If you met somebody who told you that they did not believe in gravity, what would you think? Perhaps you would show them by dropping an object and explaining that gravity was the reason it fell. What is unlikely is that you would think this science-denying individual was somehow better than you.
But what if they told you that they rejected all science because they only believed things that they had personally experienced or that their instincts led them to, how would you feel then?
The thing is we all know that gravity is a fact. Even if we called it something else, the basic laws of the universe would still apply. You don’t need to know Newton’s Law of Gravity (or its formula F = Gm1m2/r2) for it to hold. So, denying that it exists for you is, I’m sure you’ll agree, futile.
I seem to have an argument similar to denying gravity on a regular basis with people who say they are socialists but only on the basis of their intuition or experience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either, but as ways of explaining the world they are not great starting points.
If you are a socialist, you would be odd if you did not wonder about what causes recessions, for example. But how can your intuition explain the way in which the economy works? Can your personal experience explain how international capital works? Possibly it could if you are an international investment banker, but then you are unlikely to be a socialist.
One important explanation for recessions can be found in a small part of the work of Karl Marx. Now if any so-called ‘theorist’ of socialism splits opinion it is Marx. But would you deny gravity because somebody calling themselves a follower of Newton or Einstein was an unpleasant character? Yet this is precisely what many socialists do with the work of Marx. We might remember that Marx himself, when faced with some over excitable followers in France, declared, “All I know is I am no Marxist”.
Gravity exists not because I say so, or you say so, but because it is a fact that has been proven time and again. But the “tendency of the rate of profit to decline” outlined in ‘Capital’ by Marx in 1867 has also been proven time and again. It is, as is gravity, a proven fact. So, when people say they do not agree with Marxism, they might be saying they do not agree with Marx politically or socially but what they cannot claim is that parts of Marx’s analysis are wrong simply because they don’t like the sound of them. That is not how science works.
Not many people deny gravity, but plenty deny evolution. They claim it is just a theory. When Darwin outlined his ‘theory’ of evolution in ‘On the Origin of the Species’ (which, by coincidence, was published the same year as ‘Das Kapital’), he presented a mass of evidence to support his findings. These were not based on his instincts, or a set of beliefs based in nothing but ‘faith’, but were the results of the five years Darwin had spent on the HMS Beagle around the coasts of South America.
To regard evolution as ‘just a theory’, and therefore boring, is as ridiculous as it is anti-science. The discovery of DNA sequencing by Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick and James Watson, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1962, (at least two of them did but that’s another story) provided the empirical evidence supporting Darwin’s theories and proved, pretty conclusively, that evolution is fact not theory. Not that this has stopped people from denying it.
I have yet to meet a socialist, even a Christian socialist, who denied evolution in favour of creationism. Yet I constantly meet socialists who claim that we have no need for theories and argue that, indeed, theories are not for ordinary people and that those who support or develop theories are making themselves part of a small elite talking only to themselves.
It is true that most theories are discussed among a small group of specialists before they become popular with the general public. But, as Marx once famously declared when his work was described as irrelevant to the thousands of workers who rallied behind banners of social justice, “Ignorance has never yet helped anybody!” His point was a simple one. Demonstrations and strikes built around feelgood rhetoric, even when partially successful, do nothing to take forward the movement for socialism unless they are grounded in a clear set of ideas of social change.
The fact is that there are, and no doubt will remain, people who see suffering amongst ordinary people and they want to shout out that it is unjust. They are attracted to reforms that might ease the suffering slightly for a short while. But they take little time to study what causes the suffering. They take even less time to study what might bring a permanent end to the suffering. They may well call themselves socialists, but they have no idea how to bring this socialism about. They might find that their view of suffering was altered if they, for example, took the time to understand the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.
What is the ‘tendency of the rate of profit to decline’? In a nutshell, it shows that over time the rate of return on investments reduces and that when it does capitalists decide to hold on to their money rather than invest it. Generally, as Marx also described, there is a cycle of boom and bust (mainstream economics recognises this but not the underlying causes) so that the boom periods get shorter and the bust periods get longer.
If you reject this analysis, then not only are you rejecting a proven fact but also an explanation for why recession occurs. And, I would have to ask, given the damage that recessions do to those we supposedly care about, how can you be a socialist and not care about the economy and an explanation for why recessions happen?
Some people do give the impression that acknowledging the defects in capitalism, as Marx did brilliantly, is somehow giving in to a pessimistic outlook. This may be true in as much as capitalism does not have much to recommend it. If we are interested in why people are forced to live in such terrible conditions, then surely we have a duty to understand the system that we live in. It is not enough simply to march for something better, we need a clear explanation for what is wrong in the first place. That requires a theory. And developing a theory requires some thought and discussion. Changing the world has never been easy, but neither has it been boring or irrelevant to work out how that change might occur.
Shorn of any theories of our own we are reliant on those that exist. The problem is that, if we are rejecting our own theories, those that exist have tended to be popularised precisely because they support the existing state of affairs. We are bombarded with theories of society and human nature but, rather than announcing them as theories, we are told that they are just ‘common sense’. Almost invariably common sense turns out to support the status quo.
So it has never really been a case of socialist theory or no theory, as if no theory makes you somehow purer than somebody who has taken the time to read Marx, or Lenin or Gramsci. It has always been a case of socialist theory or the bad theories produced by supporters of a social system that leaves our side marginalised, alienated and impoverished.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.