Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science - Introduction to the ebook edition of Reason in Revolt

On the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of Reason in Revolt - Marxist philosophy and modern science, we are proud to announce its republication in e-book format by Wellred Books in the near future. Here we bring the introduction to the new e-book edition.

Exactly twenty years have passed since the publication of Reason in Revolt. The book was greeted with enthusiasm by many people, not only on the Left, but by scientists and others interested in philosophy and the latest developments in science.

One of the most common accusations directed against Engels is that he based himself on the science of the 19th century and therefore is out of date. But in fact, the discoveries of modern science – which support theories such as chaos and complexity – provide far more material that shows that Engels was right when he said that in the last analysis, nature works dialectically. The latest discoveries of science have fundamentally modified the old view of evolution as a slow, gradual process, uninterrupted by sudden catastrophes and leaps.

In the field of palaeontology the late Stephen Jay Gould’s revolutionary theory of punctuated equilibria ‑ now generally accepted as correct – has completely overthrown the old view of evolution as a slow, gradual process, uninterrupted by sudden catastrophes and leaps. The forms of life evolve that are well adapted to take advantage of a given environment, but the very specialisation that fits them for a given evolutionary context turns into its opposite when conditions change. And because life itself is often poised on the edge of chaos, even relatively small changes can produce catastrophic consequences. We have noticed this phenomenon being repeated many times during millions of years of evolution.

We pointed out that Gould was influenced by the ideas of Marxism, and in particular by Engels’ masterpiece The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, which he warmly praised. In fact, Gould pointed out that if scientists had only paid attention to what Engels had written the investigation of human origins would have been spared a hundred years of errors.

Since Reason in Revolt first appeared, there have been a number of spectacular advances in science – notably the human genome. These results have completely demolished the positions of genetic determinism that we criticised in the book. They have also dealt a mortal blow to the nonsense of the Creationists and the supporters of so-called intelligent design who want to reject Darwinism in favour of the book of Genesis.

If we accept the idea of intelligent design, it must be confessed that the Creator did not make a very good job of it. One recalls the words of Alfonso the Wise who said: “Had I been present when the Almighty made the Universe, I could have given Him some good advice.”

Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that if a truly intelligent designer were responsible for the panda, he would have provided a more useful tool than the stubby proto-thumb that pandas use to laboriously strip bamboo in order to eat it.

One could multiply such examples at will. Why, for instance, should humans be designed to walk upright when our skeletons are designed to move about on all fours? It is hard to see how an all-wise Creator could have made such a mess of things, creating a world in which hunger, disease, wars and death play such a prominent role – unless He really hated the world and the human race. But in that case, what we have before us is not so much a case of intelligent design, but, rather, unintelligent or malignant design.

The discoveries of the human genome conclusively prove that humans are not the unique creation of the Almighty, but the product of billions of years of evolution. We carry the living proof of this in our genes. We share our genes, not only with the apes and other mammals, but with the lowly fruit fly and bacteria, and with creatures even older and more primitive than bacteria. Our genetic makeup is a map of evolution and the clearest proof of it. But there are none as blind as those that will not see.

The human genome results should also finally finish off the nonsense of creationism. It should cure us once and for all of that arrogance that for thousands of years has tempted men and women to claim for themselves a privileged status in nature that expresses itself in the belief that we can have a special intercourse with supernatural forces (God) and thus escape from our mortal destiny and achieve “eternal life”, which, on closer inspection, bears a striking resemblance to eternal death.

New discoveries in biology are constantly obliging us to update the theories of the origins of life on earth. Even in the twenty years since Reason in Revolt was first published, new theories have been put forward. It is most probable that life on earth began very early on at the bottom of the sea, in the form of minute organisms that derived sustenance from the volcanic energy that came from undersea volcanic vents. These early life forms thus did not require sunlight. They developed in conditions that were incredibly hostile. These minute bacteria over a long period provided the oxygen that was necessary to transform the atmosphere and create the conditions necessary for the development of life as we know it. We owe everything to these humble bacteria!

It is interesting to observe in nature how life forms that have dominated the planet for very long periods have been made extinct as soon as the material conditions that determined their evolutionary success have changed. It is equally fascinating to see how these previously dominant species have been replaced by other species that were seemingly insignificant and even species that seemed to have no prospect of survival.

The Big Bang

There was one part of Reason in Revolt that was especially controversial – 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 unthinkable. But there are few things in science that are not called into question sooner or later. The whole history of science is the history of humanity’s advance from ignorance to knowledge, from error to the truth.

This is itself a dialectical process, where each generation arrives at a theory that explains many things. In this way, human knowledge penetrates deeper and deeper into the secrets of the Universe. And this process is as never-ending as the universe itself. In his remarkable book The Nature of Scientific Revolution, Thomas Kuhn explained the dialectical way in which science develops. At regular intervals scientists establish a paradigm that apparently explains everything. But at a certain point, small irregularities are found that contradict the accepted model. This eventually leads to its overthrow and replacement by a new model, which will itself eventually be surpassed.

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 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.

The standard model presumes that the Big Bang is the beginning of space and time; that there was nothingness, and then suddenly out of nothingness there sprang space, time, matter, radiation and everything else.

This model has gained widespread acceptance because it accounts for several important features we see in the Universe - such as why everything looks the same in all directions and the fact that the cosmos appears "flat" (parallel lines would never meet however long). It is still the most widely accepted model in the mainstream scientific community. But the fact that it is widely accepted does not make it correct. Scientific truth can never be established by consensus. If that were the case, no scientific advance would be possible, and we would still believe the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which after all served to explain many observed phenomena and enjoyed a very widespread consensus for hundreds of years.

Although the standard model has proved difficult to dislodge, over the past two decades a growing number of scientists are becoming troubled about its contradictions and inconsistencies. The contradictions and deficiencies of the standard model are not small but glaring. The most obvious case is so-called “dark matter”, the existence of which is essential to the theory. Yet astronomers are unable to detect most of the matter in the universe.

There is an ever growing number of scientists are having second thoughts about the implications of the Big Bang theory. According to mathematical physicist Neil Turok, who teaches at Cambridge University, the Big Bang represents just one stage in an infinitely repeated cycle of universal expansion and contraction. Turok theorizes that neither time nor the universe has a beginning or end. He argues that there have been many Big Bangs, and there will be many more.

Turok has been attacked by the Vatican, which would seem to indicate he is probably on the right track. He won 2008's first annual TED Prize, awarded to the world's most innovative thinkers. Together with Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt he has published a book called Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang. I have not read the book and probably would not agree with everything in it, but it is certainly significant that a growing number of scientists are beginning to question the existing orthodoxy.

Even Sir Roger Penrose, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the theory twenty years ago, has changed his mind about the Big Bang. He now imagines an eternal cycle of expanding universes where matter becomes energy and back again in the birth of new universes and so on and so on. One does not have to accept this idea to see what it means. Scientists can see that it is not possible to place a boundary on the universe, or to speak of a moment in which “time began” and all the other mystical nonsense that people have accepted as good coin for the last few decades.

We have argued consistently that the material universe has neither a beginning nor an end – it is infinite in both time and space. Matter (and energy, which is the same thing) can neither be created nor destroyed. The universe is infinite and eternal, with no beginning and no end. It is constantly in motion: changing, evolving, dying and being reborn. We can confidently predict that in the next couple of decades the dialectical view will be vindicated by the further march of science.

The need for dialectics

Dialectics teaches us to study things in motion, not statically; in their life, not in their death. Every development is rooted in earlier stages, and in turn is the embryo and starting point of new developments – a never-ending web of relations that reinforce and perpetuate each other. Hegel already developed this idea in his Logic and other works. Dialectics teaches us to study things and processes in all their interconnections. This is important as a methodology in areas such as animal morphology. It is not possible to modify one part of the anatomy without producing changes in all the others. Here too there is a dialectical relationship.

General tendencies in society can find their reflection in ideology, including science and reactionary ideas can be expressed in science, for example, certain theories in genetics that attempt to provide a scientific basis for racism. In recent years the crisis of bourgeois ideology has been expressed, among other things, by a general drift towards idealism, mysticism and superstition. One of the purposes of this book was to identify and combat these tendencies. This is also a philosophical question.

In our own period philosophy has gotten itself a very bad name. This is well merited. When reading the bourgeois philosophers of the last hundred years, it is hard to know what is worse: the barrenness of the content or the intolerable pretentiousness of the manner in which it is expressed. The content is trivial and banal, as superficial as a crossword puzzle, yet they make the most grandiose claims for it, strutting around and ridiculing the thoughts of the great philosophers of the past with the most astounding insolence.

Modern bourgeois philosophy has become arid and stultified. It is remote from reality and shows a complete disregard for the life of ordinary people. So it is no wonder that people in turn treat it with contempt. At no time in history has philosophy seemed as irrelevant as the present. The total bankruptcy of modern bourgeois philosophy can be explained in part from the fact that Hegel carried traditional philosophy to its limits, leaving very little room for the further development of philosophy as philosophy.

But the most important reason for the crisis of philosophy is the development of science itself, which has answered many of the questions that in the past were considered the field of philosophy. The field open to speculative thought has been reduced to insignificance. Nevertheless, incorrect philosophical ideas have had a damaging effect on science itself.

In the philosophical writings of Marx and Engels we do not have a philosophical system, but a series of brilliant insights and pointers, which, if they were developed, would provide a valuable addition to the methodological armoury of science. Unfortunately, such a work has never been seriously undertaken. With all its colossal resources, the Soviet Union did not produce it. The marvellous insights of Marx and Engels on philosophy and science were left in an undeveloped state. Yet dialectics still managed to penetrate scientific thinking, especially through chaos theory and its derivatives

The dialectic of history

Paradoxically, precisely at this moment when the triumphal march of science is opening up all the locked doors and discovering all that was hidden from our view, the stranglehold of religion and superstition over the minds of men and women has never been stronger. When we speak of religious fundamentalism, we usually think of the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that is running amok through the Middle East and North Africa as a direct result of the barbarous aggressions of US imperialism.

However, there is also Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalism. President George W Bush and his British minion Tony Blair used to kneel down and say their prayers to the Almighty before ordering the bombers to blast Baghdad to smithereens and massacre men, women and children. They would go to bed with a clear conscience, happy in the knowledge that their ticket to Paradise was booked in advance. These monstrous regressions closely resemble the state of affairs that Edward Gibbon described in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Moreover, the causes of this regression are the same in both cases.

The “evolutionary adaptations” that originally enabled capitalism to displace feudalism and emerge as the dominant socio-economic system have long since turned into their opposite. It is displaying all the symptoms we associate with a socio-economic system in a state of terminal decline. In the period that is now unfolding before us, the capitalist system is destined for extinction.

History has more than once furnished us with examples of apparently powerful states that collapsed in a very short space of time. And it also shows how political, religious and philosophical views that were almost unanimously condemned became transformed into the accepted views of the new revolutionary power that arose to take the place of the old. The fact that the ideas of Marxism are the views of a small minority in this society is therefore no cause for concern. Every great idea in history has always started as a heresy and that applies as much to Marxism today as it did to Christianity 2,000 years ago.

Dialectics teaches us that sooner or later, things change into their opposite. The most striking manifestation of dialectics is the crisis of capitalism itself. Dialectics are taking their revenge on the European bourgeoisie who have understood nothing, predicted nothing and are capable of solving nothing. The old, stable, peaceful, prosperous Europe is dead, and with it the old peaceful, harmonious relations between the classes. The future of Europe will be one of years and decades of austerity, unemployment and falling living standards. That is a finished recipe for a revival of the class struggle everywhere. 

It is true that most people have not yet grasped the seriousness of the crisis. Consciousness is lagging far behind events. But that also will change into its opposite. Contrary to what the idealists believe, human consciousness in general is very conservative. Most people do not like change, especially sudden, violent change. They will cling to the things they know and have got used to: the ideas, religion, institutions, morality, leaders and parties. Routine, habit and customs all lie like a leaden weight on the shoulders of humanity. For all these reasons consciousness lags behind events.

However, at certain periods great events force men and women to question their old beliefs and assumptions. They are jolted out of the old supine, apathetic indifference and forced to come to terms with reality. In such periods consciousness can change very rapidly. That is what a revolution is. Just as the tectonic plates, having moved too slowly, compensate by a violent earthquake, so the lagging of consciousness behind events is compensated by sudden changes in the psychology of the masses. We have seen this process in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain and Greece. Tomorrow we will see it in Britain, France and the United States.

Socialism and the future

Sadly, Ted Grant, my old friend, comrade and teacher did not live to see the publication of the new edition of Reason in Revolt. After a lifetime of tireless service to the cause of Marxism and the working class, he passed away at the ripe old age of 93. But it is a matter of great satisfaction to me that in the last years of his life Ted could see the tremendous interest in our ideas that has been expressed in many countries.

Reason in Revolt was written at a time when the world revolutionary movement was in retreat. The collapse of the Soviet Union created a mood of pessimism and despair. The defenders of capitalism launched a ferocious ideological counteroffensive against the ideas of socialism and Marxism. They promised us a future of peace, prosperity and democracy thanks to the wonders of the free market economy.

Two decades have passed since then and a decade is not such a long time in the grand scheme of history. Not one stone upon another now remains of these comforting illusions. Everywhere there are wars, unemployment, poverty and hunger. And everywhere a new spirit of revolt is arising, not just in Asia and Latin America but also in Europe and the USA itself. The tide is turning, as we knew it must do. And people are looking for ideas that can explain what is happening in the world. The ideas of Marxism are enjoying a renaissance. Support for these ideas is growing stronger by the day.

Modern science and technology have created all the conditions for the complete emancipation of the human race. Once the productive forces are freed from the straitjacket of capitalism, the potential exists to produce a great number of geniuses: artists, writers, composers, philosophers, scientists and architects. Art, science and culture would flower as never before. This rich, beautiful and wonderfully diverse world would at last become a place fit for human beings to live in.

Marxism is much more than a political doctrine, or a theory of economics. It is the philosophy of the future. Dialectical materialism allows us to study reality, not as a series of dry, unconnected, senseless events or “facts”, but as a dynamic process, driven by its internal contradictions, ever changing and with an infinitely rich content. The ideas of Marxism have never been more relevant and necessary than at this time. The advanced workers and youth of the whole world will rediscover these ideas and reclaim them for themselves. That is the only guarantee for the success of the struggle for socialism.

London, 21st May 2015.

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