The first volume of Reason in Revolt has, by all accounts, been well received in the USA. In general, the Anglo Saxon world has been highly resistant to broad philosophical generalizations and to Marxism in particular. Yet without such philosophical generalizations it is impossible to acquire a rational understanding of the world in which we live.
The first volume of Reason in Revolt has, by all accounts, been well received in the USA. This is a matter of very great satisfaction to Ted and myself. In general, the Anglo Saxon world has been highly resistant to broad philosophical generalizations and to Marxism in particular. Yet without such philosophical generalizations it is impossible to acquire a rational understanding of the world in which we live.
The word “philosophy” was first supposed to have been used by Pythagoras in the sixth century BC: “Life, he said, is like a festival; just as some come … to compete, some to ply their trade but the rest come as spectators, so in life, slavish men go hunting for fame or gain, the philosophers for truth.” (Diogenes Laertius, 14.)
In the search for truth the human race has come a very long way in the 2,500 years or so since then. The development of the productive forces - industry, agriculture, science and technology - has reached levels that would have been undreamed of in the past. This advance has been most spectacular in the USA.
The development of the productive power of society should be a guarantee of happiness for all humanity. Yet the world has never been such a disturbed and unhappy place as it is at the start of the 21st century. War, unemployment, poverty, disease and hunger stalk the planet.
Our world is rent by a fundamental contradiction. It is the contradiction between “ought” and “is” - between what is possible and what is real. In this world of ours 476 billionaires - mostly Americans - have a greater personal wealth than the total income of half the world’s population, while 35 million people starve to death every year.
This is a world governed by an outdated and irrational economic order that ought to have been abolished long ago, but which refuses to die and condemns the world to new torments with every passing day.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the prevailing mood of humanity at the dawn of the new millennium is one of deep pessimism and anxiety. Men and women do not look forward to the future with confidence as they used to. That spirit of cheerful optimism that used to be a characteristic of American people has vanished and in its place there is a bleaker, but also a more thoughtful mood.
Materialism Versus Mysticism
In such times as these, mystical tendencies tend to predominate in philosophy, and the present period is no exception. Reason in Revolt was written in part to combat the intrusion of mystical philosophical ideas in science. This is a retrograde trend that runs counter to the progressive tendency that has propelled the whole development of science from its inception.
In fact, the link between science and philosophy goes back a long way. The early Greek philosophers were materialists who laid the basis for all science. They studied the causes of natural phenomena like lightening, thunder, earthquakes, comets and stars. For all these phenomena they sought rational explanations, free from the intervention of gods and other supernatural agencies.
Cicero (in Tusculan Disputations) wrote that the early Greek philosophers studied “number and movement, and the source from which all things arise and to which they return; and these early thinkers inquired zealously into magnitude, intervals, and courses of the stars, and all celestial matters”.
That is to say, the pre-Socratic philosophers studied nature. They were the courageous pioneers who prepared the way for all subsequent scientific advances. They made extremely important discoveries. They knew that the earth was round and that the moon’s light reflected that of the sun. They knew that humans were descended from fish and proved it by examining human embryos and fossils. However, most of these discoveries were the result of inspired guesswork. Inevitably at a certain stage they came up against the limitations related to the given level of technology.
After this, philosophy took a different turning - towards the study of human society, morality and related questions. This led to the development of idealism and ever since then philosophy has been split into the two great warring camps of materialism and idealism. The Middle Ages were marked by the cultural and spiritual dictatorship of the church which imposed its own ossified brand of idealism on men’s minds and burned those who disagreed at the stake. The Renaissance and the rise of the bourgeoisie saw a revival of materialism and a new interest in experiment and observation that permitted science, feed from the fetters of religion, to advance once more.
Materialist philosophy and science have always marched hand in hand. From the time the early materialist philosophers of the Ionian Islands sought a rational explanation of nature without the intervention of the gods, science and philosophy were inextricably connected. In the ancient world, from where all our science is ultimately derived, we have the painstaking investigations of Aristotle into nature. The French philosopher Descartes has a strong claim to be the founder of the modern scientific method, while Bacon in England pioneered the method of experimental science and induction (generalizing on the basis of observed facts).
The input of philosophy into science has been considerable. The German philosopher Leibnitz can claim to have discovered the integral and differential calculus (although Newton may have discovered it at the same time). It therefore does not surprise us that when Newton published his great work in 1687 he called it The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Kant first advanced the hypothesis that the solar system had evolved out of a rotating gas nebula. And when Dalton introduced the modern concept of the atom into chemistry, he had his book published under the title A New System of Chemical Philosophy, (1808).
Science and Philosophy
Nowadays many scientists treat philosophy with contempt. It must be admitted that as far as modern philosophy is concerned this is well deserved. For the past one and a half centuries the realm of philosophy resembles an arid desert with only the occasional trace of life. The treasure trove of the past, with its ancient glories and flashes of illumination seems utterly extinguished. Not only scientists but men and women in general will search in vain in this wasteland for any source of enlightenment.
Yet on closer inspection the contempt displayed by scientists to philosophy is not well grounded. For if we look seriously at the state of modern science - or more accurately its theoretical underpinnings and assumptions, we see that science has in fact never freed itself from philosophy. Unceremoniously expelled by the front door, philosophy slyly effects a re-entry through the back window.
Scientists who proudly assert their complete indifference to philosophy in reality make all kinds of assumptions that are philosophical in character. And in fact, this kind of unconscious and uncritical philosophy is not superior to the old fashioned kind but immeasurably inferior to it. Moreover, it is the source of many errors in practice. The idea that it is possible to dispense altogether with theoretical generalizations and limit oneself to “the facts” is a mistake, for the facts do not select themselves.
Serious difficulties arise when scientists use inadequate philosophical tools that instead of helping, make it more difficult to gain such a rational insight. Unfortunately, for many decades the kind of philosophy taught in universities has been based on false and misleading theories such as logical positivism, which under one guise or another has been the dominant philosophical trend particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries for most of the 20th century.
The meagre content of this school of thought did not prevent its adherents from assuming the most arrogant airs and graces, reserving for themselves the stately title of “philosophers of science”. However, this positivist love affair with science was by no means met with corresponding zeal from those active in the field:
“Some remarkable conclusions were reached,” writes Derek Gjertsen. “Electrons ceased to exist and became logical constructions created out of meter readings and tracks on photographic plates. Laws of nature were rejected as empirical truths and described instead as rules for finding out about reality. The problem of induction was transformed into a new discipline of confirmation theory and, amidst a plethora of paradoxes, much time was spent by inductive logicians considering the logical complexities of the proposition ‘All crows are black’”
The obsession of the positivists with an imaginary “structure of science”, the fiddling and fussing about meaning and semantics all strikingly resembled the rarified atmosphere and convoluted debates of the medieval Schoolmen. The intolerable pretensions of the high priests of logical positivism eventually led to rejection and revolt on the part of the scientists themselves.
There is, however, a deeper reason for the neglect of philosophy in the scientific community. The remarkable advances of science over the past century seem to have made philosophy redundant. In a world where we can penetrate the deepest mysteries of the cosmos and follow the complex motions of sub-atomic particles, the old questions which absorbed the attentions of philosophers have been resolved. The role of philosophy has been correspondingly reduced. However, there are two areas where philosophy retains its importance, and which can greatly assist the work of scientists: formal logic and dialectics.
Dialectics and Chaos Theory
The importance of formal logic is generally accepted as a means of establishing elementary distinctions between one thing and another - of distinguishing black from white. However, the important revolution in thought that was pioneered by Heraclitus and Zeno and which reached its highest expression in the writings of Hegel and was finally placed on a scientific basis by Marx and Engels, has never been given the recognition it deserved.
The reason for this conspiracy of silence about dialectics lies outside the realm of philosophy. It is a purely political phenomenon. Since Marxism is well known to be a revolutionary world outlook that is fundamentally opposed to the existing capitalist order, and since the philosophy of dialectical materialism is well known to be the theoretical foundation of Marxism, it was considered a taboo subject.
Insofar as dialectics was ever mentioned in university textbooks it was always dismissed contemptuously as a semi-mystical dogma with no application to the world in general, and to science in particular. However, startling developments in modern science have provided the most striking confirmation of the dialectical method, which turns out to have a very great relevance to all aspects of science, and particularly to the cutting edge of modern science.
Hegel wrote that what is required in a scientific approach is not the mere accumulation of facts, but the wish for a rational insight. Dialectics provides just such an insight, and this has been brilliantly confirmed by recent investigations in an area of chaos theory known as ubiquity. This strongly suggests that dialectics underlies everything.
In his fascinating book Ubiquity (published by Phoenix, London, 2001), Marc Buchanan provides a wealth of information drawn from fields as widely different as the physics of phase transitions, the geology of earthquakes, stock exchange crises, the laws governing the extinction of species, wars and revolutions, forest fires, animal populations, the development of scientific theories and even fashions, to show that the same basic laws are at work in all of them.
This is a breathtaking conclusion! It would seem incredible that phenomena so diverse could obey the same simple mathematical laws, and yet it is the case. All of them seem to obey the same law, known as a power law, which can be expressed mathematically. Let us quote Marc Buchanan:
“The roots of war are to be sought in politics and history, those of earthquakes in geophysics, of forest fires in patterns of weather and in the natural ecology, and those of market crashes in the principles of finance, economics, and the psychology of human behavior. Beyond the labels ‘disaster’ and ‘upheaval’, each of these events erupted from the soil of its own peculiar setting. Still, there is an intriguing similarity. In each case, it seems, the organization of the system - the web of international relations, the fabric of the forests or of the earth’s crust, or the network of linked expectations and trading perspectives of investors - made it possible for a small shock to trigger a response out of all proportion to itself. It is as if these systems had been poised on some knife-edge of instability, merely waiting to be set off.” (Mark Buchanan, Ubiquity, pp. 9-10.)
This will be very familiar to anyone with a knowledge of dialectical philosophy, and in particular that most profound law, the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. This states that a series of small alterations (quantitative change) eventually leads to a qualitative leap. We see this in a very large number of examples at all levels in nature, human thought and history. These lines completely vindicate the assertion of Engels that “in the last analysis nature works dialectically.”
The field of science which we are dealing with here is known as non-equilibrium statistical physics. However, it is now quite clear that networks of all kinds - atoms, molecules, species, people, and even ideas “have a marked tendency to organise themselves along similar lines. On the basis of this insight, scientists are finally beginning to fathom what lies behind tumultuous events of all sorts, and to see patterns at work where they have never seen them before.” (Ibid., p. 14.)
Dialectics and the World Today
The phenomena that have caused such a stir in the scientific community involved in chaos theory and its offshoots are really not new. Hegel already dealt with them in great detail in his Science of Logic. He referred to this as the nodal line of measurement, where small quantitative changes give rise to great qualitative leaps. And this phenomenon is by no means confined to nature, but can also be observed in society, and even in the history of science as Thomas Kuhn so clearly showed in his acknowledged masterpiece The Structure of Scientific Revolution.
Engels defined dialectics as “the most general laws of motion of nature, human society and human thought”. A careful study of world history will reveal the same kind of processes that have been observed in all the other fields mentioned above. We see long periods where nothing much seems to happen (“stasis”) which are suddenly interrupted by events of a cataclysmic character: wars and revolutions.
In the last analysis, the rise and fall of different socio-economic systems is determined by their ability to develop the productive forces, the real basis upon which human progress takes place. Once a given society proves unable to develop the productive forces as it did in the past it enters into a period of decline, which may last for some considerable time.
The fall of the Stalinist bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union was the result of the fact that the bureaucracy was unable to maintain the kind of growth rates that the nationalised planned economy had achieved in the 1930s and which continued until about 1964. By the late 1970s the Soviet economy was not growing at all. That spelled doom for the Stalinist system. It should be added, though, that what has replaced it is even worse. The so-called market reform led to an unprecedented collapse of the productive forces of approximately 60 percent.
The present world situation suggests that the capitalist system is now reaching a similar impasse to the one reached earlier by Stalinism. On a world scale the economy is foundering, the stock markets have lost half of their value, unemployment is growing, there are numerous imbalances of debt left over from the earlier period of rapid growth. There is huge overproduction (“overcapacity”) expressed in large unsold inventories. Big companies are filing for bankruptcy. Even Ford Motors is technically bankrupt.
A Turning Point in History
To describe this situation as a “correction” is a misnomer. The present crisis has all the hallmarks of one of those major turning points in world history where quantity suddenly turns into quality, like a phase transition in physics. There are many symptoms that powerfully suggest this.
Everywhere we look fault lines are appearing - and not only in the economic field. The whole system is becoming turbulent. The most general feature is extreme instability at all levels: economic, financial, political, diplomatic and military. Wars and economic, political and diplomatic crises succeed each other with breathtaking speed.
In a matter of weeks, institutions that had lasted for over half a century, since the end of the Second World War, have been undermined and shattered like the rocks in an earthquake: the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, the Group of Eight have all been shaken to the core. America confronts its former allies in Europe and Turkey as enemies. These frictions in turn threaten to undermine the fragile structure of world trade.
Many blame the activities of the US President, George W. Bush. But Mr. Bush is only the unconscious agent of historical processes that he has inherited and the existence of which he does not suspect. Paradoxically, by acting in the way he has, he is hastening the demise of the socio-economic system he hopes to preserve. This is a very graphic example of the dialectic of history!
Many people are puzzled by the state of the world, which seems to have suddenly gone mad. But in fact, the present crisis can be explained in quite scientific terms. To do so, however, a knowledge of the Marxist method - of dialectical and historical materialism - is necessary.
To borrow the terminology of chaos theory, the global system of capitalism was poised on the edge of chaos. It has now “gone critical”. The old laws and rules no longer apply. The fault lines and fractures are multiplying out of control. The plans of governments, economists and US army generals give results that are diametrically opposite to what was intended. Chaos rules.
It is extremely difficult to predict the result of the present crisis with any accuracy. The shocks to the system are severe but can be detained before producing a total collapse. The main reason why the system can recover a degree of equilibrium is the absence of what Marxists call the subjective factor - the revolutionary party and the leadership.
This is the fundamental difference between history and the processes of nature: history requires the conscious activity of men and women. One might think that this would exclude any real similarity with the processes at work in inanimate nature, but this is not the case. The workings of human consciousness is also governed by the laws of dialectics. As Marx explains: social being determines consciousness.
The processes that shape the development of society impact in a decisive way on the thinking of men and women. In normal periods people accept uncritically the norms of the society in which they live: habit, routine, and tradition weigh heavily on human consciousness in such periods. It is the sociological equivalent of inertia in mechanics.
But in critical moments, the force of ancient tradition and the inertia of custom break down. People begin to question the morality, laws, traditions and customs of the society in which they have grown up. In such periods, the Biblical saying (also profoundly dialectical) comes into force: for the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Marxism and the USA
Dialectically, things turn into their opposite. In the coming period there will be many surprises. The USA, the wealthiest and most powerful capitalist nation on earth seems to be the last candidate for the socialist revolution. But that is not necessarily the case. Once the powerful American working class gets on the move, the earth will tremble. Very quickly they can catch up and overtake their European brothers and sisters.
The American workers lack a party, but this fact also has advantages. They have not passed through the school of reformist politics. They will enter the arena of politics completely free from the bad habits of routine and conservatism that we suffer from in the European labor movement. They are fresh and will be open to the most radical ideas. All that is necessary is to start - and they will begin to move in the next period.
The old system of Republicrats and Democrans will break down. The workers will see the need for a new party - a party based on the unions, to represent the interests of Labour. Once this party is established it will move very quickly to radical socialist ideas. It will attract all that is living and vibrant in American society - and there is an abundance of such material! The youth, the blacks, the Latinos, the women - all will flock to the banner of a mass American Labor Party.
What role will Marxism play in this process? The aroused American working class will look for ideas to guide its struggle. Only Marxism can give them what they are looking for. The old prejudices against socialism and Marxism will not last long in the new situation. The ideas of Marxism that are now known only to small groups of people will be listened to by millions. Of course, the Marxists will have to learn to speak “American”!
America now has the reputation of the most counter-revolutionary force on earth. But let us remind ourselves that before 1917 Tsarist Russia occupied the same position. Yet Russia produced the Bolshevik Party, Lenin and Trotsky. It is not at all excluded that the USA will produce equally great revolutionary figures.
If the present book plays a modest role in spreading and popularizing the ideas of Marxism in the United States, it will have been well worth the effort.
London, April 4, 2003.