Marxism and the Social Sciences

Article excerpt

This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Maurice Dobb (1900-1976), the foremost Marxian economist of his generation in Britain. Dobb was for many years a Reader in economics at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Trinity College. He assisted Piero Sraffa in editing David Ricardo's Works, and was noted for his contributions to value theory, the theory of economic planning, and the analysis of Soviet economic development. (During the 1950s and '60s he contributed to Monthly Review on four occasions, mostly on socialist economic planning.) His best known work, however, was Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946), an investigation into economic history that was to inspire the famous debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, beginning with Paul Sweezy's review of the book in Science & Society and the resulting exchange. In the 1940s, Dobb participated in the discussions of a group of British Marxist historians that included Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton, and it was out of this experience that Studies in the Development of Capitalism arose, as well as the following essay, first delivered as a contribution to a symposium on dialectical materialism in Cambridge, Easter term, 1942, and then published in revised form in The Modern Quarterly (London, new series) 3:1 (Winter 1947-48), 5-21. [*] Although little known, "Marxism and the Social Sciences" stands out as one of the classic statements on Marx's method. Despite the almost fifty years since it was first drafted, it is scarcely dated (apart from a couple of references to the Soviet Union under Stalin), and is in our opinion well-worth close study, even by those already familiar with its subject matter.--The Editors

I should like to begin by saying something about the intellectual climate in which Marx's thought was reared; since a doctrine generally appears more clearly delineated when it is contrasted with other contemporary doctrines or with ideas in critique of which the doctrine was born.

In the early and middle nineteenth century England and France were particularly influenced by two currents of opinion. The one, deriving from eighteenth century rationalism, held that the function of reason was to seek out and to teach what was the true interest of all men. Between members of society there existed a real harmony of interest which needed the light of reason to disclose; and when the task of enlightenment had been achieved, men would cease to be slaves of illusion and the ideal order of society would naturally appear because it was seen to be essentially rational. Writers like Adam Smith and Bentham had further argued that, even when the individual pursued purely selfish aims, there was an essential harmony which established that the public good, though unwilled, was nevertheless served (c.f. Smith's famous comment that it was upon the self-interest, not the benevolence, of the butcher and the baker that we all relied for our daily sustenance). The corollary of this view was the maximum of fre edom and the unleashing of the individual from restraint. The other (and later) doctrine usually resulted in a less optimistic belief in the results of freedom. It held that the purpose of social science was to extract from a study of history certain generalizations about human nature, and that the task of the reformer was to remodel society in conformity with these fundamental human characteristics; thereby imposing on society a unity that it would otherwise lack. But like the earlier view, it laid stress on the human mind as the agency of social betterment: for example, Saint-Simon's search for a new intellectual unity, or, in the case of Comte instead of political agencies of change, his substitution of "an influence which is sure and peaceful although it is gradual and indirect: the influence of more enlightened morality, supported by a purer state of public opinion." J. S. Mill, interpreting the views of Comte, adds that "the state of the speculative faculties, the propositions assented to by the intelle ct, essentially determines the moral and political state of the community, as we have already seen that it determines the physical. …