Multiple Working Hypotheses

A Scientific Method for Marxism


unpublished ms

July 1992



Eugene E. Ruyle

Department of Anthropology

California State University, Long Beach

Long Beach, CA  90840

(310) 985-5364


Abstract: The crisis in socialism requires a reexamination of Marxist science as well as Marxist practice. For many, Marxism became a “ruling theory” which possessed truth, rather than a method for understanding reality and guiding class struggle. If Marxism is to retain its ability to both understand and change the world, we must correct our tendencies toward dogmatism and sectarianism. The “method of multiple working hypotheses” can contribute toward this goal. Originally proposed by the geologist T.C. Chamberlain in 1897, the method of multiple working hypotheses requires an investigator to pursue all reasonable explanations for any phenomenon. This approach provides a fuller, more complex view of reality. It also fosters the distinctive mental habits of complex thinking and toleration . 



The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies have forced a reexamination of nearly every aspect of Marxism. Marxists who formerly saw the triumph of socialism as a scientific certainty are now questioning not only the concept of socialism but the reliability of science itself.

Such questioning is healthy. It was, after all, Marx who called for a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in the sense that it does not fear its own conclusions nor conflict with the status quo. We follow Marx in this, irrespective of whether the status quo we criticize is represented by George Bush or Gus Hall.

We welcome particularly the questioning of the reliability of science, for science has never provided certainty. The findings of science are always tentative and provisional, always subject to criticism, questioning, reexamination, and reformulation. Science does not provide Truth, merely the best version of truth possible at a particular time.

This is a good time to reexamine our methods. While it may have been possible to suspend our skepticism during the period when socialism did indeed appear to be inevitable, no such illusions are possible now. The tasks before us demand that we make use of the best intellectual tools available in our attempts to understand the changing world. One such tool is the method of multiple working hypotheses. This method was originally proposed by T.C. Chamberlain in 1897 in the Journal of Geology Chamberlain, 1897. Chamberlain’s article has been widely reprinted, but has not received the attention it deserves from social scientists. The purpose of my article is draw attention to Chamberlain’s contribution and show how it can aid us in our attempt to understand contemporary reality.

Chamberlain begins his article by distinguishing between two “fundamental modes of study:”

The one is an attempt to follow by close imitation the processes of previous thinkers and to acquire the results of their investigations by memorizing. It is study of merely secondary, imitative, or acquisitive nature. In the other mode the effort is to think independently, or at least individually. It is primary or creative study. The endeavor is to discover new truth or to make a new combination of truth or at least to develop by one’s own effort an individualized assemblage of truth. The endeavor is to think for one’s self, whether the thinking lies wholly in the fields of previous thought or not. Chamberlain, 1897, 395

Attempts to simply acquire the results of previous thinkers are all too common. Students too frequently simply memorize what they need to pass their courses without allowing anything disturb the tranquillity of their preconceptions. Even on the left, the stress has all too frequently been on spreading the “line” of a particular sect rather than on developing the ability to think critically, independently, and creatively on social and political questions. Of course, some memorization and rote learning is necessary. One needs to know who Marx was and what he said before one can use Marx’s ideas to analyze social reality on one’s own. But the stress needs to on the latter, on developing the individual’s critical faculties. This is the purpose of a liberal education and it should be the purpose of Marxist educational efforts.

Chamberlain notes that there have been three phases of mental procedure in intellectual development so far, which he styles “the method of the ruling theory,” the method of the working hypothesis,” and “the method of multiple working hypotheses.” Chamberlain describes the method of the ruling theory as follows:

In the earlier days of intellectual development the sphere of knowledge was limited and could be brought much more nearly than now within the compass of a single individual. As a natural result those who then assumed to be wise men, or aspired to be thought so, felt the need of knowing, or at least seeming to know, all that was known, as a justification of their claims. So also as a natural counterpart there grew up an expectancy on the part of the multitude that the wise and the learned would explain whatever new thing presented itself. Thus pride and ambition on the one side and expectancy on the other joined hands in developing the putative all-wise man whose knowledge boxed the compass and whose acumen found an explanation for every new puzzle which presented itself. Although the pretended compassing of the entire horizon of knowledge has long since become an abandoned affectation, it has left its representatives in certain intellectual predilections. Chamberlain, 1897, 395

What is here described remains an all too common mindset. We can see it expressed by bourgeois pundits explaining to us why socialism did not work and can not work and by Party Chairmen explaining to us that there were no faults in socialism, only human error. It is, unfortunately, all too easy to engage in such intellectual posturing. We must be continually be on our guards against indulging in it ourselves. Equally importantly, we must be on our guard against viewing the Party as a fountainhead of correct knowledge and correct practice. Such thinking leads inevitably to dogmatism and sectarianism.

The method of the ruling theory, however, does have its attractions, and we must recognize its strengths. Foremost among these is its ability to make sense of reality by organizing a vast amount of data within a single conceptual framework. Reality, unfortunately, is very confusing and disorienting. The ruling theory provides us with a comforting way of orienting ourselves by making reality understandable. The world-view of the medieval Church was a significant intellectual achievement which integrated the Ptolemaic view of the universe, the biological notion of the Great Chain of Being, the social ideas of Aristotle and the spirituality of the Bible into a single framework. By placing man at the center of existence, physically, biologically, and spiritually (with woman right there under him), this world view provided people with a sense of certainty and security. Unfortunately, it also justified oppression and, by its very power, tended to block the development of scientific knowledge. Similarly, the world-view of the Party, dialectical materialism, provided an equally comprehensive framework that placed man as the highest level of development (with woman still right there under him). It provided a sense of purpose and certainty which helped people struggle against oppression. It became, however, a ruling theory which did not tolerate alternative interpretations such as feminism, spirituality, ecology, and non-Eurocentric world views. While we criticize the shortcomings of these ruling theories, we also need to recognize their strengths.

One of the major problems with ruling theories is what Chamberlain calls “the habit of precipitate explanation:”

it is a too frequent habit to hastily conjure up an explanation for every new phenomenon that presents itself. Interpretation leaves its proper place at the end of the intellectual procession and rushes to the forefront. Too often a theory is promptly born and evidence hunted up to fit in afterward. Laudable as the effort at explanation is in its proper place, it is an almost certain source of confusion and error when it runs before a serious inquiry into the phenomenon itself. Chamberlain, 1897, 395-396

Explanations, in other words, should follow inquiry, not precede it. The ruling theory, by providing immediate answers to all questions, effectively blocks any independent inquiry into social and political phenomena. One need merely consult the proper oracle and memorize the answers. This, unfortunately, has been a too frequent failing of the left. As soon as we learn the correct party line on an issue, our efforts are devoted to defending that line, rather than treating it as one of a number of hypotheses to guide our research into the topic.

The shortcomings of the ruling theory approach led to the development of the method of the working hypothesis. The working hypothesis provides a tentative explanation which serves to guide inquiry. Rather than seeking evidence to support what one already knows, ones seeks to gather all the facts bearing on the question and only then attempts to ascertain whether the facts support or disprove the hypothesis. The hypothesis here is a mode rather than an end in itself. Because of its tentative nature, the working hypothesis stimulates further and deeper investigation into the phenomena in question. It therefore represents, as Chamberlain observes, “an incalculable advance” upon the method of the ruling theory. Some even see it as the scientific method.

But, Chamberlain points out, “it is rash to assume that any method is the method.” The method of the working hypothesis has some serious defects.

One defect is the tendency, when a hypothesis seems to be substantiated in one case, to apply it more widely. There is little “to prevent a working hypothesis from gliding with the utmost ease into a ruling theory.” Chamberlain, 1897, 398

Further, while the working hypothesis does serve to guide the investigation along a certain line, it also limits the investigation to that line. “In following a single hypothesis, the mind is biased by the presumptions of its method toward a single explanatory conception.” Chamberlain, 1897, 399 The method of the working hypothesis leads us to seek single explanations for phenomena.

To overcome such defects, Chamberlain offers the method of multiple working hypotheses:

In developing the multiple hypotheses, the effort is to bring up into view every rational explanation of the phenomenon in hand and to develop every tenable hypothesis relative to its nature, cause, or origin, and to give to all of these as impartially as possible a working form and a due place in the investigation. The investigator thus becomes the parent of a family of hypotheses; and by his parental relations to all is morally forbidden to fasten his affections unduly upon any one. Chamberlain, 1897, 399

But while a single working hypothesis may lead investigation very effectively along a given line, it may in that very fact invite the neglect of other lines equally important.… In the use of the multiple method, the reaction of one hypothesis upon another tends to amplify the recognized scope of each. Every hypothesis is quite sure to call forth into clear recognition new or neglected aspects of the phenomena in its own interests, but ofttimes these are found to be important contributions to the full deployment of other hypotheses.… So also the mutual conflicts of hypothesis whet the discriminative edge of each. The keenness of the analytic process advocates the closeness of differentiating criteria, and the sharpness of discrimination is promoted by the co-ordinate working of several competitive hypotheses. Chamberlain, 1897, 400-401

The illustration Chamberlain gives is the “mooted question of the origin of the Great Lake basins”:

Several hypotheses have been urged by as many different students of the problem as the cause of these great excavations. All of these have been pressed with great force and with an admirable array of facts. Up to a certain point were are compelled to go with each advocate. It is practically demonstrable that these basins were river valleys antecedent to the glacial incursion. It is equally demonstrable that there was a blocking-up of outlets. We must conclude then that the present basins owe their origin in part to the pre-existence of river valleys and to the blocking up of their outlets by drift. But on the other hand, it is demonstrable that these basins were occupied by great lobes of ice and were important channels of glacial movement. The leeward drift shows much material derived from their bottoms. We cannot therefore refuse assent to the doctrine that the basins owe something to glacial excavation. Still again it has been urged that the earth’s crust beneath these basins was flexed downward by the weight of the ice load and contracted by its low temperature and that the basins owe something to crustal deformation. This third cause tallies with certain features not readily explained by the others. And still it is doubtful whether all these combined constitute an adequate explanation of the phenomena. Certain it is, at least, that the measure of participation of each must be determined before a satisfactory elucidation can be reached. The full solution therefore involves not only the recognition of multiple participation but an estimate of the measure and mode of each participation. For this the simultaneous use of a full staff of working hypotheses is demanded. The method of the single working hypothesis or the predominant working hypothesis is incompetent. Chamberlain, 1897, 400

As a geologist, Chamberlain is primarily concerned with the importance of this method to the student of geology, a field he considers to be “peculiarly complex.” It is rare that a geological formation will be “a simple unitary phenomenon explicable by a single simple cause.” Chamberlain, 1897, 402

What Chamberlain says of the geological sciences is even more true of the social sciences. The phenomena we seek to understand are equally if not more complex.

But the social sciences face additional problems which are not found in geology. As Marx observed,

In the domain of Political Economy, free scientific inquiry meets not merely the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the material it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest. The English Established Church, e.g., will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income. Now-a-days atheism itself is culpa levis, as compared with criticism of existing property relations. [Marx, 1867:10]

Clearly, one cannot expect bourgeois society to sit quietly by while we develop our criticism of existing property relations. We must understand that “the Furies of private interest” will intrude into the scientific process, making social science an arena of class struggle. While it is also true that the physical and biological sciences have been influenced by social, economic, and political factors Merchant, 1983, this influence has been less direct than in the social sciences. Few people worry overmuch about the critical analysis of glacial action.

Suppose, however, the Great Lakes did not want to be studied. Suppose, whenever a geologist went to study them, they covered themselves with fog to prevent anyone from gaining a clear picture of them. Suppose, whenever geologists lectured their students about the action of glaciers, their classrooms were invaded by mosquitoes and gnats to prevent any kind of reasonable discourse. Suppose the Great Lakes published their own journals and funded their own research centers. Suppose it was darkly hinted in those journals that those who had the temerity to suggest that glaciers might be at work in the formation of the Great Lakes were themselves agents of glaciers who were seeking to bring a new Ice Age on the world. What chance would we have for a science of geology under such conditions?

These are precisely the conditions under which social science operates and our scientific methodology must recognize this situation.

Geologists may disagree on the relative weight of different forces in the formation of the Great Lakes, but they do not disagree on the nature of the Great Lakes themselves. Nor do they disagree on the facts about the Great Lakes—their number, size, location, and so on. This basic consensus about fundamental theory and basic empirical facts permits geologists to operate effectively at a middle level of theory and fact, what T.S. Kuhn calls “normal” science Kuhn, 1962.

Social scientists, by contrast, disagree at almost every level. While we Marxists see society as composed of classes locked in dialectical opposition to one anther, bourgeois social scientists see things quite differently. Some see society as an arena where individuals more or less rationally pursue their enlightened self-interest. Others see society as an organism that functions to maintain harmony and order. Still others see society as composed of ideas and values. And some decry all theory and proclaim themselves only interested in the “facts”—just the facts, ma’am, as Sgt. Friday used to say. What are we to make of this situation?

Our traditional approach has been to argue as forcefully and effectively for our own view and dismiss the rest as bourgeois apologetics. Such an approach is a holdover from the days of the ruling theory and is no longer useful. It is more fruitful to apply the method of multiple working hypotheses and try to understand what each of these theoretical approaches can tell us about the nature of social reality.

Even something as simple as a can of soup will look quite different depending upon the perspective from which it is viewed. From the top, it looks circular, from the side rectangular. Which is correct? Both are. In order to understand the soup can, we must turn it around and view it from different perspectives. We must look at it from afar and close up. We must read the label and open the can and eat the soup. Only then can we begin to understand the reality that is a can of soup.

The same is true of societies and social phenomena, they look different depending upon the perspective from which they are viewed. For the warden, a prison is a necessary although unpleasant institution, essential to the smooth functioning of society since it keeps the criminals inside, away from decent folk. For the inmate, by contrast, a prison is an oppressive institution, designed for the poor and minorities while the real criminals are on the outside running our corporations and government. Which is the correct view? Both are. For a Marxist, the economy is the arena where surplus value is extracted from the workers and divided up among various sectors of the ruling class. For a neoclassical economist, the economy is the arena where rational actors meet to pursue their enlightened self-interest. Which is the correct view? Both are, depending upon the perspective one chooses to analyze reality.

At the same time, we cannot simply see these different views of society as alternative views of reality and let it go at that. We must understand that they reflect different class interests and inquire into how they are conditioned by these class interests. A Marxist views society from the standpoint of the working class and seeks to understand how it is that those who produce society’s wealth are not able to themselves enjoy that wealth. The technical apparatus of Marxism—class analysis, the labor theory of value, measures of the organic composition of capital, and so forth—are designed to understand laws of motion of the capitalist order and how the social relations of production, distribution, and consumption generate poverty, inequality, crises, and war. Such questions are not really of much interest to neoclassical economics which needs to tell firms how to set prices to maximize profits. The technical apparatus of neoclassical economics—marginal costs, marginal utility, supply and demand, etc.—are designed to serve the interests of individual capitalists in their quest for profits. Keynsian economics, by contrast, serves the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, by showing how the government can intervene in the economy to prevent crises and social unrest and preserve the social structure of capital accumulation.

This difference between bourgeois and Marxian economics has long been recognized in Marxian theory and was an important part of Hilferding’s 1904 counter-critique of Böhm-Bawerk’s attack on Marx. As Howard and King describe this exchange:

The labour theory of value was not simply, or even primarily, an analysis of price determination. ‘It is therefore because labour is the social bond uniting an atomized society, and not because labour is the matter most technically relevant, that labour is the principle of value and the law of value is endowed with reality.’ This fundamental difference between Marxian and subjective value theory amounted to very much more than two (conceivably complementary) methods, as Böhm-Bawerk supposed. It was rather a question of ‘contrasted and mutually exclusive outlooks upon the whole of social life’. The individualism of bourgeois economics entailed nothing less than its suicide as political economy. Ten years later Bukharin eloquently restated these methodological criticism of neoclassical theory and sought to show that its perspective reflected that of a new ‘leisure class’, which had emerged with the rise of finance capital. Howard, 1985, 53, see also www; Sweezy, 1942, 128-130

However much we may wish to believe that our theory is more “objective” and “scientific” than the others, we must recognize that there are definite values and class interests behind any scientific theory. We must incorporate this recognition into our methodology and make our values, our objectives, and our class perspective clear and explicit.

This is not a new situation. Lenski has pointed out that the history of social thought from its very origins in Greek social philosophy and the Old Testament has been divided into two opposing traditions: a mainstream tradition that supports and is supported by the status quo and a radical tradition that criticizes and is criticized by the status quo Lenski, 1966, 1-23. This bifurcation of social science reflects the division of society into opposing classes and may be expected to continue as long as class society exists. And as long as class society exists, class struggle will continue. The class struggle is economic, political, and ideological. Social science is inevitably part of the ideological class struggle.

The mainstream tradition has produced Aristotle, medieval social thought, and Social Darwinism. Its contemporary representatives include neoclassical economics, functionalism, structuralism, sociobiology, and a bewildering variety of other theoretical frameworks which, taken collectively, may be termed bourgeois eclecticism. Bourgeois, because they reflect the interests of the bourgeoisie by legitimating existing property and gender relations and providing necessary knowledge and skills for manipulating society. Eclectic, because these theories lack any unifying conceptual framework comparable to that in physics, geology, or biology. They are united only in the common opposition to Marxism and other radical theories.

The radical tradition produced the Old Testament prophets, Socrates, Jesus, and Marx. Within the radical tradition, the hegemony that Marxism-Leninism held after the October Revolution was eroded, even before the fall of the Soviet Union, by the emergence of a variety of alternative radical viewpoints: nonviolent pacifism, feminism, and various Third World perspectives such as liberation theology and Afrocentricity. Thus, even critics disagree on how to criticize the status quo. What are we to make of this situation?

Our traditional approach has been that of the ruling theory: ours is right, therefore anything different from ours must be wrong. This approach, however, has generated more heat than light. A more fruitful approach is that suggested by the method of multiple working hypotheses. We can view these alternative perspectives as so many working hypotheses about the nature of the reality we are seeking to change. Each of these perspectives offers valuable insights which must be considered before a satisfactory understanding of that reality can be reached.

While we tend to identify more strongly with theories in the radical tradition, we must also recognize that mainstream theories also have useful insights to offer. Socialist managers (if there are any left) can benefit from the tools of bourgeois economics in managing their firms, and in pricing and marketing their goods. This does not mean abandonment of Marxian economics, merely understanding the relative contributions of the various available perspectives.

In applying the method of multiple working hypotheses to social reality, then, we must not only consider the various alternative hypotheses proposed to explain social phenomena but also that these alternatives usually reflect different class interests. The fact that a particular theory may represent class interests antagonistic to our own, however, does not mean that it is false. The truth or falsity of any theory, or its relative usefulness in explaining reality, must be evaluated through scientific means.

In the scientific evaluation of different theories and hypotheses, it is important to distinguish three levels in the scientific enterprise: theory, analysis, and empirical data. The method of multiple working hypotheses must be employed at each level.

The level of pure theory includes our assumptions about the nature of reality, our concepts for describing and analyzing reality, and well as our value orientation and our views about what are the proper purposes of scientific activity. The physical and biological sciences enjoy a high degree of consensus in terms of the nature of what they are studying, what Kuhn might call paradigmatic consensus Kuhn, 1962. The method of multiple working hypotheses is not really applicable for the physical and biological sciences at this level, but for the social sciences it is essential. How else can we deal with the various “-isms” of the social sciences—Marxism, feminism, structuralism, functionalism, postmodernism, etc.

Chamberlain’s illustration of the method of multiple working hypotheses lies at the middle level of analysis. The various theories of the formation of the Great Lakes all discuss the role of natural agencies. No one suggests that the Great Lakes are the result of the logical working out of the idea of “lakeness” in the mind of God, nor that these lakes are simply the product of rational choice on the part of individual drops of water. The alternative explanations discussed by Chamberlain share common assumptions about the nature of geological formations. Geologists simply assume that the lakes are the product of natural agencies and develop alternative hypotheses about the relative weight of these natural agencies.

When we turn to the social sciences, we find a much more complex situation. Behind the alternative explanations for social phenomena such as poverty lie fundamentally different conceptions about human nature and the nature of human society. Is poverty the result of individual failings or shortsighted social policies or is it rooted in the structure of capitalism. Do the causes lie in our values or the property system? The use of method of multiple working hypotheses requires that we operate in both levels—theory and analysis.

Finally, we must consider the level of empirical data. In the physical and biological sciences the facts themselves are rarely in dispute. Where they are, there are generally accepted scientific canons for the acceptance or rejection of data. Experimental data must be replicable by other investigators; scientific observations must be confirmed by other observers. The data of the social sciences only rarely meets the criteria of such canons.

The fateful bifurcation of social science into mainstream and radical traditions with the multiplicity of theories within each, together with what Marx called “the furies of private interest,” has not only led to confusion about how to interpret the facts, we are not even sure what the facts are.

 For example, those who supported the former Soviet Union tended to discuss the achievements of socialism in health care, education, etc. while data suggesting political repression was ignored as either unimportant or falsified. On the other hand, those who criticized the former Soviet Union tended to dismiss the achievements of socialism as either unimportant, unimpressive, or falsified. At issue is not only theory, but fact. How do we know what we think we know?

There is, unfortunately, no easy answer to such questions. The absence of easy answers to such question does not mean they shouldn’t be asked. Such issues must be addressed, however uncomfortable they make us feel, and however much they may cloud our theories. Our data are simply not as reliable as those of biologists who study fruit flies. It would be better if they were, but they are not. No amount of pretending will change this.

We must, however, attempt to make our own data as reliable as possible. To do this we must deal explicitly with the full range of ambiguity and uncertainty in our data. Outright falsification and deliberate distortions are only part of the problem. Equally important are the ways in which data is marshaled by advocates of various theories to support their views, while nonconforming data is ignored or trivialized.

Here again, the method of multiple working hypotheses is important in helping us deal with this situation so that we may have some assurance that our facts are reasonably reliable. We must read the opposing sides on any issue, not just to understand the different opinions, but also to gather the facts as fully as possible. Sometimes, both sides will agree on the facts but merely disagree on how these facts are to be interpreted. Everyone agrees that Soviet troops entered Czechoslovakia in 1968, but there are disagreements as to why. More frequently, each side with have a different set of facts, but the facts themselves will not contradict each other. It is quite possible for a society to have both an excellent health care system and a repressive political system. Finally, there are cases where the facts themselves are in dispute. Just how many people did die in the Soviet purges of the 1930’s?

Finally, in the social sciences, it is not enough to simply consider multiple hypotheses as if they were abstract arguments put forth by disinterested observers. We must also understand that these alternative hypotheses may be proposed by people with definite interests in the subject matter at hand. Thus, when we read that some marine biologists believe that marine life actually flourished near offshore oil wells, it helps to know that these marine biologists are employed by oil companies. The source of data is itself an important item of data that must be used in evaluating the reliability of the original data.

The application of the method of multiple working hypotheses to problems in the social sciences, then, is much more complex than in the physical sciences. We need to consider not only alternative hypotheses but also the class interests of those proposing these hypotheses. While evaluating these hypotheses in terms of the available data, we must also evaluate the data themselves. To illustrate this, let us examine some of the complexities involved in applying the method to one of the most problematic events of our time, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The first problem arises in simply trying to list the hypotheses. Chamberlain advises us “to bring up into view every rational explanation of the phenomenon in hand and to develop every tenable hypothesis relative to its nature, cause, or origin.” This is no small task. Just listing the major lines of disagreement, let alone the nuances within each, is complex enough. We need to consider the various perspectives of bourgeois Sovietologists who tend to see the Soviet system as a basically unnatural and totalitarian system that collapsed of its own weight, of neo-Stalinists who see the Soviet system as a basically sound system that was overthrown by imperialist pressure and opportunism within, of social democrats who tend to share the conception of bourgeois Sovietologists and argue that, whatever the reasons for the collapse, they have nothing to do with socialism because the Soviet Union never was socialist, of Troskyists who see the overthrow of the bureaucratic caste as an opportunity for the emergence of a regenerated workers’ state, and of variety of other people such as Maoists who see state capitalism being transformed (I will add here my own theory of protosocialism www Ruyle, 1988.

As we examine such viewpoints, we find it difficult to disentangle explanation from ideology. Take, for example, Irvin Kristol’s “Mafia” theory that “the Soviet system since Stalin may be usefully regarded as a regime of Mafioso types who, incredibly, have become the political Establishment.” Such a view is clearly ideological, as is evident in the following:

At the time, the virulent anti-communism of Kristol and his fellow neoconservatives was widely considered excessive, inordinate. Ten years later, the animating proposition of neoconservatism—that Soviet communism represented unmitigated evil, resistance to which was the overriding more imperative of ‘the Free World” (a term neocons refused to drop)—has been entirely vindicated by history.” LA Times 8/9/92, p. M5

It is not clear how this explains anything unless one believes that history operates according to a neoconservative moral law. On the other side, we have Gus Hall’s view that there was nothing wrong with socialism in the Soviet Union and that its collapse was due to human error, more specifically, opportunism:

The ultimate cause of the full-blown crisis in the socialist world can be traced directly to the germination and mushrooming of the age-old virus of opportunism in many Communist Parties of the world, including our Party.… The virus of opportunism spread and eventually became a full-blown epidemic. This is because the ideological immune system, based on the science of Marxism-Leninism, broke down. Hall, 1992, 1-2

Hall’s analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union is tied into his criticism of “factionalists” who are attempting to split the CPUSA. This does not disprove his hypothesis, but it does allow us to place it a better perspective. The truth or falsity of any hypothesis (or the degree to which any factor has contributed to the final result) can only be determined by objective empirical analysis, not our value judgments about what ought to have happened or how what happened affects our own political agenda.

The data for objective empirical analysis are hard to come by, however. Many would subscribe to the view that the vast, bloated Soviet bureaucracy collapsed from its own weight. But just how bloated was that bureaucracy? I recall reading somewhere that the Soviet bureaucracy was about the same size as our own federal government, which is pretty bloated to be sure. But the Soviet Union was larger, and its bureaucracy also had direct control over the economy which in the U.S. is controlled by the separate bureaucracies of corporations. Impressionistic data, however effective for ideological and polemical purposes, is inadequate for scientific analysis. If we treat bureaucratic bloat as a hypothesis, then we must obtain objective data on the size and function of the Soviet bureaucracy in comparison with the bureaucracies of other nations.

Similarly with economic inefficiency. We are properly horrified when we learn that as much as a quarter of Soviet crops are left to rot in the fields. But I recall hearing an agricultural economist say that a 25% loss isn’t that bad—about comparable to losses in the San Joaquin Valley.

The point is, we need to be very careful about our data. Everyone knows that bureaucracies are bloated and that socialist economies are inefficient. But what everyone knows and what can be empirically verified are two quite different things. And understanding the significance of data requires comparative data from other societies. Such data are not easy to acquire, but we must make the effort.

In the old days we could at least rely on official Soviet data for a view different than that give by the U.S. State Department, the CIA, and Western Sovietologists. Granted, one could not simply accept such a view at face value, but at least it forced some evaluation of data. (And, it should be noted, the actual data developed by these Western sources did not support the more extreme ideological views of the nature of Soviet society.)

Now, however, it almost seems as though leading political figures in the former Soviet Union (many of whom were formerly members of the CPSU) are competing with the West in painting a negative picture of the Soviet Union. We seem to be in a situation where any charge against the former Soviet Union is accepted as true, especially when it is made by presently leading circles in the former Soviet Union. We should keep in mind that such figures have an interest in discrediting the achievements of the Soviet Union, just as earlier Western sources did. Alexander Cockburn quotes a knowledgeable observer of Soviet society, Lynn Turgeon, on this process:

There's a real symbiosis of interest between what I term the socialist bourgeoisie in Moscow and the Western reporters. The socialist bourgeoisie are hellbent on getting convertible rubles so they can pick up their VCRs and porno cassettes when they travel abroad. They are anxious for the yuppie life, and you can't have that without a convertible ruble. Most Russians don't travel and couldn't care less about convertibility. The Muscovite intelligentsia has a dreadful tendency to hysteria, leaping from one extreme to another. The Western journalists are eager to snap up anything negative about the Soviet economy, so then it becomes self-perpetuating. The Russian socialist bourgeoisie produce stories of disaster; the Western journalists enlarge their significance, and then the Russians quote these Western stories in their debates in Moscow as evidence of the need for crisis action. [Cockburn, 1990:370]

In a similar view, Sovietologist Jerry F. Hough urges Americans “to stop relying so heavily on the wishful thinking and anxiety of the Moscow radicals” [Hough, 1991 #:B7].

In attempting to understand the collapse of the Soviet Union, we need to understand the Soviet Union itself, and what actually happened during its seven decades of existence. This is by no means easy to discover. Estimates of the numbers of those killed in the Great Purges of the 1930s, for example, range from thousands, to tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands, to millions Conquest, 1990; Getty, 1985:1-9, 211-220; Hough, 1979:176-177; Kennan, 1960, 484-489; Medvedev, 1989, 454-455; Szymanski, 1984, 241-248. Clearly the accuracy of measurement enjoyed by the physical and biological sciences is unattainable here. Our only defense is to employ the method of multiple working hypotheses at the level of data collection itself and to understand that our political ideology has a significant impact on our acceptance or rejection of data. This is not a desirable state of things, but it is the actual state of things and we must make the best of it.

We cannot, therefore, simply accept the latest revelations from the former Soviet Union at face value (though we must consider them seriously). We must also go back and re-read the work of scholars who have tried to understand Soviet reality as objectively as possibly, while acknowledging their own political orientations www e.g. Cameron, 1987 Cereseto, 1982 Deutscher, 1966 Hough, 1979 Mandel, 1985 Marquit, 1978 Szymanski, 1979; Szymanski, 198442.

This is not to claim that any of this data needs to be accepted uncritically as “God’s Truth” about the glories of socialism in the Soviet Union. It is important data that needs to be used in a critical manner to develop a more realistic picture about what was actually going on during the years of Soviet power.

As we consider such data, we will perhaps not be willing to admit we haven’t the foggiest idea as to why the Soviet Union collapsed, but perhaps we will gain some humility and some toleration for others whose confusion is expressed in different ways.

This is one of the major advantages of the method of multiple working hypotheses. Not only does it provides us with a fuller and more reliable view of reality, it also tends to foster distinctive mental attitudes and habits . As Chamberlain observes:

      The loyal pursuit of the method for a period of years leads to certain distinctive habits of mind which deserve more than the passing notice which along can be given them here. As a factor in education, the disciplinary value of the method is one of prime importance. When faithfully followed for a sufficient time, it develops a mode of thought of its own kind which may be designated “the habit of parallel thought.” or “of complex thought.” It is contradistinguished from the linear order of thought which is necessarily cultivated in language and mathematics because their modes are linear and successive. The procedure is complex and largely simultaneously complex. The mind appears to become possessed of the power of simultaneous vision from different points of view. The power of viewing phenomena analytically and synthetically at the same time appears to be gained. It is not altogether unlike the intellectual procedure in the study of a landscape. From every quarter of the broad area of the landscape there come into the mind myriads of lines of potential intelligence which are received and co-ordinated simultaneously, producing a complex impression which is recorded and studied directly in its complexity. If the landscape is to be delineated in language, it must be taken part by part in linear succession.
      Over against the great value of this power of thinking in complexes there is an obvious disadvantage. No good thing is without its drawbacks. It is obvious, upon studious consideration, that a complex or parallel method of thought cannot be rendered into verbal expression directly and immediately as it takes place. We cannot put into words more than a single line of thought at the same time, and even in that the order of expression must be conformed to the idiosyncrasies of the language. Moreover, the rate must be incalculably slower than the mental process. When the habit of complex or parallel thought is not highly developed, there is usually a leading line of thought to which the others are subordinate. Following this leading line the difficulty of expression does not rise to serious proportions. But when the method of simultaneous mental action along different lines is so highly developed that the thoughts running in different channels are nearly equivalent, there is an obvious embarrassment in making a selection for verbal expression, that there arises a disinclination to make the attempt. Furthermore, the impossibility of expressing the mental operation in words leads to their disuse in the silent processes of thought; and hence words and thoughts lose that close association which they are accustomed to maintain with those whose silent as well as spoken thoughts predominantly run in linear verbal courses. There is therefore a certain predisposition on the part of the practitioner of this method to taciturnity. Chamberlain, 1897, 401-401

Fostering taciturnity on the left is itself a worthwhile goal, but the real benefits of this method are that it provides a truer and more complex view of reality and that it fosters mental habits that are conducive to openness and toleration.

The method of multiple working hypotheses is thus a valuable addition to Marxist pedagogy, and it must be placed in context within that pedagogy. Marxist pedagogy is an important component of the ideological class struggle, but that class struggle has various levels. In Russian Social Democracy a distinction was made between propaganda and agitation. In the words of Plekhanov, “A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas, but he presents them to a mass of people.” After quoting this with approval, Lenin elaborates:

the propagandist, dealing with, say, the question of unemployment, must explain the capitalistic nature of crises, the cause of their inevitability in modern society, the necessity for the transformation of this society into a socialist society, etc. In a word, he must present “many ideas”, so many, indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole only by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator, however, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration a fact that is most glaring and most widely known to his audience, day, the death of an unemployed worker’s family from starvation, the growing impoverishment, etc., and, utilising this fact, known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses”, e.g., the senselessness of the contradiction between the increase of wealth and the increase of poverty; he will strive to rouse discontent and indignation among the masses against this crying injustice, leaving a more complete explanation to the propagandist. Consequently, the propagandist operates chiefly by means of the printed word; the agitator by means of the spoken word. The propagandist requires qualities different from those of the agitator. Kautsky and Lafargue, for example, we term propagandists; Bebel and Guesde we term agitators. Lenin, 1902, 66-67

Both agitation and propaganda, in these senses, are important aspects of the pedagogical work of Marxists, but there is another level, that of education. It is not enough to agitate people with examples of the evils of capitalism, or to propagandize (or indoctrinate) them with a Marxist world view, it is also important to educate them by cultivating their powers of critical and independent thinking. While the method of multiple working hypotheses may be little direct use by the agitator or propagandist, it is vital to the educator. An agitator or propagandist may ridicule bourgeois ideology as self-serving apologetics. An educator must understand the strengths of bourgeois ideology from within, so to speak. Only then is it possible to “deconstruct” (to use a fashionable phrase) that ideology and absorb its strengths. This is a crucial component of the ideological class struggle. Marxists must be educated to think analytically and synthetically at the same time in what Chamberlain calls “the habit of complex thought.” Without such education the efforts of agitators and propagandists may easily degenerate into mere polemics and dogmatism.

At the same time, we must recognize that the method of multiple working hypotheses is not an easy one and is not particularly attractive to those who seek quick and simple solutions to social problems. As Chamberlain notes:

      An infelicity also seems to attend the use of the method with young students. It is far easier, and apparently in general more interesting, for those of limited training and maturity to accept a single interpretation or a single theory and to give it wide application, than to recognize several concurrent factors and to evaluate these as the true elucidation often requires. Recalling again for illustration the problems of the Great Lake basins, it is more to the immature taste to be taught that these were scooped out by the mighty power of the great glaciers than to be urged to conceive of three or more great agencies working successively in part and simultaneously in part and to endeavor to estimate the fraction of the total results which was accomplished by each of these agencies. The complex and quantitative do not fascinate the young student as they do the veteran investigator. Chamberlain, 1897, 402 

This failing is not so serious for the physical and biological sciences. Student immaturity is only a phase in the development of mature scholars. For Marxism, however, this aspect of the method of multiple working hypotheses requires further consideration.

As scholars, it is all very well for us to look at the soup can from different perspectives, and understand how it embodies the contradictory characteristics of roundness and squareness and so on, but all this may be quite irrelevant for people with a more practical interest. For a starving child, the most important fact is that the soup can contains food which can be obtained with a can opener.

As Marxists, our objective is not simply to interpret the world in richer, more complex ways; our objective is to change the world. Whatever the defects in the scientific methodology of Marxism-Leninism, we must acknowledge that the vanguard parties of the Third International did change the world. Whatever the defects in the social orders that emerged from the historic revolutions of the twentieth century, these revolutions did contribute to the progressive development of our species. In seeking to reform Marxism, we must be careful not to reform out its revolutionary content.

This revolutionary content is the very essence of Marxism, for Marxism is not just a science, it is also a philosophical outlook and a moral stance. Our moral stance does not make Marxism any less scientific, however. As Weigert has noted in a somewhat different context:

Johan Galtung has drawn the parallel between peace research … and medical science, noting that both have a value bias: peace in the former, health in the latter.… Or as Nigel Young has stated, "Peace studies starts from the premise that war and destructive violence is pathological not normal—in much the same way that Medicine views disease, and that the patient can be saved." Weigert, 1989:40

The Marxist position is, of course, more complex. Marxism views war and destructive violence, together with exploitation, poverty, oppression, and alienation, as part of the normal operation of capitalism and capitalism as part of the progressive development of humanity. But capitalism must and will be transcended by a newer and more humane social system, socialism, from which the negative features of capitalism will be gradually eliminated. For Marxism, the elimination of war, destructive violence, and other forms of human oppression will necessarily take time and struggle.

Our moral stance as partisans of the socialist future and the class that will build socialism does not make us unscientific, any more than medicine’s value bias in favor of health prevents medicine from utilizing science and scientific methods in pursuit of its goals. Indeed, our partisanship gives us a focus that helps us make sense of what is otherwise a very confusing and distressing reality. As Georg Lukacs observed after WWII:

There is, of course, plenty of darkness around us now, just as there was between the two wars. Those who wish to despair can find cause enough and more in our everyday life. Marxism does not console anyone by playing down difficulties, or minimizing the material and moral darkness which surrounds us human beings today. The difference is only—but in this "only" lies a whole world—that Marxism has a grasp of the main lines of human development and recognizes its laws. Those who have arrived at such knowledge know, in spite of all temporary darkness, both whence we have come and where we are going. And those who know this find the world changed in their eyes: they see purposeful development where formerly only a blind, senseless confusion surrounded them. Where the philosophy of despair weeps for the collapse of a world and the destruction of culture, there Marxists watch the birth-pangs of a new world and assist in mitigating the pains of labor.Lukacs, 1948, 2 

As we seek to “assist in mitigating the pains of labor” of our new world, Marxists have often been accused of making the situation worse, of increasing human suffering in the name of eliminating it. Such criticisms must be taken seriously and, in many cases, may be well-founded. In such cases we must learn from our mistakes. But, at the same time, we cannot let these criticisms immobilize us. As Machovec observes,

…yet in practical life, we cannot content ourselves with piling up motives and noting the inextricably complex interrelationships of things; we have to decide and act, and in our action we have to depend on other people, to cooperate with them at least temporarily, even if what they do is not always in accord with our ideals. This is usually where tragedy enters our existence, and everyone has to suffer from it, and the more determined a man is to act honestly, vigorously, fruitfully and with love, the more he will suffer, even if not to the extent that Jesus did on Calvary. But the opaqueness, the impossibility of knowing all the consequences of our actions and desires, is what makes us human: it demands from us the strength to hope again, even though hope has been pushed aside or disappointed or destroyed dozens of times, not to give up, not to fall into cynicism and despair, but to believe, to hope even when one is rejected, misunderstood and unloved. 'Then Peter came up and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven"'. Machovec, 1972, 196-197

As Marxists we must acknowledge our common humanity with our fellow humans, be they Buddhists, Christians, or Muslims. Like all humans, we make mistakes and do not always act according to our ideals. Our science has not enabled us to rise above our humanity, nor should it. We must acknowledge our common humanity not only with the oppressed but, alas, with the oppressors.

The solution to the crisis in Marxism does not lie in abandoning our science but in improving it. The method of multiple working hypotheses can contribute towards this goal.









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