A review of Kuhn's book
'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions':

Some thoughts on the Left
and modern philosophy

By Sarah, Chicago Workers' Voice
(from Communist Voice #18, August 1, 1998)

. This article is reprinted in its entirety from the Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal, issue #14, February 18, 1998. It is Sarah's manifesto of her disillusionment with Marxism. It is critiqued in Mark's article "The CWV discards the Marxist paradigm".


. Activists in the left are discussing the crisis of current-day socialist politics. I was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA, a revolutionary communist organization which dissolved in the face of an internal ideological crisis in 1993. The crisis facing the left was an issue which greatly concerned the MLP. An issue around at the demise of the MLP was the question of how to assess current-day philosophical thought and its meaning for socialist politics.

. From the beginning, a question of concern to the socialist movement was its philosophical underpinnings. In the current crisis of socialist politics, I think it useful to investigate current issues in philosophy and how they might impact on the crisis. I have been doing some reading on these questions and would like to raise some of the issues for discussion.

. Marx and Engels write that their views of scientific socialism were very much based on and a development of the views of the "utopian socialists" (Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owens), materialist and dialectical philosophy, and materialist conceptions of history and economics. The works of Marx and Engels are steeped in these and greatly developed their thought. Modern socialism, I think, also needs to take account of the developments in philosophical, economic and political thought and to sort out the relationship of them to revolutionary politics.

I. have been doing some reading of modern philosophy, and I want to make a stab at presenting some of the major ideas of one of the more important authors, along with some thoughts on what these ideas may mean for left revolutionaries.

. Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962. Kuhn wrote on how he thought scientific progress develops. His ideas have had a major impact on scientific fields. This discussion has been around for thirty years so it is not new. However, the issues raised by this writer were not directly discussed in the MLP, so they were new to me and I suspect new to many people in the left. He is the source of the now-trendy and somewhat overused term "paradigm shift," although current usage of this term often has very little to do with what Kuhn put forward.

. Kuhn opposes the idea that scientific progress consists in the piecemeal addition of facts, knowledge, techniques and methods. He says this view of scientific progress sees the history of science as an accumulation of various discoveries, development of laws, instruments and inventions and seeing this accumulation as opposed by various myths and theories that inhibit scientific progress. He does not see science as developing towards an ultimate goal of "truth."

Instead, Kuhn sees science as developing in a more revolutionary fashion. He says that the early development of most sciences is characterized by periods when many theories, explanations and techniques compete. Early fact-finding, in the period before a "paradigm" is established, is very random. Effective scientific research, what he calls "normal science," begins only when the scientists in a particular field acquire firm answers to basic questions of the field, at least the basic questions that are being asked at that time. He calls this the achievement of a paradigm.

. When a paradigm is found and science is in a period of "normal science," this is when most progress takes place. Much of science depends on the ability to defend that paradigm. Normal science defines the maturity of a science. Normal science defines the problems that need to be addressed, it defines the rules and standards, it defines the types of measurements needed. It focuses the attention of scientists on a relatively small number of problems, and it facilitates the solving of those problems. The paradigm gives "form to scientific life" and is a "vehicle for scientific theory." The paradigm defines what questions are legitimate and defines the techniques necessary to solve them. Paradigms provide the puzzles that challenge most scientists. Most scientific progress consists of elaborating paradigms already found and solving the problems defined by that paradigm.

. The paradigm turns a field into a profession. It brings a period when scientists no longer have to define their work to the world at large. It gives rise to the scientific journals in that field. The scientists of a field are able to talk to each other in their own language. The paradigm means that new generations of scientists in a field can be trained in the rules and methods and the problems of that field. This creates a certain insulation of the scientific community from the larger community. It allows scientists to concentrate on problems they think they can solve and which are defined by the paradigm.

. He does not see scientific progress as either the methodological verification or falsification of theories. Theories confront counterinstances all the time. Even the most stubborn are usually solved by normal science. He says that everything that can be seen as a counterinstance to a theory can also be seen as a puzzle of that theory. Indeed, much of scientific progress is in solving those puzzles. He says that once a paradigm is established, there is no such thing as research in the absence of a paradigm. And there is no such thing as rejection of a paradigm without another to take its place.

. Normal science goes astray when it goes into crisis, when an anomaly is more than an anomaly. Kuhn talks about instances that make anomalies particularly pressing and notes that it usually takes several of these instances to provoke crisis. The anomalies become more recognized by the profession. The anomaly may exist on a key point of the theory and thus be recognized instantly. Anomalies build up. Crises are necessary for the emergence of new theories. Then efforts begin to get a new commitment. This period of paradigm shift has many similarities to the period before a paradigm is in place. Science in crisis generates many speculative theories. These speculations are often versions of the old paradigm. The period of paradigm shift looks similar to the pre-paradigm period in that there are many competing theories and methods of investigation. The development of a new paradigm requires the reevaluation and reconstruction of prior facts and theories. There is frequently a fairly long period when new paradigms compete with older paradigms until the new paradigms win. This victory may sometimes require that the adherents of the old paradigm die out. He portrays the development of a new paradigm as frequently taking a fairly long period and a fairly bitter struggle.

. Kuhn says that his view of scientific progress applies to the natural sciences and he has not worked out how it would apply to the social sciences. He notes that fields like medicine, technology and law are different from the natural sciences. They are called upon to address problems which are urgent for the larger community without regard to whether or not there are the tools to actually address them. Social scientists frequently have to defend their choice of a research problem, while he says that natural scientists frequently do not. Kuhn says he is interested in pursuing how his ideas on scientific revolutions apply to social science.

* * * * * * *

. I think that the ideas of Thomas Kuhn regarding progress in the natural sciences provoke thought on the nature of the crisis in the socialist movement. It is clear that great progress took place in the development of socialist thought with the advent of Marxism. But Marxism is currently in crisis. The countries and regimes which took power under the banner of Marxism did not succeed. Each in its own way had severe problems with great differences in status between the leaders, the ruling party and the majority of the population. Each had its problems with the exploitation of the working classes. Each had problems with lack of democracy, with a lack of actual control by the working classes. And several, including the Soviet Union, China and Albania, had problems with severe repression of the masses under the guise of Marxism.

. The "official" socialism and "Marxism" of the Soviet Union that was promoted at least since the 1930's, and its developments in various other regimes, I think, in many ways represents a paradigm. As rigid and one-sided as the interpretations of Marxism have been, nevertheless these have passed as official Marxism. Various trends from Trotskyism, to Maoism, to the trend from Albania, to dependency theorists, to the followers of Castro -- all had some critiques of some of the "socialist" regimes in power, even including their own. All had some valid critiques.Activists in the struggles of the oppressed have adopted one or another of these theories.

. The trend from which the late MLP emerged was opposed to revisionism. It took the stance of fighting to build an anti-revisionist trend. The early predecessors of the MLP saw the inherent reformism and the stifling of the independent motion of the working class and other political movements by the politics of the Communist Party USA and the main Trotskyist groups in the late 1960's. They attributed revisionism largely to a betrayal of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union by Khrushchev and the Soviet leaders that took power after Stalin's death in the 1950's. One of the anti-revisionist paradigms (if you will) and certainly a set of ideas that shaped the MLP and its predecessor organizations, was the debate in the international communist movement between China and the Soviet Union.

. "The polemic on the line for the international communist movement," as it was known by Marxist-Leninists of the late 60's and the 1970's, fingered Khrushchev as the source of revisionism and validated Stalin as a true communist revolutionary. From the late 60's through the early 1970's, our predecessors saw Mao Zedong Thought and the politics and policies of the People's Republic of China as the leaders of the struggle against revisionism and the best hope for revolutionary communism

. However as time went on, one ideological icon after another fell. Closer investigation revealed that Mao Zedong Thought and China were not the anti-revisionism that the MLP's predecessors wanted. So they looked to Enver Hoxha's Albania and Stalin's Soviet Union as the bastions of communism and anti-revisionism. Even after the MLP was declared in 1980, they continued to hold that revisionism in the Soviet Union did not gain ascendance until Khrushchev. They held that Stalin was a true upholder of socialism throughout his life.

. Being fairly honest, however, the MLP investigated Albania and Stalin and Dimitrov and others, and the icons fell one after another. Discovering that some of our most revered communist theoreticians were actually revisionists, that they conciliated social-democracy and imperialism, that they put the brakes on constructing socialism, was no doubt one of the factors that created the crisis for the MLP. With the loss of these ideological icons came a loss of innocence; the MLP no longer had so many pat answers for theoretical political questions. Perhaps most importantly, we had lost our model for socialist construction. Marx, Engels and Lenin survived the test of the MLP's theoretical work and investigations, but they never lived to see socialism. The MLP now had difficulty describing the system that was its goal.

. The MLP was also unable to answer other basic questions of modern day socialist politics. In the first issue of this journal, its editors wrote that various ideological and theoretical disputes were at the heart of the dissolution of the MLP including "1) the assessment of imperialism, 2) analysis of the program of the capitalists and what the program of the working class should be in the post Cold War world, 3) assessment of the role of the working class as a base for revolutionary politics, 4) assessment of Leninism, 5) assessment of Soviet history, and 6) analysis for the role of a small revolutionary party or group in the present situation." These were and are serious issues which need attention.

. The MLP was aware of these issues and made attempts to grapple with them. It was also one of the best of the left organizations in grasping how to participate in struggles and maintain a socialist orientation without either being sectarian or falling into the trap of tailing behind the trade union bureaucracy or various reformists. It, however, was unable to answer these questions -- which I think in many ways are part of developing a new paradigm.

. In my opinion, Thomas Kuhn's work provokes thought about how to address our crisis. Socialist theory needs to take into account various factors.

. 1. Whether what has passed for Marxism, including some issues of how the MLP interpreted Marxism, were simply rigid interpretations, or whether what we need is new insight, is a question. I think the paradigm will be new. It will take in and account for the monumental work of Marx, Engels, and Lenin but it will develop from there in new ways. I think it will be a new way of looking at many things.

. 2. Socialism needs to stand with the poorest and most downtrodden in their struggles. It has to foster the shoots of independent political movement. It is often the case that groups and individuals who call themselves "socialist" base themselves on this or that contradiction within the trade union bureaucracy or the reformist politicians. This is itself a source of a lot of confusion and crisis among activists.

. 4. [There was no point #3 in the article--CV.] We have to continue to realize that socialism is a direct product of class antagonisms. We should study how the complex interaction of national, racial, ethnic, gender and other issues interplay with class contradictions in building a revolutionary movement. Many of the trends that say they adhere to Marxism and socialism have not dealt well with this interplay and have either tended to reduce everything to class or to overlook class issues.

. 5. We should come to grips with how such things as new technology and how the changes in class formation affect the class struggle. We also have to judge how the advances in the sciences such as anthropology, cultural anthropology and ecology impact on what we will build in the future and how we address issues of the movement. For instance, in my opinion, in the past, our trend would have come down very one-sidedly on the nurture side in the nature vs. nurture debate (and not studied the complex interplay). Some of the classics of Marxist literature, such as Plekhanov's The Monist View of History, are heavily partisan to the "nurture" view while modern science is raising serious questions about this.

. 6. We need to study what were the similarities and differences among all the "socialist" regimes such as that of the Soviet Union, China, Albania, and Cuba, and for that matter their similarities and differences with other capitalist regimes where the state was a controlling or dominating force in the economy, such as that of Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico or the nationalist regimes in Africa.

. I realize that these thoughts are very rough; but I hope they will provoke some thought as to how we in the socialist movement can address the troubling issues facing us.

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