We always say that Marxism is a science, but we don’t always dig into what that means. When Marx and Engels talk about scientific socialism, the word they use for science is Wissenschaft, which means something like “a systematic way of constructing knowledge about a defined set of phenomena.” The systematic study of literature (as opposed to mere aesthetic appreciation) is a Wissenschaft, for example, as is the study of history. Science is thus an interaction of a method and an object of study. At its best, Marxism is a way of using a set of philosophical methods (materialism and dialectics) along with concepts drawn from the analysis of history (class, revolution, etc) to move beyond bourgeois science in understanding the development of social, economic, and political relations. Part of this task — the part that Marx seems to have especially relished — involves exposing the ideological basis of bourgeois social science and political economy, revealing that its core principle is really just the preservation of existing social relations.
Of course, bourgeois social scientists recognize the danger that Marxism poses and have developed ways of countering it. One is locking Marx away in philosophy and history departments, where he is studied as a historical figure kept safely in isolation from the analysis of contemporary society. Another tactic has been to accuse Marxism of being ‘dogmatic’: ideologically rather than scientifically driven, lacking objectivity, etc. Part of the fault for this lies with Marxists, perhaps, but it’s mostly a way of discrediting a philosophical perspective hostile to bourgeois interests. Lenin recognized this early on, devoting a big chunk of the first chapter of “What is to be done?” to the academic fashion of dismissing Marxism as ‘dogmatic’ to avoid responding substantively to Marxist critiques. This continued as a feature of bourgeois social science, picking up steam with folks like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (The Vital Center) Daniel Bell (The End of Ideology), and Raymond Aron (The Opium of the Intellectuals), who worked to paper over class struggle with a political vision based on the confrontation of ‘freedom’/’moderation’ and ‘extremism’: basically, conservatives, liberals, and social-democrats vs. Communists and Nazis. The main arrow in their quiver was accusing Communism of being too ideological. We’re still dealing with the fallout of this. For example: how establishment Democrats dismissed Bernie as an ideologue with no practical vision, or how pro-TPP Democrats pilloried Elizabeth Warren for her ‘dogmatic’ opposition to free trade.
This is why we have to be vigilant about calls for ‘anti-dogmatic’ and ‘flexible’ Marxism. That critique has a history as the center left’s weapon against us. Getting rid of rigidity in our thinking is fine, but it always struck me that the overthrow of received ideas couldn’t be an end in itself. Our goal is to be right, not to be flexible; we’re measured by how correct our analysis is, not by how novel it is. To paraphrase Lenin, if you have something better than Marxism, out with it; otherwise, don’t think that calling us dogmatic discredits our analysis.