Marxism and Critical Realism: The Same, Similar, or Just Plain Different?

By Roberts, John Michael | Capital & Class, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Marxism and Critical Realism: The Same, Similar, or Just Plain Different?


Roberts, John Michael, Capital & Class


Marxism and Critical Realism: The Same, Similar, or Just Plain Different?

The author examines the relationship between Marxism and critical realism. He problematises the suggestion that Marx implicitly utilised a critical realist theoretical framework. He does this by exploring three areas of inquiry: epistemology and ideology; the method of abstraction; causal powers and social form. By exploring these areas, the author demonstrates that critical realism in fact pursues a different theoretical project to that of Marxism. Moreover, by severing the link between theory and practice, critical realism commits fundamental theoretical problems and errors which it initially claimed to have surpassed. The author concludes by suggesting that these problems were inherent within the critical realist project from the outset.

1. Introduction

SINCE THEIR BIRTH in 1975 with the publication of Roy Bhaskar's A Realist Theory of Science, critical realists have sought to advance an emancipatory project for the social sciences. Attacking both empiricism and idealism, critical realism argues that through the abstraction of concepts from reality causal mechanisms and structures can be examined which, although seen as the outcome of human praxis, operate independently of human praxis. Thus individuals can critically understand the structures which constrain them. According to Andrew Collier therefore a theory is realist in a 'strong' (critical) sense if it makes four claims about knowledge: '1 ) Objectivity, in the sense that something might be real without appearing at all.

2) Fallibility, in the sense that claims are always open to refutation by further evidence. 3) Transphenomenality, in the sense that there is always a need to go beyond appearances. 4) Counterphenomenality, in the sense that deep structures can contradict appearances' (Collier 1994: 6-7).

It also used to be suggested by critical realists that a great debt of inspiration was owed to the works of Marx. Marx similarly conceived science as a process of abstracting concepts in order to comprehend underlying structures (Issac 1990: 18).

But such admiration is also tinged with enmity. For Marx is often seen to be a 'deficient' realist because he advocates a form of historicism. At his worst, Marx's occasional adherence to a `monistic hyper-naturalism' champions a form of biological evolution for the social sciences (Manicas 1987: 116). Bhaskar has put the point more plainly. If Marxism is to make any progress as a research tradition and escape a form of historicism it has four stark choices: the neo-positivism of analytical Marxism, the neo-kantianism of Habermasian communicative action theory, the neo-Nietzscheanism of post-Marxism or dialectical critical realism (Bhaskar 1993: 352). In other words Marxism should seek out a realist meta-theory (Outhwaite 1990: 374) in order to explore the complex levels through which the 'abstract' dynamics of capital are mediated (Marsden 1998: 318-19).

Perhaps the disquiet today over Marx's 'realist' status is to be expected. After all Marx was never consciously working as a critical realist. But if this is the case some important questions present themselves. To what extent could Marx ever be assimilated to the critical realist cause? How does Marx's realism differ from his materialism? Are they the same, similar or just plain different? These are certainly pertinent questions because many theorists still professing adherence to Marxism take the critical realist assault seriously and attempt to incorporate Marx to a critical realist theoretical/methodological framework.2

My purpose in this paper is to problematise some of the assumptions underlying this incorporation. My argument proceeds as follows. In section 2 1 examine some epistemological claims made by critical realists. It is my contention that their epistemological insights do not allow for the development of an adequate theory of knowledge for the simple reason that they do not nourish a critical theory of ideology in any objective sense. …

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