or (and this amounts to the same thing) based on the idea that the knowing subject can stand outside the object of study, can look at human society from a vantage point on the moon, as it were (Gunn 1992). It is only on the basis of this positing of the knowing subject as external to the society being studied that the understanding of science as objectivity can be posed.

Once it is understood as a theory of society, Marxism can be ranged alongside other theories of society, compared with other theoretical approaches which seek to understand society. Through this comparison, emphasis falls on the continuity rather than the discontinuity between Marxism and the mainstream theories of social science. Thus, Marx the economist is seen as a critical disciple of Ricardo, Marx the philosopher as a critical disciple of Hegel and Feuerbach; in Marxist sociology, there has been discussion of enriching Marxism with the insights of Weber; in Marxist political science, especially in the writings of many who claim to derive their inspiration from Gramsci, it is assumed that the purpose of a theory of the state is to understand the reproduction of capitalist society.

The understanding of Marxism in disciplinary terms, or as a theory of society, leads almost inevitably to the adoption of the questions posed by the mainstream disciplines or by other theories of society. The central question posed by mainstream social science is: how do we understand the functioning of society and the way in which social structures reproduce themselves? Marxism, in so far as it is understood as a theory of society, seeks to provide alternative answers to these questions. Those authors who look to Gramsci to provide a way of providing a way of moving away from the cruder orthodoxies of the Leninist tradition, have been particularly active in trying to develop Marxism as a theory of capitalist reproduction, with their emphasis on the category of ‘hegemony’ as an explanation of how capitalist order is maintained.

The attempts to use Marx’s own categories to develop a theory of capitalist reproduction are, however, always problematic, in so far as the categories of Marxism derive from a quite different question, based not on the reproduction but on the destruction of capitalism, not on positivity but on negativity. The use of Marxist categories to answer the questions of social science inevitably involves a reinterpretation of those categories — for example a reinterpretation of value as an economic category, or class as a sociological category. The attempt to use Marxist categories to construct an alternative economics or an alternative sociology is always problematic, not because it involves a deviation from the ‘true meaning’ of ‘true Marxism’, but because the categories do not always stand up to such reinterpretation. Thus, these reinterpretations have often given rise to considerable debate and to a questioning of the validity of the categories themselves. For example, once value is reinterpreted as the basis for a theory of price, then doubts can be (and have been) raised about its relevance; once ‘working class’ is understood as a sociological category describing an identifiable group of people, then doubts can fairly be raised about the significance of ‘class struggle’ for understanding the dynamic of contemporary social development. The integration of Marxism into social science, far from giving it a secure home, actually undermines the basis of the categories which Marxists use.[9]

The understanding of Marxism as a theory of society gives rise to a particular type of social theory which can be described as functionalist. In so far as Marxism emphasises the regularities of social development, and the interconnections between phenomena as part of a social totality, it lends itself very easily to a view of capitalism as a relatively smoothly self-reproducing society, in which whatever is necessary for capitalist reproduction automatically happens. By a strange twist, Marxism, from being a theory of the destruction of capitalist society, becomes a theory of its reproduction.[10] The separation of class struggle from the laws of motion of capitalism leads to a separation between revolution and the reproduction of capitalist society. This does not necessarily mean that the idea of revolution is abandoned: it may indeed be given up (in the name of realism), but often it is simply taken for granted (in the way that class struggle is taken for granted in so much Marxist analysis), or relegated to the future. Thus, in the future there will be revolution, but in the meantime, the laws of capitalist reproduction operate. In the future, there will be a radical break, but in the meantime we can treat capitalism as a self-reproducing society. In the future, the working class will be the subject of social development, but in the meantime capital rules. In the future, things will be different, but in the meantime we can treat Marxism as a functionalist theory, in which the ‘requirements of capital’, a phrase which recurs frequently in Marxist discussions, can be taken as an adequate explanation of what does or does not happen. The emphasis on reproduction, combined with an analysis of reproduction as class domination, leads to a view of society in which capital rules and capital’s will (or requirements) prevails. Rupture, then, if the idea is maintained at all, can only be seen as something external, something that is brought in from outside.

Functionalism, or the assumption that society should be understood in terms of its reproduction, inevitably imposes a closure upon thought. It imposes bounds upon the horizons within which society can be conceptualised. In Marxist functionalism, the possibility of a different type of society is not excluded, but it is relegated to a different sphere, to a future. Capitalism is a closed system until, until the great moment of revolutionary change comes. Consequently, social activity is interpreted within the bounds imposed by this closure. The relegation of revolution to a distinct sphere shapes the way in which all aspects of social existence are understood. Categories are understood as closed categories rather than as categories bursting with the explosive force of their own contradictions, as categories containing the uncontainable. That which might be (the subjunctive, the denied) is subordinated to that which is (the indicative, the positive which denies) ... at least until.

Twist and turn the issue as one may, the notion of scientific Marxism, based on the idea of an objective understanding of an objective course of history, comes up against insuperable theoretical and political objections. Theoretically, the exclusion of the subjectivity of the theorist is an impossibility: the theorist, whether Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao, cannot look at society from outside, cannot stand on the moon. Even more damaging, the theoretical subordination of subjectivity leads to the political subordination of the subject to the objective course of history and to those who claim to have a privileged understanding of that course.


The tradition of ‘scientific Marxism’ is blind to the issue of fetishism. If fetishism is taken as a starting point, then the concept of science can only be negative, critical and self-critical. If social relations exist in the form of relations between things, it is impossible to say ‘I have knowledge of reality’, simply because the categories through which one apprehends reality are historically specific categories which are part of that reality. We can proceed only by criticising, by criticising the reality and the categories through which we apprehend that reality. Criticism inevitably means self-criticism.

In the tradition of scientific Marxism, criticism does not play a central role. Certainly there is criticism in the sense of denunciation of the evils of capitalism; but there is no criticism in the sense of the genetic criticism of identity. To be blind to fetishism is to take fetishised categories at face value, to take fetishised categories without question into one’s own thought. Nowhere has this been more disastrous in the tradition of orthodox Marxism than in the assumption that the state could be seen as the centre point of social power. A Marxism that is blind to the question of fetishism is inevitably a fetishised Marxism.[11]

The core of orthodox Marxism is the attempt to enlist certainty on our side. This attempt is fundamentally misconceived: certainty can only be on the other side, the side of domination. Our struggle is inherently and profoundly uncertain. This is so because certainty is conceivable only on the basis of the reification of social relations. It is possible to speak of the ‘laws of motion’ of society only to the extent that social relations take the form of relations between things.[12] Non-fetishised, self-determining social relations would not be law-bound. The understanding of capitalist society as being bound by laws is valid to the extent, but only to the extent, that relations between people really are thing-ified. If we argue that capitalism can be understood completely through the analysis of its laws of motion, then we say at the same time that social relations are completely fetishised. But if social relations are completely fetishised, how can we conceive of revolution? Revolutionary change cannot possibly be conceived as following a path of certainty, because certainty is the very negation of revolutionary change. Our struggle is a struggle against reification and therefore against certainty.

The great attraction of orthodox Marxism remains its simplicity. It provided an answer to the revolutionary dilemma: a wrong answer, but at least it was an answer. It guided the revolutionary movement to great conquests that, in the end of the day, were not conquests at all, but dreadful defeats. If, however, we abandon the comforting certainties of orthodoxy, what are we left with? Is our scream not then reduced to the childishly naďve and self-deceptive appeal to the idea of justice, do we not return, as Luxemburg mockingly warned, ‘to that lamentable Rosinante on which the Don Quixotes of history have galloped towards the great reform of the earth, always to come home with their eyes blackened'? No, we do not. We return, rather, to the concept of revolution as a question, not as an answer.


1. See Gunn’s critique of ‘historical materialism’: Gunn (1992)

2. This crude understanding of dialectics is surely at the basis of Negri’s rejection of dialectics, for example.

3. For a helpful discussion of this period, see chapter 2 of Smith (1996).

4. The oft cited idea of the ‘organic intellectual’ introduced by Gramsci makes little difference in this respect: the organic intellectual is simply one of ‘the more intellectually developed proletarians’ who have the task of introducing the correct line into the proletarian class struggle. See Gramsci (1971), pp. 3-23.

5. Subcomandante Marcos claims that the main lesson which the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) learnt from the indigenous inhabitants of the Lacandon Jungle was to listen: ‘That is the great lesson that the indigenous communities teach to the original EZLN. The original EZLN, the one that is formed in 1983, is a political organisation in the sense that it speaks and what it says has to be done. The indigenous communities teach it to listen, and that is what we learn. The principal lesson that we learn from the indigenous people is that we have to learn to hear, to listen.’ (Unpublished interview with Cristián Calónico Lucio, 11 November 1995, quoted by Holloway (1998) p. 163.

6. On the treatment of class struggle as an ‘of course’, see Bonefeld (1991).

7. For a critique of the work of Hirsch in this sense, see Bonefeld (1991) and Holloway (1991c).

8. Poulantzas, in particular, devoted considerable effort to providing a foundation for a Marxist political science in the structuralist idea of the ‘relative autonomy of the political’. See particularly Poulantzas (1973).

9. Repeatedly, discussions which begin as a defence of Marxist categories within a disciplinary perspective lead to a questioning of the disciplinary perspective itself. The defence of the Marxist concept of value, for example, leads back to an insistence on the difference between the study of economics and the Marxist critique of economics, and on the lack of continuity between Ricardo and Marx.

10. An important and influential example of this is regulation theory, which seeks to understand capitalism in terms of a series of ‘modes of regulation’. For a critique, see Bonefeld and Holloway (1991).

11. For a helpful discussion of the fetishisation of Marxism, in relation to recent Marxist debates, see Martínez (2000).

12. To reduce freedom to the insight into necessity, to knowledge of the laws of motion of society, as Engels does, is thus to treat people as objects. This, as Adorno points out, has had ‘incalculably vast political consequences’: see Adorno (1990), p. 249.