Reason in Revolt - Preface to the first volume of the US edition

We are publishing for the first time on our website the preface to the first volume of the US edition of Reason in Revolt, published last summer. Though written one year ago, we think that it is still an useful introduction to all the main subjects dealt with in the book, such as Marxism and religion, the Big Bang theory and chaos and complexity.

The publication of Reason in Revolt in the USA is a real red-letter day for the authors. The appearance of the book seven years ago was greeted with enthusiasm 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. It is therefore highly appropriate that the American public should be acquainted with that extraordinary body of ideas called Marxism.

We are living in a period of profound transformations on a global scale. The exciting advances of the last decades in genetics and physics, the development of computer science, the Internet and other fields of science and technology are opening up new horizons for human development. As the boundaries of human knowledge are pushed forward, so the potential for human development reaches new and unsuspected levels. In this way, the foundations are being laid for a revolution that will put all past transformations in the shade.

The advances of science and technique can provide the basis for the eradication of the evils that plague humankind at the beginning of the 21st century. In the Bible it is written "for the poor have ye always with you". Yet now, for the first time in human history it is possible to abolish poverty. There is no need for any human being to be without a house, a job, a decent education. There is no need for seven million children to die each year of elementary diseases connected with the lack of clean water.

We have within our grasp the potential to give every man, woman and child on the planet a genuinely human condition of existence. But this colossal potential is far from being achieved. Alongside the most staggering advances of science and culture, we see the most appalling misery, ignorance and deprivation on a world scale. The phenomenon of globalization (which was predicted by Marx and Engels over 150 years ago), for two-thirds of humanity, means only the generalization of this misery, suffering and despair.

The present epoch is therefore confronted by a fundamental contradiction, the resolution of which will decide the fate of humankind. On the one hand, all the material means exist for creating a paradise in this world. On the other hand, our planet is being turned into a living hell for countless millions. Everywhere we look there is turmoil, conflict, wars, instability. The "invisible hand of the market" that was supposed by many in the United States to be the magic solution for solving all the problems of the world, has turned into a nightmare.

The Importance of Dialectics

That wonderful old philosopher Spinoza - one of the fathers of modern philosophical materialism - once said that the task of philosophy is "neither to weep nor to laugh, but to understand. The Anglo-Saxon world in general has proved remarkably impervious to philosophy. Insofar as they possess any philosophy, the Americans and their English cousins have limited the scope of their thought to the narrow boundaries of empiricism, and its soul-mate pragmatism. Broad generalizations of a more theoretical character were always regarded with something akin to suspicion.

In its day, empiricism played a most progressive (even revolutionary) role in the development of human thought and science. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it marked a decisive break with the stifling intellectual dictatorship of the Church, and laid the basis for the modern scientific method based upon observation and experiment. However, empiricism is helpful only within certain limits. Many people only feel secure when they can refer to the facts. Yet, of course, the "facts" do not select themselves! A definite method is required that will help us to look beyond the immediately given and lay bare the processes that lie beyond the "facts".

In the words of that giant Hegel, it is the wish for a rational insight, and not the accumulation of a heap of facts that must possess the mind of one who wishes to adopt the scientific standpoint. The dialectical method provides us with the necessary analytical tools we require to make sense of the mass of information we now possess about nature and society.

Here, however, we are confronted with a difficulty. The most systematic account of dialectics is contained in the writings of Hegel, in particular his massive work The Science of Logic. But apart from the highly inaccessible way in which Hegel sets forth his ideas ("abstract and abstruse", Engels called it), the dialectic appears in the hands of Hegel in a mystical, idealist form. It was only rescued by the revolutionary work of Marx and Engels, who for the first time showed the rational kernel in Hegel's thought. In its scientific (materialist) form, the dialectical method provides us with an indispensable tool for understanding the workings of nature, society and human thought.

Marx had always intended to write a work on dialectical materialism, but died before he could do so. After Marx's death, his indefatigable comrade Frederick Engels wrote a number of brilliant studies on dialectical philosophy (Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of German classical philosophy, Anti-Dühring, and The Dialectics of Nature). The last-named work was intended to be the basis for a longer work on Marxist philosophy, but unfortunately, Engels was prevented from completing it by the immense work of finishing the second and third volumes of Capital, which Marx left unfinished at his death.

Scattered throughout the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Plekhanov, one can find a very large amount of material on this subject. But it would take a very long time to extract all this information. The task of putting together a more or less systematic exposition of Marxist philosophy still remains to be done. To the best of my knowledge, Reason in Revolt is the first attempt to apply the method of dialectical materialism to the results of modern science since The Dialectics of Nature.

In his book Anti-Dühring, Engels pointed out that in the last analysis, nature works dialectically. The advances of science over the last hundred years have completely borne out this assertion. And American scientists have been in the forefront of some of the most important areas in modern science. I am thinking in particular of the work of R.C. Lewontin in the field of genetics, and above all the writings of Stephen J Gould, news of whose tragic death reached me as I was finishing this introduction.

The latest discoveries of paleontology, in particular the pioneering work Stephen Gould (punctuated equilibria) have fundamentally modified the old view of evolution as a slow, gradual process, uninterrupted by sudden catastrophes and leaps. Gould himself was clearly influenced by the ideas of Marxism, and has paid tribute to the contribution of Frederick Engels, who, in his little masterpiece The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man, brilliantly anticipated the latest discoveries in the investigation of human origins.

Marxism and Religion

In the first part of Reason in Revolt, a reference is made to the contradiction between the marvelous advances of science and the extraordinary lag in human consciousness. This contradiction is particularly striking in the United States. In the country that has done more than any other to advance the cause of science in the past period, the overwhelming majority of people in the USA believe in god, or are religious in some way. This situation is quite different to that of most European countries, where organized religion is dying on its feet (although there is still plenty of superstition and mysticism around).

The degree of scientific and technological advance in the USA is unequalled by any other country. Here we have a tantalizing glimpse of the future - the staggering potential of human development. But we also see a contradiction. Side by side with the most advanced ideas we see the persistence of ideas that have been handed down, unchanged, from a remote and barbarous past.

Since the book first appeared, there have been a number of other spectacular advances in science - notably the mapping of the human genome. These results have completely demolished the positions of genetic determinism that we criticized in Reason in Revolt. It has also cut the ground from under the feet of the racist "theories" put forward by certain writers in the USA who attempted to enlist the service of genetics to peddle their reactionary pseudo-scientific "theories", that black people are genetically predisposed to ignorance and poverty. They have also dealt a mortal blow to the nonsense of the Creationists who want to reject Darwinism in favor of the first chapters of Genesis, and impose this on American schools.

For many Americans, Marxism is a closed book because it is seen as anti-religious. After all, did Marx not describe religion as the "opium of the people"? As a matter of fact, just before these famous words, Marx wrote: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. In essence, religion is an expression of a desire for a better world and a belief that there must be something more to life than the vale of tears through which we pass in the all too brief interval from cradle to grave.

Many people are discontented with their lives. It is not just a question of material poverty - although that exists in the USA as in all other countries. It is also a question of spiritual poverty: the emptiness of people's lives, the mind-deadening routine of work that is just so many hours out of one's life; the alienation that divides men and women from each other; the absence of human relations and solidarity that is deliberately fostered in a society that proudly proclaims the laws of the jungle and the so-called survival of the fittest (read: wealthiest); the mind-numbing banality of a commercialized "culture". In this kind of world the question we should be asking ourselves is not: "is there a life after death" but rather "is there a life before death?"

The capitalist system is a monstrously oppressive and inhuman system, which means untold misery, disease, oppression and death for millions of people in the world. It is surely the duty of any humane person to support the fight against such a system. However, in order to fight effectively, it is necessary to work out a serious program, policy and perspective that can guarantee success. We believe that only Marxism (scientific socialism) provides such a perspective.

The problem a Marxist like myself has with religion is basically this: We believe that men and women should fight to transform their lives and to create a genuinely human society which would permit the human race to lift itself up to its true stature. We believe that man has only one life, and should dedicate himself to making this life beautiful and self-fulfilling. If you like, we are fighting for a paradise on this Earth, because we do not think there is any other.

Although from a philosophical point of view, Marxism is incompatible with religion, it goes without saying that we are opposed to any idea of prohibiting or repressing religion. We stand for the complete freedom of the individual to hold any religious belief, or none at all. What we do say is that there should be a radical separation between church and state. The churches must not be supported directly or indirectly out of taxation, nor should religion be taught in state schools. If people want religion, they should maintain their churches exclusively through the contributions of the congregation and preach their doctrines in their own time.

To the degree that men and women are able to take control of their lives and develop themselves as free human beings, I believe that interest in religion - that is, the search for consolation in an afterlife - will decline naturally of itself. Of course, you may disagree with this prediction. Time will tell which of us is right. In the meantime, disagreements on such matters should not prevent all honest Christians from joining hands with the Marxists in the struggle for a new and better world.

The Big Bang

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 seemed unthinkable.

The Big Bang theory was an attempt to explain the history of the Universe on the basis of certain observed phenomena, in particular the fact that we can see the galaxies receding from each other. Because of this, most astronomers believe that these star groupings were closer together in the past. If we run the film backwards then all matter, space and time would have erupted from a point in a massive explosion, involving staggering amounts of energy.

In the most widely accepted cosmological model, called the inflationary model, the universe was said to have been born in an instantaneous creation of matter and energy. It is the modern equivalent of the old religious dogma of the creation of the world from nothing. The Big Bang is alleged to be the beginning of space, matter and time. As the universe has inflated since that event, matter and energy have spread out in clumps. The spreading could potentially continue forever.

In fact, there are serious problems with this theory, which we outlined in detail in Reason in Revolt. In particular, questions about what happened before the Big Bang cannot really be asked because there is supposed to have been no "before" - since there was no time. In this way, an absolute limitation is placed on the possibility of our understanding the Universe, thus leaving the door wide open for all kinds of mystical ideas - which have been pouring out in vast quantities in recent years. Nevertheless, the inflationary theory has survived since it was introduced in the late 1970s, while cosmologists have discarded competing ideas one by one.

However, new problems with the existing theory are becoming apparent all the time. The latest was in 1998, when studies of distant, exploding stars showed the Universe was expanding at an accelerating rate. This was a big surprise, since most researchers believed that either the Universe would expand forever at the same rate or else slow down and contract, eventually coming back together in a "Big Crunch."

A recent report by Paul J. Steinhardt and his colleague Neil Turok of Cambridge University posted on April 25th, 2002, on the website of the prestigious journal Science, 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. They argue - as we did in Reason in Revolt - that the Universe had no beginning and it will have no end. Steinhardt and Turok, 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.

The new model offers a streamlined alternative to the standard model. It 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 the 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 authors maintain that the current era is near the transition between these stages.

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. This model therefore puts an end to the nonsense of the creation of the Universe from nothing:

"What we're proposing in this new picture is that the Big Bang is not a beginning of time but really just the latest in an infinite series of cycles, in which the Universe has gone through periods of heating, expanding, cooling, stagnating, emptying, and then re-expanding again." (BBC report)

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) being created out of nothing (as the Big Bang implies) or destroyed.

It is too early to say whether it 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 Science: "The ultimate arbiter will be Nature."

Marxism and the Future

Marxism is a philosophy, but it is quite unlike other philosophies. Dialectical materialism is both a powerful methodological tool to understand the workings of nature, thought and human society and a guide to action. As the young Marx put it: "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways - the point is, however, to change it."

Now, it may be that you are quite happy with the world in which we live, and do not wish to change it. In that case, you may find the present work educational, or at least entertaining. But you will not have understood it, basically because we will be talking mutually unintelligible languages. However, if ever there was a time when Americans should be seriously re-examining their view of the world and their place in it, that time is now. And in order to obtain a rational insight into this world a knowledge of dialectical materialism is of great importance.

The most essential feature of dialectical materialism is its dynamic character. It sees the world as an ever-changing process, driven by internal contradictions, in which sooner or later things change into their opposite. Moreover, the line of development is not a smooth, linear process, but a line that is periodically interrupted by sudden leaps, explosions that transform quantity into quality. This is an accurate picture of both processes we see in nature and in the process of social development we call history.

Most people imagine that the kind of world into which they are born is something fixed and immutable. They rarely question its values, its morality, its religion, its political and state institutions. This mental inertia, reinforced by the dead weight of tradition, customs, habit and routine, is a powerful cement that permits a given socio-economic order to continue to exist long after it has lost its rational basis. In the USA, perhaps more than any other country in the world, this inertia exercises a major role and prevents people from realizing what is happening to them.

In actual fact, societies are not immutable. The whole of history teaches us that. Socio-economic systems, like individual men and women, are born, mature, reach a high point in their development, and then at a certain point enter into a phase of decline and decay. When a society ceases to play a progressive role (which, in the last analysis, is that point where it is unable to develop the productive forces as it did in the past), people can feel it. It manifests itself in all manner of ways - not only in the economic field. The old morality begins to break down. There is a crisis of the family and personal relations, a growing lack of solidarity and social cohesion, a rise of crime and violence. People no longer believe in the old religions and turn in the direction of mysticism, superstition and exotic sects. We have seen these things many times in history, and we are seeing the same things now - even in the USA.

We are living at a time when many people have begun to ask questions about the world in which they live, and to ask questions is never a bad thing. The terrible events of 11th September 2001 have caused many Americans to think seriously about matters in which they previously showed little interest. They have suddenly realized that all is not well with the world, and that America is deeply involved in a worldwide crisis from which no-one can escape, and in which no-one is safe. The destruction of the twin towers cast a dark shadow over America. For a time, Bush and the most reactionary wing of the ruling class has had things all their own way. But this situation will not last forever. Sooner or later the thick fog of propaganda and lies will dissipate and people will become aware of the real state of affairs both in the USA and on a world scale.

Although many people feel in their innermost being that something is going badly wrong, they find no logical explanation for it. That is not surprising. The entire way in which they have been taught to think from their earliest years conditions them to reject any suggestion that there is something fundamentally wrong with the society in which they live. They will close their eyes, try to avoid drawing uncomfortable conclusions for as long as they can.

This is quite natural. Is very hard for people to question the beliefs they have been brought up with. But sooner or later, events catch up with them - cataclysmic events that compel them to re-think many things that they previously took for granted. And when such a moment arrives, the same people who stubbornly refused to consider new ideas, will eagerly examine what only yesterday they regarded as heresies, and find in them the explanations and alternatives for which they were striving.

Today, Marxism is seen as such a heresy. Every hand is raised against it. It is said to have no basis, to have failed, to be out of date. But if this is really the case, then why do the apologists of capitalism still persist in attacking it? Surely, if it is so dead and irrelevant, they should just ignore it. The power of Marxist ideas is precisely that they - and they alone - can provide a coherent, rigorous, and, yes, scientific explanation of the most important phenomena of the world in which we live.

It is a matter of great regret that so many people, especially in the USA, have the same attitude towards Marxism as the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church had towards Galileo's telescope. When Galileo begged them to look with their own eyes and examine the evidence, they stubbornly refused to do so. They just knew that Galileo was wrong, and that was that. In the same way, many people "just know" that Marxism is wrong, and do not see any reason to investigate the matter any further. But if Marxism is wrong, by studying it, you will be more firmly convinced of its erroneousness. You have nothing to lose, and will have added to your store of knowledge. But the author of these lines is firmly convinced that if more people just took the trouble to read the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, they would soon convince themselves that Marxism really does have a lot of important things to say - and that these things are of great relevance to the modern world.

In recommending the present work to the American public, it is my fervent hope to convince the reader of the correctness and relevance of the ideas of Marx and Engels in the world of the 21st century. If I succeed even partly in convincing you, I will be very pleased. If not, I hope to have dispelled many misconceptions about Marxism and show that it at least has some interesting things to say about the world in which we live. In any event, I hope it will make people think more critically about our society, its present and its future.

London, June 6, 2002.


Those who wish to continue their studies of Marxism, and more importantly join in the historic struggle for socialism, can visit the In Defence of Marxism website and the Socialist Appeal magazine of the Workers International League in the US. These sites provide regular Marxist analysis of current events as well as historical and economic analysis, theory, and more. The Youth for International Socialism website also provides a wealth of information and learning material for those wishing to learn more about Marxism and the struggle for socialism.