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The Dialectic of Social Science

We are reprinting this short piece by Paul Baran on the importance of the Marxian method to the development of a rational social science in honor of the Baran-Sweezy centennial. It was originally published as a review of Das Verhältnis von Wirtschaftstheorie und Wirtschaftsgeschichte bei Karl Marx, by Otto Morf, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 61 (February 1953), 81-82.—Eds.

Pronounced preoccupation with interpretation of historical experience, with basic problems of social dynamics, and with epistemological foundations of social science is itself an important characteristic of the revolutionary convulsions that mark the end and the beginning of epochs in human history. Thus also in our days the feeling of philosophical unrest has penetrated the ivory towers of conventional economics, and the rationale of traditional economic theorizing has become doubtful even to the most complacent practitioners of the established orthodoxy. Representing essentially a series of more or less successful attempts at the comprehension of the working principles of capitalism, customary economic thought stands completely disarmed when confronted with the decomposition of capitalism itself, when what matters is no longer the movements and the behavior of the passengers (and the conductors) on the train but the direction and the speed of the train itself.

It is not surprising that economists exposed to such stormy weather are running for cover. Some seek escape in theories of games and uncertainty, in economics of welfare, or in intensified efforts to measure marginal utility; others, pleading insufficient knowledge, withdraw into the opacity of their libraries, presumably not to re-emerge until they “know enough.” Taking off in opposite directions, the so-called “theorists” are contemptuous of the pedestrian fact-finders; the so-called “empirical researchers” are scornful of the sterile model-builders. The mutual bitterness, however, is highly misleading. It conceals the crucial fact that the difference between them is entirely fictitious. The globe being round, their journeys to safe havens end infallibly at the same terminal: the airy clouds of “pure theory” and the dusty records of “factual data” are equally far removed from reality.

It is this condition of social science that represents the setting of Dr. Morf’s brilliant and erudite monograph. The relationships between economic theory and economic history, as well as the relationship between both and the historical process, are examined as problems in scientific method and in the sociology of knowledge. Seeing the root of the failure of both approaches to the study of society in their implicit (or explicit) acceptance of the unreconciled antinomy of subject and object of knowledge, the author rejects the worn formula “history without theory is dead—theory without history is empty” as a merely verbal, artificial solution of the difficulty. A genuine way out is attainable only through a radical dissolution of that antinomy itself by recognizing the dialectical unity of subject and object. As the key to the vexing ontological problem is bound to remain forever inaccessible to purely contemplative endeavors, social practice forms the only medium of adequate knowledge of society. Thus the principle of unity of object and subject shades into the corollary maxim of unity of theory and practice.

Yet practice is always by its very nature concrete, taking place within the framework of the dynamic totality of the historical continuum of which the subject of knowledge (and action) no less than its object form eternally changing, interdependent parts. Neither the development of society’s productive resources nor the changes of the social organization under which production actually unfolds nor the transformation of the political, ideological, and emotional forms in which the process is imbedded can be comprehended (or significantly influenced) if these partial aspects of the totality are considered in isolation.

On the basis of a penetrating analysis of the writings of a number of important scholars, Morf concludes that it is only the work of Karl Marx that offers a satisfactory approach to the study of the process of historical change. Many interesting questions are raised by the author’s (controversial) interpretation of the Marxian method, by his trenchant critique of Schumpeter’s treatment of Marx, and by other aspects of his absorbing book. Its reader cannot fail to be impressed with the extraordinary wealth of ideas and insights that can be derived from the study of Marx and cannot fail to think how good it would be if Marx’s writings were substituted for much of what is given as “must reading” to our students of economics and social science.

2010, Volume 62, Issue 01 (May)
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