The German translation of Reason in Revolt has just come out, and was presented at the recent Frankfurt book fair (see article). Alan Woods wrote a new introduction for this edition, which for editorial reasons was shortened and slightly edited. Here we publish the full original text in English.
"For the rest it is not difficult to see that our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition. The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto prevailing, and with the old ways of thinking, and is in the mind to let them sink into the depths of the past and to set about its own transformation. It is indeed never at rest, but carried along the stream of progress ever onward. But it is here as in the case of the birth of a child; after a long period of nutrition in silence, the continuity of the gradual growth in size, of quantitative change, is suddenly cut short by the first breath drawn - there is a break in the process, a qualitative change - and the child is born. In like manner the spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world.
"That it is tottering to its fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown - all these betoken that there is something else approaching. The gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings into view the form and structure of the new world." (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, p. 75.)
Why did we write this book?
When we first produced Reason in Revolt seven years ago, many people questioned whether we had got our priorities right. After the collapse of the USSR there was a general crisis of the Left internationally. Confusion, doubts, disillusionment and scepticism was on the order of the day. The bourgeoisie, sensing victory, launched an unprecedented ideological counter-offensive against socialism.
What was the main duty of Marxists in such a situation? We had no doubt about the answer. Our first duty was to defend all the fundamental ideas of Marxism. We began with a systematic exposition of Marxist philosophy and showed how dialectical materialism, far from being outdated, was even more applicable to modern science than it had been when Engels wrote The Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Dühring over a century ago.
As far as I am aware, this was the first time that anyone had attempted to follow in Engels' footsteps and produce what is in effect a modern edition of The Dialectics of Nature. It was not an easy task. Firstly, the nature of the subject matter was complicated and even obscure. But we hoped that we could produce a work that was accessible to the general reader, but we did not wish to make any concessions that would vulgarise the ideas we were dealing with.
From the enthusiastic response Reason in Revolt has had everywhere, it seems that we have succeeded in what we intended to do. Those who criticised the decision to produce a work on Marxist philosophy have been proved wrong. There has been colossal interest - not only among students but above all among workers and trade union activists. This gives us enormous satisfaction.
However, we do not intend to stop here. After Reason in Revolt we have produced books on the contemporary situation like Russia - From Revolution to Counter-revolution, and on the history of the Marxist movement, like Bolshevism - the Road to Revolution, and Lenin and Trotsky - What they really stood for. This year we will publish Ted Grant's long-awaited History of British Trotskyism. Future plans include books on Marxism and the National Question, Marxist Economics, Marxism and Art, The History of Philosophy and eventually, a more detailed exposition of Marxist Philosophy, outlining in detail the laws of dialectics and showing the relation between the Marxist dialectic and that of Hegel.
So far Reason in Revolt has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Urdu and Turkish. In addition to the German edition, a Dutch translation is in preparation, and there are plans to publish a special edition for the USA and Canada later on this year. The latter will also have to be "translated", bearing in mind George Bernard Shaw's definition of the English and Americans as "two peoples divided by a common language".
A descending line
In the past, as Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism played a revolutionary role in developing the productive forces. From the time of the Industrial Revolution, the capitalist world has been totally transformed by economic rates of growth that were entirely unprecedented in human history. The fireworks of economic expansion in the post world war two period, the last real surge forward of capitalism, saw the transformation of the globe and the compete domination of the world market. To put things into perspective, the world economy grew in percentage terms in the twenty years between 1950 and 1970 as much as the 1,000 years between 500AD and 1500.
In his book The Death of Economics, Paul Ormerod pointed to the advances made possible by capitalism in the period since the Second World War:
"Even modest annual rates of growth compound very rapidly. An average growth rate of just 3 per cent a year is sufficient to double the size of the economy in just 24 years. Most developed economies achieved average annual growth rates considerably above 3 per cent during the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, Japan and many countries in Europe were starting from a temporarily low base, with poor living standards as a result of the devastation of the war. But growth rates of 5 per cent were not uncommon, and at such a rate the economy doubles in size every fourteen years."
Nowhere was this period of growth more striking than in West Germany. With the benefit of Marshall Aid, the German economy recovered rapidly and became the motor-force of Europe. There was full employment and rising living standards. The war and the convulsions of the inter-war period seemed to be bad memories of a distant past that could never return.
However, any serious study of history must deal with long-term trends that unfold over decades and generations. Over the longer term we see that this period of economic expansion came to an end some time ago. In fact, after 1974 - the first serious recession since 1945 - capitalism could not regain the same impetus as in the long economic upswing of 1948-73. The booms were so shallow that the bourgeois economists were forced to characterise them as growth-recessions. The same author (who can hardly be accused of being a Marxist) points out:
"More recently, growth has slowed in all Western economies. During the 1980s, for example, growth in both the United States and even in the European Community averaged just 2 per cent a year, and even in Japan just over 4 per cent, a very marked slow-down compared to the 10 per cent annum growth registered by that country for much of the 1950s and 1960s. But even at these rates of growth, the size of the economy expands visibly during a relatively short period of time." (The Death of Economics, pp. 22-3.)
The development of the US economy in the last economic cycle seemed to many to provide irrefutable proof of the vitality of capitalism. The breathtaking pace of technological innovation, the dizzy heights reached by the stock market that seemed to know no limits, the high and rising profits, the increasing number of millionaires and billionaires. Surely this was the final answer to all those who questioned the market economy - America's gift to the world of the 21st century.
But now we see the other side of the coin. US manufacturing has been in crisis for over a year. The price of shares in new technology has fallen steeply. Profits are falling, creating a crisis of investment. Everywhere, factories are being closed, companies declare bankruptcy, workers are declared redundant. And although there is talk of a recovery, this is due entirely to consumption, rising house prices and debt in the USA - none of which can be sustained indefinitely without a recovery of profitability and investment, which is nowhere in sight.
At first, the European governments tried to shrug off the crisis. It was, they said, a purely American affair. It could not affect Europe. But it did. And the effects on Germany have been even more serious than elsewhere. This has come as a shock for people who had become used to a long period of economic growth and prosperity. But in reality it was entirely predictable.
The end of booms and slumps?
Ever since its inception, capitalism has developed in a contradictory fashion, in an ever-ending series of booms and slumps. The reasons for this were explained in a scientific manner by Marx in the three volumes of Capital, which retain all their validity today. Despite the arguments of the so-called new economic paradigm school of thought that has dominated economic thinking in the West for the last decade, the economic cycle has certainly not been abolished. The boom/slump cycle reflects the rhythm of capitalist production and will accompany the capitalist system to its grave.
It is clear from even the most cursory study of history that the development of capitalist economy does not take place in a straight line, with a steady, smooth unending growth. Every period of capitalist development is always different to every other period. The expansion after the recession of 1990-92, was at first far weaker than previous recoveries, with sluggish rates of growth and persistent high unemployment in all the developed countries of capitalism.
The sudden burst of frenetic economic activity that began in the second half of the 1990s caused many people to believe that the problem had finally been resolved and that the current boom would go on forever. It was like a good party, when the wine is flowing freely and everyone is enjoying themselves. It goes to ones head. It seems that the party will last forever. And it is quite natural that anyone who contradicts the general mood will stand condemned as a most unwelcome Spielverderber (party-pooper).
In reality theories like the new economic paradigm are not at all new. Similar illusions arise in every economic boom in capitalism. This party will go on forever! There will be no more slumps! And, of course, old man Marx was wrong.
An obsolete system
Actually, the boom/slump cycle is not the cause of capitalist crisis, but only a reflection thereof. The general crisis of capitalism, as explained by Marx, is reflected in the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the private ownership of the means of production and the national state. Capitalism fulfilled its historic function, the development of the national state and the creation of the world market in the decades prior to the First World War. The whole history of the world since that time is a reflection of the revolt of the productive forces against the narrow limits imposed upon them by private ownership and the nation state.
The most decisive evens of the twentieth century were two world wars, both of them the result of the terrible contradictions between different groups of capitalist states struggling for markets, sources of raw materials, colonies and "living space". These wars were not caused by German militarism - as is often asserted. Rather German, French and British militarism were only an expression of the fact that private ownership and the nation state had outlived their progressive function and become a reactionary fetter on historical development.
It is quite pointless to bemoan the destructiveness of war, its inhumanity and its pointlessness. From a capitalist point of view, war is far from pointless. War, as old Clausewitz pointed out, is only the continuation of politics by other means. And politics in the modern world is inextricably linked to the vested interests of the banks, the big corporations, and, of course, the arms manufacturers (Lockheed shares are doing rather well at the moment). In fact, capitalism means war. In order to prove this assertion it is not necessary to refer to 1914 or 1941. It is sufficient to switch on one's television set any day of the week.
The inter-war period was characterised by deep economic crisis, and a complete impasse of the productive forces that hit Germany particularly hard, provoking social and political convulsions. Despite the immense increase in the productivity of labour and the continued development of technique, production on a world scale found itself hampered and restricted by the fetters of private ownership of the means of production, transport and exchange, and the national state. Mass unemployment, the ruin of millions of small businesses, and the resulting social and political instability gave rise to a period of revolution and counterrevolution. The working class in Europe had many opportunities to take power and bring about a radical transformation of society, but was thwarted by the lack of leadership.
The end result is well known: the victory of fascism in one country after another. Fascism is really the distilled essence of imperialism. It is the dictatorship of monopoly capital in its most naked and undisguised form. The burning need of German capitalism to break out of the isolation imposed upon it by Britain and France in 1919, to conquer markets and colonies - this was the main driving force. In order to accomplish this, the whole nation had to be put on a war footing, all opposition ruthlessly crushed, beginning with the powerful German labour movement. Even the racist lunacy of the Nazis was only an extreme expression of the chauvinist spirit that is present in every imperialism.
The resulting contradictions ended in a second world conflagration in 1939-45. The Second World War led to the death of 55 million human beings (half of them in the Soviet Union) and the wholesale destruction of the means of production. That war almost led to the destruction of civilisation itself. We actually came very close to it.
New world disorder
The long period of economic upswing and prosperity after 1945 created the illusion that all the old problems had been solved. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany seemed to be a dream come true. Yet within just a few years, Germany finds itself in a deep crisis, former President Kohl is in disgrace and faced with corruption charges, there are four million unemployed and the whole country has been seized with a sense of unease and pessimism.
The wars in the former Yugoslavia - which were largely provoked by the ambitions of the German ruling class to re-establish its spheres of influence in the Balkans - were a terrible reminder that the old demons of Europe have not been exorcised. On all sides the new capitalist world order expresses itself as a general disorder: wars, shocks, convulsions, one after another. Half a century after the Second World War, the threat to human civilisation, and even to life on earth itself, has not been removed. As a matter of fact, it is more serious now than ever before. The unlimited power of the big corporations, together with the incredible advances of science and technology, daily give rise to new dangers.
The ecologists have explained the deadly threat posed by the ravaging of the environment. Pacifists in Germany and other countries are appalled by the spectacle of universal violence, wars and militarism. Humanitarians protest at the appalling starvation, poverty and diseases that ravage the majority of the human race. But these are only symptoms, not the cause. And what use is it for a doctor to complain about symptoms, without either providing an accurate diagnosis of the disease, or proposing a remedy for it?
The fact is that the basic historical role of capitalism was fulfilled a long time ago. The present convulsions on a world scale are clear evidence of the blind alley into which the capitalist system had landed humanity. The shocks and crises that are being prepared will influence the way people think in a decisive way. As Trotsky pointed out: "The breaking points of the trade-industrial conjuncture bring us into a greater proximity with the critical knots in the web of the development of political tendencies, legislation, and all forms of ideology." (Trotsky, The Curve of Capitalist Development)
Human consciousness is enormously conservative, and lags behind events. But sooner or later it is brought into line with a bang. That is what a revolution is. People in general do not learn from books but from experience, and especially the experience of great events. We saw that on September 11 in the USA. Suddenly men and women who normally take no interest in politics and buy a newspaper only to read the sports pages became profoundly interested in politics, in what was happening not only in the USA but on a world scale.
A global crisis
Since the first appearance of Reason in Revolt in 1995 the response it has had has surpassed all our expectations. This is no accident. The present world situation, as we have seen, is characterised by a general instability at all levels: economic, political and military. This global crisis has given rise to a widespread questioning of capitalism, the most graphic expression of which is the mass demonstrations against global capitalism in one country after another.
This kind of thing was not supposed to happen! Ten years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR, the bourgeoisie was euphoric. They spoke of the end of socialism, the end of communism, and, of course, the end of Marxism. At that time they looked forward to a future of peace and prosperity, thanks to the marvels of the free market economy. For a time, the economic boom in the USA seemed to lend credence to these predictions. Carried away with their own rhetoric, the economists assured us that economic crises were a thing of the past.
How hollow these words sound today! Globalisation now reveals itself as a global crisis of capitalism, with falling profits, overproduction, factory closures, and even the collapse of whole economies (Turkey, Argentina). Japan, one of the main motor-forces of the world economy since the Second World War, has been in a recession for a decade, with no recovery in sight.
And Germany? Germany was also one of the main motor forces of the world economy and the economic giant of Europe. After unification, Germany appeared to have a bright future: an economic giant with a population of 80 million people in the heart of Europe! Surely, the sky was the limit! It did not take long for these heady illusions to fall to the ground. Today, the German economy is mired in crisis, with four million unemployed for the first time since the 1930s. The people of the former GDR are having second thoughts about unification. The joys of the free market economy have lost a lot of their allure.
Socialism and democracy
The crisis of capitalism has made the people of the former GDR revise the impressions they had ten years ago. To the great annoyance of the bourgeois, many people in the eastern Länder now say that things were not all that bad in the old GDR. Of course, they do not want the return of a one-party totalitarian state, with a privileged caste of Party officials and the Stasi with its army of informers. But they remember that in the GDR there was no unemployment and everyone had the right to a decent education and health service. There was not the atmosphere of cut-throat competition, of dog-eat-dog, of selfishness and greed that characterises capitalism.
What they want is what we also advocate, namely, a nationalised planned economy, but with democracy - a society in which the working people would rule, not only in name but in practice. In other words, what they want is what Lenin proposed in 1917, when he laid down the basic condition for a workers' democracy:
1) Free and democratic elections with right of recall of all officials.
2) No official must get a wage higher than a skilled worker.
3) No standing army (and no Stasi!) but the armed people.
4) Gradually, all the tasks of administering the state to be done by everyone in turn (when everybody is a "bureaucrat" in turn, then nobody is a bureaucrat.
These were the prior conditions for a movement in the direction of socialism, as understood by Marx and Lenin. However, the material conditions for this were absent in Russia in 1917. The isolation of the revolution in a backward country led to the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution under Stalin. The totalitarian regime of Stalinism - the negation of the Leninist idea of soviet democracy - was imposed on the people of the GDR, and eventually collapsed.
What failed in Russia and the GDR was not socialism, but only a bureaucratic caricature of socialism. When the working people of Germany move to change society - as they will in the coming period - they will expropriate the banks and big concerns, but they will insist on a democratic regime, with workers' control and management of industry and the state. On the basis of the highly developed German industry, science and technology, they could then move quite quickly in the direction of socialism.
Science and the crisis of capitalism
"There is no necessary connection between great science and great business opportunities; the general theory of relativity has yet to be turned into a money-spinner." (The Economist, February 25, 1995.)
Reason in Revolt is a book about Marxist philosophy, but it is philosophy applied to a specific sphere - modern science. The last century has seen the most spectacular advances in science in the whole of history, and Germany has been responsible for some of the most notable of them. Yet time after time we see that science cannot escape from society and politics. Albert Einstein was forced to flee from Germany when Hitler came to power, while Werner Heisenberg willingly collaborated with the Nazis, and even justified this philosophically, referring to conclusions he had drawn from quantum mechanics! Of course, this fact in no way detracts from the colossal contribution that Heisenberg made to physics. But it does underline the fact that scientists cannot remain aloof from the general fate of society.
To imagine that scientists are immune to the general tendencies in society is quite unrealistic. To begin with, science finds itself completely subordinate to the demands of big business, which determines which avenues of research are potentially profitable and will be funded, and which will not. Needless to say, these business decisions do not necessarily correspond to the real needs either of science or society. Thus, the functioning science and education becomes distorted by the demands of "the market" - to the detriment of everybody except a tiny handful that owns and controls the means of production.
One of the most important advances of science since the appearance of Reason in Revolt was the amazing unravelling of the mysteries of the human genome. The implications of this for both science and philosophy are colossal. The arguments of both Creationists and biological determinists have been blown sky-high. The position of dialectical materialism has been vindicated. While genetic elements provide the raw material for human development, it is the environment that creates the necessary conditions that determine what will become of this raw material.
It is therefore impossible to say which of the two, genes or environment, is more important; you might as well ask which of this sheet of paper two dimensions matters more. The question is meaningless, since human development is the result of a dialectical interaction of both. However, what cannot be maintained is that a man or woman is born to be either intelligent, rich and successful or else stupid, poor and a failure. At a single stroke the so-called scientific justification for the social policies of the right wing.
The potential for this new technology is staggering. But under the existing social order, its use will necessarily be cramped by the narrow limits of the so-called market economy. Under capitalism science is entirely subordinated to the profit motive, as The Economist remarked in the article quoted above. Even before the results of the human genome project were announced, the big companies were planning to bring the new discoveries under their exclusive control, and to milk them for the maximum profit. This will inevitably result in endless complications, delays and legal cases that will deprive millions of men and women of treatment that they urgently need.
Once more the interests of profit comes before the requirements of humanity. The fact is that science today is the slave of Capital. Its colossal potential is partly squandered by this situation. In the interests of humanity, science must be freed from the dictatorship of profit and the anarchy of the market, and placed at the disposal of society. Under a rationally planned economy, which is no longer the private property of a small minority, and is democratically controlled and managed by workers, scientists and qualified technicians, science would occupy the place it deserves and would be free to realise its vast potential to the full.
Marxism and science
The publication of Reason in Revolt seven years ago was welcomed warmly by many people, not only on the left, but by scientists and other people interested in philosophy and the latest scientific theories, such as chaos and complexity, which in many respects reflect a dialectical approach to nature. The latest discoveries of palaeontology, in particular the pioneering work of Stephen J Gould (punctuated equilibria) have fundamentally modified the old view of evolution as a slow, gradual process, uninterrupted by sudden catastrophes and leaps. Gould himself has paid tribute to the contribution of Engels, who, in his little masterpiece The role of labour in the transition of ape to man, brilliantly anticipated the latest discoveries in the investigation of human origins.
Since the book first appeared, there have been a number of other spectacular advances in science - notably the human genome. These results have completely demolished the positions of genetic determinism that we criticised in Reason in Revolt. They have also dealt a mortal blow to the nonsense of the Creationists who want to reject Darwinism in favour of the first book of Genesis. It has cut the ground from under the feet of the racists who attempted to enlist the service of genetics to peddle their reactionary pseudo-scientific "theories".
However, there was one part of Reason in Revolt that some found rather hard to digest - namely the section on cosmology, where we argued against the theory of the big bang. The standard model of the universe seemed to be so entrenched that it was apparently unassailable. The overwhelming majority accepted it uncritically. To call it into question was almost as unthinkable as the Pope of Rome questioning the Immaculate Conception.
However, recently a report by Paul J. Steinhardt and his colleague Neil Turok of Cambridge University has thrown down a serious challenge to the accepted wisdom. The two scientists have put forward a new model to explain how the cosmos is and where it might be going. These two scientists point out that the standard model has several shortcomings. It cannot tell us what happened before the Big Bang or explain the eventual fate of the Universe. Will it expand forever or stop and contract? These were some of the objections we raised in Reason in Revolt. And they argue - as we did in Reason in Revolt - that the Universe had no beginning and it will have no end.
They propose that the cosmos goes through an endless cycle - of Big Bang, expansion and stagnation - driven by (an as yet unexplained) "dark energy". They argue that it is necessary to take account of recent discoveries that have surprised the scientific community - such as the observation that everything in the Universe is moving apart at an accelerating rate The apparent acceleration has since been checked and shown to be real. The standard model certainly did not predict such features!
The new model treats the Big Bang not as the moment of creation, but as a transition between two cycles in an endless process of cosmological rebirth. According to this model, the Big Bang is followed by a period of slow expansion and gradual accumulation of dark energy. As dark energy becomes dominant, it stimulates cosmic acceleration. The current era is near the transition between these stages, the authors maintain.
At present, they argue, the Universe is in an expansionary phase, and the current expansion will go on for trillions of years, before reaching a critical point where the process takes a new direction. Although there are many questions still to be answered (in particular the question of this hypothetical "dark energy"), the new model seems to be a vast improvement on the existing one, which states that the big bang was the beginning of time, matter, space and energy - clearly a mystical and unscientific conception. The new theory does away with the idea that the Universe has either a beginning or an end - it is infinite in both time and space.
The picture of the Universe presented here is one that is entirely consistent with the theories of dialectical materialism, which state that the Universe is infinite, eternal, and ever changing. This does not at all preclude the possibility of a big bang. Indeed, we have already argued that there have probably been many big bangs. But what it certainly does preclude is any question of matter (or energy, which is exactly the same thing) can be created out of nothing (as the big bang implies) or destroyed.
The new model is yet another example of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality. "The scalar field changes its character over time," Paul Steinhardt told the BBC. "Finally, the field begins to build up energy to a point where it suddenly becomes unstable and bursts into matter and radiation, filling the Universe, and driving the next period of expansion."
It is too early to say whether this model will be verified in detail. However, what is clear is that the deficiencies of the big bang theory are now becoming clear, and the search is on for an alternative. Whether or not the present theory is correct in its detail, the method that its authors have used - a materialist and dialectical method - is obviously correct. And, as they correctly write in the journal Science: "The ultimate arbiter will be Nature."
Marx and Hegel
The choice of the quotation at the beginning of this Introduction is no accident. On the one hand, the words of that marvellously profound thinker Hegel accurately covey the reality of the present moment in world history. On the other hand, the present work has a mainly philosophical character. And if one excludes the Greeks, then one must agree that the greatest advances in philosophy were made in Germany, culminating in that towering edifice of thought - the writings of Hegel.
It is too often forgotten that Marx was first of all a philosopher, and began as a follower of Hegel. The dialectic, that most revolutionary method of thinking, is of fundamental importance in understanding Marx. Without a clear understanding of the dialectic it is impossible to understand Marx. It is like trying to speak a foreign language with no knowledge of its grammar. The result may be more or less intelligible, but it will be a poor caricature of what was intended - rather like a parrot that has learned to repeat words and phrases with no understanding of what they mean.
The British traditions have many virtues, but an understanding of philosophy and theory is unfortunately not among them. With the exception of the early materialists - Bacon, Hobbes and Locke - philosophy in Britain is a miserable affair. Trotsky pointed out that the Anglo-Saxon world in general is allergic to broad theoretical generalisations, preferring the apparently more solid ground of experience, practice and the "facts". That is why the economic statistics one finds in the London Financial Times and The Economist are still probably the best in the world.
However, when it comes to broad generalisations, the Anglo-Saxon tradition is as threadbare as the coat of one of Charles Dickens's paupers. It is therefore no accident that Marx and Engels based their economic theories on the discoveries of the English classical economists, but their philosophy from the writings of the German classical philosophers, and above all Hegel.
Despite the obvious importance of the dialectic in all Marx's writings - and particularly Capital - many quite educated Marxists persist in ignoring it, or even treating it with a certain contempt. This is especially the case in Britain, where a knowledge of Marxism is frequently identified with an acquaintance with Marxist economics. From this false conception arises a purely mechanical view of Marxism, which is really a form of economic determinism - something quite alien to the ideas of Marx and Engels. In this way, the revolutionary essence of Marxism is lost sight of and we end up with a lifeless and superficial caricature, which at best can provide material for agitation, but no real understanding.
The importance of dialectics was emphasised by Lenin. In his philosophical notebooks, written during the dark years of the First World War, we read the following:
"Aphorism: It is impossible completely to understand Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists have understood Marx!"
Marxism and culture
Marxism explains the development of human society in the last analysis in terms of the development of the productive forces. This fact is widely known, but as Hegel once said, "was bekannt ist, ist darum noch nicht erkannt" ("what is known is not on that account necessarily understood").
The notion that the development of the productive forces is the basis upon which all social development depends is really such a self-evident truth that it is really surprising that some people (usually with long strings of initials after their surname) still question it. It does not require much intelligence to understand that before men and women can develop art, science, religion or philosophy, they must first have food to eat, clothes to wear and houses to live in. All these things must be produced by someone, somehow. And it is equally obvious that the viability of any given socio-economic system will ultimately be determined by its ability to do this.
Nevertheless, Marx and Engels never maintained that one could reduce everything to economics. That would be a self-evident absurdity. The relationship between ideas, art, religion, philosophy and so on, and the state of development of the productive forces, is not simple and direct, but highly complicated and indirect. It is a dialectical interrelation. This was clearly explained by Marx himself:
"As to the realms of ideology which soar still higher in the air, religion, philosophy etc., these have a prehistoric stock, found already in existence and taken over in the historic period, of which we should today call bunk. These various false conceptions of nature, of man's own being, of spirits, magic forces, etc., have for the most part only a negative economic basis; but the low economic development of the prehistoric period is supplemented and also partially conditioned and even caused by the false conceptions of nature. And even though economic necessity was the main driving force of the progressive knowledge of nature and becomes ever more so, it would surely be pedantic to try and find economic causes for all this primitive nonsense.
"The history of science is the history of the gradual clearing away of this nonsense or of its replacement by fresh but already less absurd nonsense. The people who deal with this belong in their turn to special spheres in the division of labour and appear to themselves to be working in an independent field. And insofar as they form an independent group within the social division of labour, in so far do their productions, including their errors, react back as an influence upon the whole development of society, even on economic development. But all the same they themselves remain under the dominating influence of economic development." (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 482-3.)
"But the philosophy of every epoch, since it is a definite sphere in the division of labour, has as its presupposition certain definite intellectual material handed down to it by its predecessors, from which it takes its start. That is why economically backward countries can still play first fiddle in philosophy." (ibid., p. 483).
These observations can be applied to the sphere of art and literature. The roots of these lie in the most remote antiquity. Schools of art constantly change and these great changes reflect in great measure the profound processes of change in society, the ultimate roots of which can be traced back to changes in the mode of production and their corresponding class relations, with all the myriad legal, political, religious, philosophical and aesthetic manifestations.
However, the relationship between these elements is far from simple. It is complex and contradictory, involving many different aspects. In Marx's words, it would be pedantic to try to trace the link between art and economics, which, at best, is indirect and convoluted. Art, like religion, has its roots in prehistory. Ideas, styles, schools of art can survive in the minds of men long after the concrete socio-economic context in which they arose has been consigned to oblivion. The human mind, after all, is characterised by its innate conservatism. Ideas which have long since lost their raison d'être, Remain stubbornly entrenched in the human psyche and continues to play a role-even a determining role in human development. This is most clear in the field of religion. But it is also present in the realm of art and literature.
Culture and social decline
So the development of art, literature and philosophy does not reflect the general line of development of society and the productive forces in a mechanical way. The rise and fall of the productive forces finds its expression in the minds of men and women in the most contradictory ways. But one way or another it will be reflected in human consciousness.
When a given socio-economic order enters into a phase of decline, this is reflected in a crisis of values, morality and religion. This is most often accompanied by a general tendency towards introversion which can give rise to new philosophical and artistic trends. Trotsky refers to this in his brilliant article The Curve of Capitalist Development. It was already mentioned by Marx in one of his earliest works, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, where he writes: "As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society; nor do they therefore to the material substructure." (p. 82)
The fundamental contradiction of capitalist society is the antagonism between the social nature of production and the private form of appropriation. But from this central contradiction many others arise. The universal dominion of money and the cash nexus, the alienation of the worker from the product of his labour which confronts him as a hostile power - all this creates a society in which real human relations are twisted beyond recognition, and in which human nature suffers a grotesque inversion. However, this peculiar, alienated, topsy-turvy world appears to us to be normal.
Brutal and ugly reality must be re-interpreted in such a way as to make what is unnatural seem natural, and what is inhuman appear the inevitable result of "human nature". In order to perform this conjuring trick, the bourgeoisie has to resort to the service of an army of intellectuals: scientists, sociologists, professors, economists, priests, teachers, journalists, philosophers, and even scientists. For science too, despite all its illusions about itself, can be pressed into the service of the God of modern society, the only true God which capitalism worships with unbounded devotion from the bottom of its soul - Mammon, the god of wealth.
The sickness of capitalism on a world scale is not only reflected in periodic convulsions on the stock exchanges or the present wave of factory closures and rising unemployment. It is a far more pervasive phenomenon that penetrates insidiously into the consciousness of men and women. Lacking a scientific explanation of events that affect their lives, sometimes in a dramatic way (such as the events of September 11, 2001), they imagine that the world has somehow gone mad. And in fact, irrational tendencies are already making their presence felt even in the richest and most "civilised" countries, including the United States and Germany.
Recently, the spotlight has been turned on the menace of Islamic fundamentalism. But this undoubtedly reactionary phenomenon is by no means limited to Islam. There is also Christian, Jewish and Hindu extremism. The latter was responsible for the horrendous slaughter of men, women and children in Gujarat in India. On the other hand, there is a growing tendency in the West, and particularly the USA to mysticism and all kinds of nonsensical superstition, astrology and so on. This accumulated rubbish of the past which ought to have disappeared along with all the other survivals of feudalism and barbarism. Instead, discredited ideas like Creationism are staging a counter-offensive, and even find supporters in the scientific community. This itself is a measure of where the senile decay of capitalism is taking us.
Although the big majority of scientists are conscientious people, who have no time for mysticism and object to the misuse of science for reactionary political purposes, there is a minority who are pursuing agenda determined by considerations that are quite outside the scope of science. Some of these have made a lot of money out of writing books with a clearly mystical and religious content. In the United States the religious right is engaged in a furious offensive in the field of social, medical and educational policy, and is receiving the backing of groups of scientists. The field of genetics has been particularly manipulated for this end.
In his famous play Leben des Galilei (The Life of Galileo), the Marxist author Bertolt Brecht highlights the dilemma of the man of science in a society riven with deep political and religious differences. Under threat of torture from the Inquisition, Galileo capitulates and publicly renounces his views. In return he is left alone and given a comfortable private life. But at the end of the play, in a bitter monologue, he expresses his inner torment and regret.
Like the rest of humanity, scientists, artists and other intellectuals must finally take sides. They must decide whether they wish to support the continuation of a world order that condemns the majority of humanity to a life of unending misery, poverty and ignorance, or fight for the establishment of a real new world order in which the wonderful achievements of science will be used to eradicate these evils and build a new civilisation that is really worthy of the name.
In the battle to determine the fate of our world and humanity itself, no-one can remain neutral. Those who attempt to do so, in practice are supporting the present order. In any case, it will not be possible to remain indifferent to politics forever. Sooner or later, everyone will be affected by the crisis of capitalism. There is no escape. We are faced with two alternatives: either allow the greed of a handful of big corporations to ravage and destroy the planet, plunging the world into new and ever more destructive wars and convulsions, or strike out boldly in a new direction.
Depending on the result of this struggle, the achievements of science can either be the means of the destruction of humanity, or the vehicle that will carry us the stars and create a paradise on the earth. This is a great cause - the only one that is worth fighting for in the dawn of the new millennium.
We live in stirring times. The spirit of these times was anticipated in the words of Hegel with which we began this Introduction. They were expressed with even greater fire in the words that Brecht places on the lips of Galileo, with which we finish:
"For the old times are over, and a new time has come. For hundreds of years, humanity has been waiting for something. The towns are narrow, and so are the minds of men. Superstition and plague. But now I say: since it is so, let it not remain so. For everything is in motion, my friend."
London, 27th April, 2002
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