Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 475-478
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access 475
The Scientificalization and Vulgarization of Marxism in the 20th
Century: A Critical Analysis on K. Popper’s Critique of Marxism
Fan Chang
School of Marxism, Institution of Western Marxist Philosophy,
China Three Gorges University, Yichang, China
Received August 31st, 2013; revised September 30th, 2013; accepted October 7th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Fan Chang. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribu-
tion License, which permits unrestricted use, distri bution, and reproduc ti on in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
Marxism was indeed vulgarized due to scientism in the 20th century, which even limits the development
of Chinese social theories nowadays. This paper put forward the idea that it was serious misunderstanding
to interpret Marx as prophet or inventor like empiricists who regard finding out eternal laws as the goal of
science. In fact, Marx did not propose any so-called “natural laws of historical development”. He articu-
lated that the only thing worth to do was to take note of what happened before his eyes and to become its
mouthpiece. Thus, to understand science in the face of social practice, to analyze everything historically
and never to thrust “eternal” laws in any era should be taken as the core of Marx’s new science, which is
very important to China today.
Keywords: Kant; Hegel; Marx; Popper; Marxism; Science; Vulgarization
Vulgarization of science has been very serious since Marx’s
time. The focus of Marx’s critique of bourgeois economics was,
in fact, to critic its vulgarization—vulgar empiricism, positiv-
ism and materiali sm. For a long time, however, Marx’s concep -
tion of science has not been understood well, so Marx theory
was vulgarized again. Faced with the French Marxists of 1870s,
Marx said: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.” (Marx/
Engels, 2001: p. 7). In the afterword to the second German edi-
tion of Das Kapital in 1872, Marx complained openly that the
method employed in Das Kapital “has been little understood”
(Karl Marx, 1982: p. 17). In Critique of Gotha Program in
1875, Marx even used words such as “nonsense”. After Marx
died, the problem was more serious that Lenin said: “Half a
century later, none of the Marxists understood Marx!!” (Lenin,
1976: p. 180) But Lenin also did not prevent this trend; ulti-
mately, much-criticized Stalinism happened.
In the 20th century, Marxism was vulgarized indeed. Karl.
Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of science in
the twentieth century, pointed that the men who vulgarized
Marxism were Marxists after Marx. It was the followers of
Marx that turned the original empirical scientific theory of
Marx into non-testable and irrefutable one. Popper lived in the
era of Cold War, and his theory aimed to oppose Soviet Marx-
ism or Stalinism. Putting aside political ideology reasons, how-
ever, we found that Popper also misunderstood Marx’s scien-
tific method, which led to a new round process of vulgariza-
tion of Marxism. This paper will explore this difficult prob-
lem in the history of Western science and philosophy to pro-
pose some helpful suggestions for the development of China
Empirical Science and the Vulgarization of
In 1919, the Austrian social revolution was underway, there
were at great length all about the evidences of Marxist theory
on newspapers. But Einstein’s relativity hadn’t so much evi-
dences, as long as there was a solar eclipse observation prove
that its description didn’t exist (at that time, the observation of
the solar eclipse confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity just),
the theory would be denied. Popper was greatly impressed by
the huge theoretical risks of relativity. He began to believe that
“can be verified” could not be regarded as the criterion of sci-
ence, instead, “The criterion of the scientific status of a theory
is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” (Popper, 1963:
p. 37) And then Popper began to suspect that Marxism was
simply false. Popper claimed that some of Marxists’ early for-
mulations (for example, Marx’s analysis of the character of the
“coming social revolution”) were testable, and in fact had been
falsified (even so, they were scientific). Yet instead of accept-
ing the refutations, the followers of Marx re-interpreted both
the theory and the evidence in order to make them be agreed. In
this way, they rescued the theory from refutation but at the
price of adopting a device which was made irrefutable. As a
result, the followers of Marx destroyed much advertised claim
to scientific status of Marxism (Popper, 1963: p. 37).
Evidently, Popper mainly blamed the followers of Marx (it
should be stressed), and what Popper blamed the followers of
Marx was that they transformed Marxism theory which was an
original theory of empirical science into non-testable and ir-
refutable one. It was very clear that the aim of Popper was to
criticize the Orthodox Marxism (namely, Scientific Marxism),
which has been degenerated into dogmatism. At that time, both
Soviet Marxism and the Second International Marxism re-
garded themselves as Scientific Marxism, articulated to be
proven in the strict sense of science, in fact, they had serious
dogmatic tendencies. At the moment Popper admitted some
formulations of Marx were empirical science, however, he ac-
tually still vulgarized the scientificity of Marxism theory. What
happened in the case?
Let’s turn to the history of Western science. Francis Bacon
distinguished “natural philosophy” (i.e., “nature science”) from
theology. In Bacon’s human knowledge system, only nature
science should be regarded as the great mother of the science,
other sciences wouldn’t grow if they left this root (Francis Ba-
con, 2000: p. 64). To emphasize the real source of science is
nature, which was to emphasize the objective, and seek the
truth in objective things. One had to put the “real object” at the
centre of discourse, and endeavor to find out the eternal truth
hidden behind the object. In this sense Galileo’s physics serve s
as a paradigm shift in the history of the science. His telescope
showed that it was not belief, but observation, induction and
experiment that stood at the horizon of human knowledge. Ac-
cording to classical empiricism, we could get a universal and
objective statement from a finite number of observation state-
ments. The trend could no longer be reversed since Galileo.
When the history of science reached Hume, however, the
“pure” objectivity of science was questioned. Fundamentally,
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is mainly to answer the ques-
tion asked by Hume, namely, how can empirical knowledge be
objective and effective?
After Hume, it was impossible to reach objective injures di-
rectly through observation, so Kant turned to think objective
validity did not result from immediate sense-perception, but
“judgments of perception” (also called “concepts originally
begotten in the understanding”), because “concepts” have their
origin quite a priori in the pure understanding and necessary
universality. In Kant’s texts, necessary universality is objective
validity, they are equivalent terms (Kant, 1949: pp. 54-56). In
this way, Kant argued that he solved the problem on why pure
nature science had objective validity and thus opened a new
channel for empirical science.
Yet Hegel didn’t think so. Hegel thought that the most im-
portant defect of Kant’s epistemology was lack of “movement”.
In Hegel’s analysis, there was no always object, nor eternal
subject. The process of cognition was “the transforming of that
in-itself into that which is for itself, of Substance into Subject,
of the object of consciousness into an object of self-conscious-
ness, i.e. into an object that is just as much superseded, or into
the Notion.” “The movement is the circle that returns into itself,
the circle that presupposes its beginning and reaches it only at
the end.” (Hegel, 1977: p. 488) Thus, Hegel supplemented
Kant’s scientific epistemology: scientific cognition should not
be limited to static analysis of object; instead, the transforma-
tion between object and subject should be realized. By empha-
sizing the transforming between object and subject, Hegel’s
concept of science had the exceptional historical sense, which
was the point that Hegel really beyond Kant. As well known,
Hegel went too far when he emphasized dialectic identity be-
tween object and subject, his science was absolute. As a result,
Hegel developed a speculative idealism. As a kind of reaction-
ary of Hegel’s philosophy, Feuerbach still went too far on the
other hand so that he turned back to the old materialism in
which “the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the
form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous
human activity, practice, not subjectively” (Marx/ Engels, 1975:
p. 3).
It was here that Marx entered the scene of scientific dis-
course. Marx said: “Feuerbach speaks in particular of the per-
ception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are dis-
closed only to the eye of the physicist and chemist; but where
would natural science be without industry and commerce?”
(Marx/Engels, 1970: p. 36) Instead, as long as subjectivity was
put into scientific cognition process, the opposition of man and
nature, as well as social science and natural science, disap-
peared. In another word, the humanity of “pure” natural science
was revealed. Science was no longer just objective and techni-
cal epistemology, and no longer tried to find eternal essence
hidden in objects (in Marx’s late writings, all of these words,
such as “truth”, “essence” and “eternal”, vanished), but “inter-
vened in and transformed human life all the more practically
through industry and has prepared the conditions for human
emancipation” (Karl Marx, 1975: p. 355). In Marx’s analysis,
the question of Being (Sein) was replaced by the idea of Be-
coming (Werden), “natural laws” also became “historical”.
Because of this reason, what we caught in the landscape of
Marx was the incorporation of the “science of humanity” into
the natural sciences. This is a new science, “the science of his-
tory” (Marx/Engels, 1975: p. 27).
According to this point, not only did Marx go beyond em-
piricism, positivism and materialism, in which objective valid-
ity was adored to the point of idolatry, but also beyond the me-
chanical antithesis of subjectiveness and objectivism, spiritual-
ism and materialism, activity and passivity. At that time, Kant,
Hegel, Feuerbach, natural scientists and utopian socialists did
not have a good understanding of science in this complex and
covert forms.
From the perspective of the history of modern Western sci-
ence, Marx’s theory was empirical science certainly, but was
far from the scope of traditional concept of empirical science.
Although Popper read some works of Marx, still did not under-
stand the process of science from Kant to Marx profoundly.
Based on the criterion of “falsifiability, or refutability, or test-
ability”, Popper claimed that some formulations of Marx were
scientific. However, he actually interpreted Marxism theory
according to empirical science or natural science. Is this not
Historical Prophecy and the Vulgarization of
Scientific Marxism claimed that Marxism theory was scien-
tific, because Marxism brought the method of natural science
into social science, found out the “natural law” of human soci-
ety, and predicted the development process of human history
precisely. This view was called Historicism by Popper. In the
eyes of Popper, Historicism was vulgar and wrong.
“Historicism” was a word that Popper singled to refer to the
theory about historical prophecy, which means “the view that
the story of mankind has a plot, and that if we can succeed in
unraveling this plot, we shall hold the key to the future.” (Pop-
per, 1962: p. 338). And Marxis m just was such a theory: “Marx-
ism is a purely historical theory, a theory which aims at pre-
dicting the future course of economic and power-political de-
velopments and especially of revolutions.” (Popper, 1947: pp.
78-79). Popper’s attitude was very clear: historicism has never
been successful in scientific prediction, because “scientific”
Open Access
determinism is impossible. According to Popper, “scientific”
determinism is a doctrine that if we were given a sufficiently
precise description of events, together with all the laws of na-
ture, any events could be rationally predicted, with any desired
degree of precision. Popper firmly opposed to scientific deter-
minism. In his opinion, the future predictions of a certain mo-
ment would be possible only in a completely isolated, steady
and periodic system. But it is very rare in nature, and certainly
didn’t exist in the modern society. In natural science, the idea
of a law which determined the direction and the character of
evolution was “a typical nineteenth century mistake, arising out
of the general tendency to ascribe to the ‘Natural Law’ the
functions traditionally ascribed to God”; In social science, “so-
ciety is changing, developing”, and “this development is not, in
the main, repetitive” (Popper, 1962: p. 340). So Scientific Mar-
xism established its historicism on the “scientific” determinism,
which was certainly not scientific.
Besides opposing to Scientific Marxism, Popper also at-
tacked Marx directly. Why attacked Marx, then? It because that
Marx was “a false prophet”, especially, Marx “misled scores of
intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the
scientific way of approaching social problems” (Popper, 1947:
p. 78). So here, another vital historical question emerged: was
Marx the historical prophet described by Popper?
Sincerely, historicism was indeed an important tradition of
Western culture. Ancient Greek philosophy, medieval theology,
French positivism, English empiricism, Kant and Hegel, though
these schools were very different, all of them believed: behind
the changing world, there were so-called eternal laws or pri-
mary beings. In any case, the world was determined by these
laws, to discover them and forecast the future of the world was
the primary task of scientific cognitions. According to Russo,
this characteristic of Western culture came from the anxiety of
people to get “safety”. In this sense, Religion assured to people
the “eternal” and thus provided a “decisive” future, which gave
the spiritual comfort to them. Science, like philosophy, also
aimed to find some permanent substratum amid changing phe-
nomena (Russo, 1961: pp. 45-46). However, in fact, precisely
in Marx this tenden c y had b ee n curbed and eve n abandoned .
We have indicated above that Marx found a perspective of
dynamic social practice when he overcame the mechanical
materialism of Feuerbach, and found a “historical” perspective
when he critiqued Hegel’s speculative idealism. Consequently,
Marx suggested a significant meaning when he wrote down
“We know only a single science, the science of history.”
(Marx/Engels, 1975: p. 28). “The science of history” was a
science about movements or changes, namely, both social sci-
ence and natural science should understand the world in the
perspective of changes. How can there be eternal things! As
long as viewing science alongside social practice (the main
characteristics of social practice are subjectivity, activity and
change), meanwhile, understanding science in the point of dia-
lectics (dialectics “regards every historically developed social
form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its
transient nature not less than its momentary existence.” (Karl
Marx, 1982: p. 20). Marx’s understanding of science should not
be regarded as determinism, and historical prophecy certainly
should not be treated as Marx’s scientific method and goal.
Actually, Marx valued the general laws of human history
only within certain limits. General laws were not Marx’s scien-
tific goals. For example, at the beginning of political economy
research, Marx pointed that the modern science apart from the
changing social practice, but seeking of the general laws. Marx
said: “What indeed should we think of a science which primly
abstracts from this large area of human labor, and fails to sense
its own inadequacy, even though such an extended wealth of
human activity says nothing more to it perhaps than what can
be said in one word—‘need’, ‘common need’?” (Karl Marx,
1975: p. 354) In Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848),
Marx and Engels blamed the founders of critical-utopian so-
cialism and communism who only knew to search “new social
laws”, but ignored historical conditions of the emancipation of
the proletariat. In Introduction to a Contribution to a Critique
of Political Economy (1857-1858), Marx stressed that when we
talked about the production, we referred to production at a cer-
tain stage of social development, there was no so-called abso-
lute law of “ production in general”. Even if we speak of “gen-
eral laws” on the common sense, this “general” concept itself
were multifarious compound comprising divergent categories.
Some elements were found in all epochs, some were common
to a few epochs. The purpose emphasized these “general laws”
only to avoid repetition, thus the most important thing for us to
do was not to highlight the common, but to emphasize the es-
sential differences. However, modern economists did not per-
ceive this fact, all wisdom of them were used to prove the eter-
nity of the laws of existing social relations. After the publica-
tion of Das Kapital, Marx’s scientific method was misunder-
stood and critiqued. In 1872, Marx endorsed the view attributed
to him in afterword to the second German edition of Das
Kapital that: “But it will be said, the general laws of economic
life are one and the same, no matter whether they are applied to
the present or the past. This Marx directly denies. According to
him, such abstract laws do not exist. On the contrary, in his
opinion every historical period has laws of its own…” (Karl
Marx, 1982: p. 18). In 1877, when someone wanted to change
Marx’s theory about the history of western European capitalist
development thoroughly into a general theory of historical phi-
losophy, Marx said: “He is both honoring and shaming me too
much… events strikingly analogous but taking place in differ-
ent historic surroundings led to totally different results. By
studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then
comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenome-
non, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of
a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of
which consists in being super-historical.” (Marx/Engels, 1968:
p. 111). By the word of “super-historical”, Marx distinguished
his scientific theory from all categories of knowledge which
regarded seeking eternal laws and general truth as their essen-
tial mission (Chang, 2012).
Engels also has elaborated this view clearly. Soon after the
publication of Das Kapital, Engels pointed out that, whatever
the fate of the propositions of this book, a lasting merit of Marx
is to have put an end to the narrow-minded concept which
treated political economy “as abstract and universally valid a
science as mathematics”. Due to Marx’s historical outlook, it is
impossible to view social laws as “eternally valid truths”
(Marx/Engels, 1985: p. 218). In the difficult exploration about
the scientificity of Marxism theory, Louis Althusser also found
that when Marx said in a sarcastic tone that he was not a Marx-
ist, Marx actually opposed to describe his works as the general
philosophy of history or the political economy finding total law
of human society by a “writer”. And actually, Marx claimed
that Das Kapital was not a “science” (Althusser, 2003: p. 251).
Professor He Ping, a Chinese scholar, put forward this point in
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her research, too. She said that there was indeterminism thought
definitely in Marx’s early research on political economy and
late research on anthropology (Ping, 2008). Even Popper him-
self had to recognize that “Karl Marx himself was one of the
first to emphasize the importance, for the social sciences, of
these unintended consequences” (Popper, 1962: p. 342). How
can Marx’s theory be understood as scientific determinism like
Newtonian physics? How can Marx be read as social prophet
pursuing the general law of history?
“Scientific Marxism” interpreted Marxism theory as histori-
cal determinism, consequently, over highlighted the signifi-
cance of general historical law. So it was impossible to avoid
dogma and vulgarization. Ultimately, they misunderstood sci-
ence and put Marxism into this erroneous scientific under-
standing, so left away from the essential spirits of Marx thought
farther and farther. Popper put forward that the goal of modern
science was not prophecy and he was right. Any scientific theo-
ries would make some judgment about the expected develop-
ment in the field more or less. Marxist Theory was no exception.
However, if science leads to some conclusions about prophecy,
it must be a byproduct of science, which could not be regarded
as the standards of science. Popper labeled Marx as historical
determinism without exploring Marx’s science profoundly. A
new round of misunderstanding and vulgarization of Marxism
inevitably occurred.
Our research indicates that there is a close relation between
Marxism’s vulgarization and scientific process in 20th century.
In Das Kapital, Marx once satirized Proudhon socialists be-
cause of their misusing of the word “science”: “where thoughts
are absent, words are brought in as convenient replacements.”
(Marx/Engels, 1989: p. 98) But what a pity, soon after Das
Kapital publication, Marx’s theory also fell into this prevalent
doctrine. This situation existed and developed in the whole 20th
century. Even today, 140 years later, the situation has not fun-
damentally changed. Not only has his scientific method still
“been little understood”, but also some of his conceptions faced
to explicit denials. So did Popper. For this reason, Marxism
theory faced various misunderstandings and plights in its his-
tory. Were Marx alive now, how would he think?
In fact, Marx was a scientific realist who rejected the con-
ception of empiricist analysis of science. Not only was Marx
not a “founder”—a “scientist” like Newton or Darwin, or a
“writer” who tried to establish knowledge system—all bour-
geois economists critiqued by Marx did so, but also he was not
a “historical prophecy”—to find out so-called “natural laws of
historical development” has never been Marx’s ends. What
Marx did merely was to take note of what happened before his
eyes and to become its mouthpiece. The whole Das Kapital was
just a logic expression of social reality. In a word, to understand
science in the face of social practice, analyze everything his-
torically, and never thrust “eternal” laws into every era should
be taken as the core of Marx’s new science. In this sense, the
first thing Marxists should do was to understand reality, not to
tell stories of the future or extract some abstract laws from his-
tory to define any of the actual historical stages. The future
developed and grew up from the current situation; at the same
time, history was helpful only in the sense that history could
lead us to understand today well. Evidently, it was crucial for
China to understand Marxism from the perspective of these,
especially at the moment when China decides to enhance the
confidence of socialism with Chinese characteristics, establish
the Chinese model and solve Chinese increasing practical
problems nowadays.
This research was supported by grants from the scientific re-
search project of China Three Gorges University (Code:
KJ2011B064). I would like to thank Ms Zhang Yanli, who is a
librarian of China Three Gorges University, for her fruitful help
in English revise.
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