Marxists and science

Submitted by AWL on 6 February, 2019 - 12:52 Author: Les Hearn
darwin and marx

“Marxism does not provide a ready-made key for making judgements about scientific ideas. It cannot substitute for a detailed knowledge of the appropriate scientific material.”1

Marx and Engels saw themselves applying a scientific method to economics and the dynamics of class societies. Their philosophical approach was derived from that of Hegel who used dialectics, a discussion between opposing points of view, to arrive at truths. Marx and Engels applied Hegel’s methods to the real world, in particular showing that the capitalist mode of production gave rise to a class whose interests lay in overthrowing it and replacing it with a socialist society. Marx and Engels’ methods were therefore historical and materialist but later came to be called dialectical materialism (DM), unfortunate because this jargon term masks its straightforwardness.

Seeing their work as part of science in general, both were deeply interested in the natural sciences of their time. Indeed, Marx wrote of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that it “contains the basis in natural history for our view.”2 Eleanor Marx’s partner, Edward Aveling, was a populariser of Darwin’s theory. Simon Ings, in his recent Stalin and the Scientists,3 sees Marx as believing in scientific government, where science would be extended into politics until there was “no distinction between knowledge and policy.” Sadly, evidence-based government policies are just as elusive now as then.

Engels was particularly interested in modern science: he saw his philosophy of “new materialism” (i.e. DM) potentially uniting all disciplines. It was materialist, in that all phenomena arose from the physical world, and dialectical, in that all knowledge was obtained through reasoned argument and inquiry. As a philosophical method, DM was therefore a study of how all things change, whether these be species, chemical substances, or societies. Perhaps the most successful of Engels’ attempts to use DM in considering a scientific problem is contained in his unfinished 1876 essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.4

Modern natural science* has no choice but to be materialist and both Engels and Lenin sought to connect science to DM, seeing scientists as unconscious dialectical materialists: Engels likened the scientists of his day to Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who had been speaking prose all his life without realising it. These included natural scientists, such as the chemist Mendeleev, who pulled together the different chemical elements into a systematic periodic table, or the physiologist Pavlov, who with his dogs elucidated the conditioned reflex, found widely in the natural world. In practice, scientists are often “reductionist” in that they break up problems into smaller parts to work on. This has been criticised but is only wrong if one assumes that the whole is simply the sum of the parts, not recognising that higher forms of order may emerge from combinations of factors.

Engels criticised idealists who believed in a static universe since his dialectics, “conceived as the science of the most general laws of all motion,”5 did not admit of stasis in nature, any more than in human society. While he was correct in this, it is not generally helpful to try to apply DM in the natural sciences. Indeed, the attempt to force the natural sciences into the straitjacket of Stalin’s distorted idea of DM was counterproductive, to say the least. Where it came to Stalin’s influence on agricultural science in the Soviet Union (USSR) through Lysenko, it may rightly be said “It was worse than a crime – it was a blunder.”

Engels was particularly impressed with Mendeleev’s prediction of “eka-aluminium” from an anomaly in his Periodic Table of the Elements.** Mendeleev found that arranging elements into columns of those with similar properties led to some contradictions. Guessing that not all the elements had been discovered yet, Mendeleev left gaps (in order to preserve correspondences in behaviour) and predicted the properties of the ‘missing’ elements. He was resoundingly vindicated when eka-aluminium, since named gallium, was discovered in 1875, with the predicted properties, just as Engels was compiling his thoughts on science. Engels saw the periodic table and its resulting predictions as a manifestation of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality.

Lenin’s interest in science led him to take time out in 1908 to write a weighty tome demolishing the philosophy of Ernst Mach, a respected physicist and a fairly influential philosopher. Mach’s ideas had caught on with some Bolsheviks, such as their co-founder Bogdanov who was challenging Lenin for leadership, and Lenin thought this was a dangerous departure from materialism. Bogdanov was subsequently expelled.6

Mach enumerated three principles for valid physical theories:

1 They should be based entirely on directly observable phenomena;

2 They should based on the principle of relative motion, rather than on absolute space and time;

3 Any properties apparently based on absolute space and time should instead be seen as arising from the large-scale distribution of matter in the universe.

Principle 1 led Mach into error when he refused to accept the existence of atoms, even after Einstein had showed how to prove their existence in his 1905 paper on Brownian motion (and Jean Perrin had actually done so in 1908). This was because no-one had directly observed them, a rather poor reason given that many small objects had been invisible to the human eye until the invention of the microscope and one might have allowed that other smaller objects might exist, particularly with the overwhelming indirect evidence for atoms. The atomic nature of matter is so fundamental that the great physicist Richard Feynman once said that the simple sentence “Everything is made of atoms” encapsulated the most important scientific knowledge we possess.

Principles 2 and 3 were rather more sound and Einstein praised them as important influences in his development of the theory of relativity. Nevertheless, Mach, with his habit of backing the wrong horse, rejected Einstein’s theories; indeed Mach’s name was included in a rather embarrassing tome entitled A hundred authors against Einstein (though he appears not to have contributed). Einstein remarked that, if he was wrong, one author would have been enough!

Aleksandr Bogdanov, an interesting character, is given quite a bit of attention by Ings. Bogdanov, a medical doctor, was very interested in science, seeing capitalism as fragmenting scientific progress into separate, non-communicating, disciplines. The “pursuit of ‘science for its own sake’ was a tragic error.” In a socialist society, “practice and theory would once again be fused, and science could at last be put to the service of society.” In other words, “there is no such thing as pure science.”3 This is a profoundly misleading approach as there is no way of knowing what there is to discover and you can’t just say “Let’s find the cure for cancer” (though of course you can try to find it). Unfortunately, this is close to the attitude of Stalin to science. As Lenin recognised, Bogdanov, a follower of Mach, had departed somewhat from Marxism some 10 years before the revolution.

Bogdanov did not rejoin the Bolsheviks but did set up Proletkult, a “proletarian” art movement whose rather ultra-left aim was to completely replace the old bourgeois culture. He later became interested in the idea of rejuvenation through blood transfusions but seems not to have been aware of the painstaking work that had revealed the existence of blood groups and their role in death following blood transfusions…in 1901! He died in 1928 after receiving blood from a student with malaria, tuberculosis, and an incompatible blood group: the student recovered.

Lenin seems to have been widely read on nature and ecology and would go for long hikes in the wilderness and mountains while in exile in Switzerland.7 While desperate to find ways of increasing agricultural productivity and aware of the latest science on soil fertility (such as the discovery of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in leguminous plants in 1888), he understood that people could not simply ignore the forces of nature. It was essential to understand nature and work with it: “To replace the forces of nature with human labor … would be just as impossible as replacing the arshin with the pood***…man may merely avail himself of the actions of nature’s forces, if he knew these actions, enlisting machines and tools to make this process easier” ( from The Agrarian Question, quoted in7).

The other great leader of the October Revolution and leader of the triumphant Red Army, Trotsky, who is not really discussed by Ings, had an important though short-lived role in Soviet science. After being forced to resign as People’s Commissar of the Army in 1924, he was given two scientific posts in 1925, head of the Electro-Technical Board and chair of the Scientific-Technical Board of Industry, nominally in charge of science in the USSR. He clearly rejected the idea that politics could direct science, as he stated in a speech to the 1925 Mendeleev Congress (on the centenary of Mendeleev’s birth).

“An individual scientist may not at all be concerned with the practical application of his research. The wider his scope, the bolder his flight, the greater his freedom from practical daily necessity in his mental operations, all the better.”8 Clearly, Trotsky understood that science cannot simply be ordered to come up with the answers. Soon he was to resign over Stalinist political interference in science policy.

The history of science in the USSR from the revolution through Stalin’s counter-revolution to its collapse (and even to the present day) confirms Paul Mattick’s conclusion that Marxism has nothing to say about the physical sciences, beyond taking their results into consideration when considering the development of the class struggle and setting physical limits to what may achieved by a workers’ government.9 This history has been dealt with in more detail previously10 and articles on genetics and physics are planned. Suffice to say that the reverence for facts that characterised the early scientific policies of the Bolshevik government gave way to the idea of science as a tool to implement the plan. If scientific theory indicated the impossibility of the plan, so much the worse for scientific theory – and for the scientists who tried to explain this. All too frequently, the messenger was shot!

References and notes:

1 In Marxism, Science and the Big Bang, by Peter Mason. This is a critique of Reason in Revolt, by Alan Woods and Ted Grant, which included an unhappy attempt to disprove the Big Bang theory from “Marxist” principles.

2 Engels wrote of On the Origin of Species: “Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid,” while Marx replied “This is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.” (in Karl Marx, by Francis Wheen).

3 Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy 1905-1953, by Simon Ings (Faber & Faber, 2016)

4 Anteil der Arbeit an der Menschwerdung des Affen (published in The Dialectics of Nature)

5 Dialectics of Nature, by Friedrich Engels (Marx-Engels Institute, Moscow, 1927).

6 Materialism and Empiriocriticism, by Vl Ilyin [VI Lenin] Moscow, 1909.

7 Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, by Douglas R Weiner, 1988.

8 Dialectical Materialism and Science, by LD Trotsky, in Problems of Everyday Life (1925)

9 Marxism and the New Physics, Philosophy of Science 1962;Vol 29(4):350-64.

10 The Bolsheviks, Stalin and Science.

*Modern social science, however, has very little chance to be materialist, despite the efforts of those who see themselves as Marxists. The ruling ideas of a society are generally those of its ruling class and ideas that challenge these are stifled in a variety of ways. When Trotsky, for example, declared that the new, post-1917, society would take possession of the cultural heritage of the past (specifically including scientific), he explicitly excluded the social sciences which were “useless in acquiring knowledge of nature but only useful in justifying class inequality and all other kinds of historical untruth… The greater the trust of socialism in sciences devoted to direct study of nature, all the greater is its critical distrust in approaching those sciences and pseudo-sciences which are linked closely to the structure of human society, its economic institutions, its state, laws, ethics, etc.” He allowed that social science could approach the rigour of the natural sciences but held that they tended to justify “historically-arisen [i.e. bourgeois] society” and thus “their accomplishments were of little value.”8

**Fittingly, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of the Elements.

***Arshin (unit of length) = 28 inches; pood (unit of weight) = 36 lb. This would be like exchanging the foot for the pound.

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