Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science

Introduction

We are living in a period of profound historical change. After a period of 40 years of unprecedented economic growth, the market economy is reaching its limits. At the dawn of capitalism, despite its barbarous crimes, it revolutionised the productive forces, thus laying the basis for a new system of society. The First World War and the Russian Revolution signalled a decisive change in the historical role of capitalism. From a means of developing the productive forces, it became transformed into a gigantic fetter upon economic and social development. The period of upswing in the West in the period of 1948-73 seemed to promise a new dawn. Even so, the benefits were limited to a handful of developed capitalist countries. For two-thirds of humanity living in the Third World, the picture was one of mass unemployment, poverty, wars and exploitation on an unprecedented scale. This period of capitalism ended with the so-called oil crisis of 1973-74. Since then, they have not managed to get back to the kind of growth and levels of employment they had achieved in the post-war period.

A social system in a state of irreversible decline expresses itself in cultural decay. This is reflected in a hundred different ways. A general mood of anxiety and pessimism as regards the future spreads, especially among the intelligentsia. Those who yesterday talked confidently about the inevitability of human progress and evolution, now see only darkness and uncertainty. The 20th century is staggering to a close, having witnessed two terrible world wars, economic collapse and the nightmare of fascism in the period between the wars. These were already a stern warning that the progressive phase of capitalism was past.

The crisis of capitalism pervades all levels of life. It is not merely an economic phenomenon. It is reflected in speculation and corruption, drug abuse, violence, all-pervasive egotism and indifference to the suffering of others, the breakdown of the bourgeois family, the crisis of bourgeois morality, culture and philosophy. How could it be otherwise? One of the symptoms of a social system in crisis is that the ruling class increasingly feels itself to be a fetter on the development of society.

Marx pointed out that the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class. In its heyday, the bourgeoisie not only played a progressive role in pushing back the frontiers of civilisation, but was well aware of the fact. Now the strategists of capital are seized with pessimism. They are the representatives of an historically doomed system, but cannot reconcile themselves to the fact. This central contradiction is the decisive factor which sets its imprint upon the mode of thinking of the bourgeoisie today. Lenin once said that a man on the edge of a cliff does not reason.

Lag in consciousness

Contrary to the prejudice of philosophical idealism, human consciousness in general is extraordinarily conservative, and always tends to lag far behind the development of society, technology and the productive forces. Habit, routine, and tradition, to use a phrase of Marx, weigh like an Alp on the minds of men and women, who, in “normal” historical periods cling stubbornly to the well-trodden paths, from an instinct of self-preservation, the roots of which lie in the remote past of the species. Only in exceptional periods of history, when the social and moral order begins to crack under the strain of intolerable pressures do the mass of people start to question the world into which they have been born, and to doubt the beliefs and prejudices of a lifetime.

Such a period was the epoch of the birth of capitalism, heralded by the great cultural re-awakening and spiritual regeneration of Europe after its lengthy winter sleep under feudalism. In the period of its historical ascent, the bourgeoisie played a most progressive role, not only in developing the productive forces, and thereby mightily expanding humanity's power over nature, but also in extending the frontiers of science, knowledge and culture. Luther, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Dührer, Bacon, Kepler, Galileo and a host of other pathfinders of civilisation shine like a galaxy illuminating the broad highroad of human cultural and scientific advance opened by the Reformation and Renaissance. However, such revolutionary periods do not come into being easily or automatically. The price of progress is struggle—the struggle of the new against the old, the living against the dead, the future against the past.

The rise of the bourgeoisie in Italy, Holland, England and later in France was accompanied by an extraordinary flourishing of culture, art and science. One would have to look back to ancient Athens to find a precedent for this. Particularly in those countries where the bourgeois revolution triumphed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the development of the forces of production and technology was accompanied by a parallel development of science and thought, which drastically undermined the ideological domination of the Church.

In France, the classical country of the bourgeois revolution in its political expression, the bourgeoisie in 1789-93 carried out its revolution under the banner of Reason. Long before it toppled the formidable walls of the Bastille, it was necessary to overthrow the invisible but no less formidable walls of religious superstition in the minds of men and women. In its revolutionary youth the French bourgeoisie was rationalist and atheist. Only after installing themselves in power did the men of property, finding themselves confronted by a new revolutionary class, jettison the ideological baggage of their youth.

Not long ago France celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of its great revolution. It was curious to note how even the memory of a revolution two centuries ago fills the establishment with unease. The attitude of the French ruling class to their own revolution vividly recalled that of an old libertine who tries to gain a ticket to respectability—and perhaps admittance to heaven—by renouncing the sins of his youth, which he is no longer in a position to repeat. Like all established privileged classes, the capitalist class seeks to justify its existence, not only to society at large, but to itself. In its search for ideological points of support, which would tend to justify the status quo and sanctify existing social relations, they rapidly rediscovered the enchantments of Mother Church, particularly after the mortal terror they experienced at the time of the Paris Commune. The church of Sacré Coeur is a concrete expression of the bourgeois' fear of revolution translated into the language of architectural philistinism.

Karl Marx (1818-83) and Frederick Engels (1820-95) explained that the fundamental driving force of all human progress is the development of the productive forces—industry, agriculture, science and technique. This is a truly great theoretical generalisation without which it is impossible to understand the movement of human history in general. However, it does not mean, as dishonest or ignorant detractors of Marxism have attempted to show, that Marx “reduces everything to economics”. Dialectical and historical materialism takes full account of phenomena such as religion, art, science, morality, law, politics, tradition, national characteristics and all the other manifold manifestations of human consciousness. But not only that. It shows their real content and how they relate to the actual development of society, which in the last analysis clearly depends upon its capacity to reproduce and expand the material conditions for its existence. On this subject, Engels wrote the following:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence, if someone twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that position into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure—political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by victorious classes after a successful battle, etc., judicial forms, and the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles, and in many cases predominate in determining their form.” 1

The affirmation of historical materialism that, in general, human consciousness tends to lag behind the development of the productive forces seems paradoxical to some. Yet it is graphically expressed in all kinds of ways in the United States where the achievements of science have reached their highest level. The constant advance of technology is the prior condition for bringing about the real emancipation of men and women, through the establishment of a rational socio-economic system, in which human beings exercise conscious control over their lives and environment. Here, however, the contrast between the rapid development of science and technology and the extraordinary lag in human thinking presents itself in its most glaring form.

In the USA nine persons out of ten believe in the existence of a supreme being, and seven out of ten in a life after death. When the first American astronaut who succeeded in circumnavigating the world in a spacecraft was asked to broadcast a message to the inhabitants of the earth, he made a significant choice. Out of the whole of world literature, he chose the first sentence of the book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created heaven and the earth.” This man, sitting in his spaceship, a product of the most advanced technology ever seen, had his mind full to the brim with superstitions and phantoms handed down with little change from the primeval past.

In the notorious “monkey trial” of 1925, a teacher called John Scopes was found guilty of teaching the theory of evolution, in contravention of the laws of the state of Tennessee. The trial actually upheld the state's anti-evolution laws, which were not abolished until 1968, when the US Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of creation theories was a violation of the constitutional ban on the teaching of religion in state schools. Since then, the creationists changed their tactics, trying to turn creationism into a “science”. In this, they have the support, not only of a wide layer of public opinion, but of not a few scientists, who are prepared to place their services at the disposal of religion in its most crude and obscurantist form.

In 1981 American scientists, making use of Kepler's laws of planetary motion, launched a spacecraft that made a spectacular rendezvous with Saturn. In the same year an American judge had to declare unconstitutional a law passed in the state of Arkansas, which imposed on schools the obligation to treat so-called creation-science on equal terms with the theory of evolution. Among other things, the creationists demanded the recognition of Noah's flood as a primary geological agent. In the course of the trial, witnesses for the defence expressed fervent belief in Satan and the possibility that life was brought to earth in meteorites, the variety of species being explained by a kind of meteoric shuttle-service! At the trial, Mr. N.K. Wickremasinge of the University of Wales was quoted as saying that insects might be more intelligent than humans, although “they're not letting on…because things are going so well for them.” 2

The religious fundamentalist lobby in the USA has mass support, access to unlimited funds, and the backing of congressmen. Evangelical crooks make fortunes out of radio stations with a following of millions. The fact that in the last decade of the 20th century there are a large number of educated men and women—including scientists—in the most technologically advanced country the world has ever known who are prepared to fight for the idea that the book of Genesis is literally true, that the universe was created in six days about 6,000 years ago, is, in itself, a most remarkable example of the workings of the dialectic.

"Reason becomes unreason"

The period when the capitalist class stood for a rational world outlook has become a dim memory. In the epoch of the senile decay of capitalism, the earlier processes have been thrown into reverse. In the words of Hegel, “Reason becomes Unreason”. It is true that, in the industrialised countries, “official” religion is dying on its feet. The churches are empty and increasingly in crisis. Instead, we see a veritable “Egyptian plague” of peculiar religious sects, accompanied by the flourishing of mysticism and all kinds of superstition. The frightful epidemic of religious fundamentalism—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu—is a graphic manifestation of the impasse of society. As the new century beckons, we observe the most horrific throwbacks to the Dark Ages.

This phenomenon is not confined to Iran, India and Algeria. In the United States we saw the “Waco massacre”, and after that, in Switzerland, the collective suicide of another group of religious fanatics. In other Western countries, we see the uncontrolled spread of religious sects, superstition, astrology and all kinds of irrational tendencies. In France, there are about 36,000 Catholic priests, and over 40,000 professional astrologers who declared their earnings to the taxman. Until recently, Japan appeared to be an exception to the rule. William Rees-Mogg, former editor of the London Times, and arch-Conservative, and James Dale Davidson in their recent book The Great Reckoning: How the World Will Change in the Depression of the 1990s state that:

“The revival of religion is something that is happening throughout the world in varying degrees. Japan may be an exception, perhaps because social order has as yet shown no signs of breaking down there…” 3

Rees-Mogg and Davidson spoke too soon. A couple of years after these lines were written, the horrific gas attack on the Tokyo underground drew the world's attention to the existence of sizable groups of religious fanatics even in Japan, where the economic crisis has put an end to the long period of full employment and social stability. All these phenomena bear a striking resemblance to what occurred in the period of the decline of the Roman Empire. Let no one object that such things are confined to the fringes of society. Ronald and Nancy Reagan regularly consulted astrologers about all their actions, big and small. Here are a couple of extracts from Donald Regan's book, For the Record:

“Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favourable alignment for the enterprise. Nancy Reagan seemed to have absolute faith in the clairvoyant powers of this woman, who had predicted that 'something' bad was going to happen to the president shortly before he was wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981.

“Although I had never met this seer—Mrs. Reagan passed along her prognostications to me after conferring with her on the telephone—she had become such a factor in my work, and in the highest affairs of the state at one point I kept a colour-coded calendar on my desk (numerals highlighted in green ink for 'good' days, red for 'bad' days, yellow for 'iffy' days) as an aid to remember when it was propitious to move the president of the United States from one place to another, or schedule him to speak in public, or commence negotiations with a foreign power.

“Before I came to the White House, Mike Deaver had been the man who integrated the horoscopes of Mrs. Reagan's into the presidential schedule… It is a measure of his discretion and loyalty that few in the White House knew that Mrs. Reagan was even part of the problem [waiting for schedules]—much less that an astrologer in San Francisco was approving the details of the presidential schedule. Deaver told me that Mrs. Reagan's dependence on the occult went back at least as far as her husband's governorship, when she had relied on the advice of the famous Jeane Dixon. Subsequently, she had lost confidence in Dixon's powers. But the First Lady seemed to have absolute faith in the clairvoyant talents of the woman in San Francisco. Apparently, Deaver had ceased to think there was anything remarkable about this long-established floating seance… To him it was simply one of the little problems in the life of a servant of the great. 'At least,' he said, 'this astrologer is not as kooky as the last one'.”

Astrology was used in the planning of the summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, according to the family soothsayer, but things didn't go smoothly between the two first ladies because Raisa Gorbachev's birth date was unknown! The movement in the direction of a “free market economy” in Russia has since bestowed the blessings of capitalist civilisation on that unfortunate country—mass unemployment, social disintegration, prostitution, the mafia, an unprecedented crime wave, drugs and religion. It has recently emerged that Yeltsin himself consults astrologers. In this respect also, the nascent capitalist class in Russia has shown itself to be an apt pupil of its Western role models.

The prevailing sense of disorientation and pessimism finds its reflection in all sorts of ways, not only directly in politics. This all-pervasive irrationality is not an accident. It is the psychological reflection of a world where the destiny of humanity is controlled by terrifying and seemingly invisible forces. Just look at the sudden panic on the stock exchange, with “respectable” men and women scurrying around like ants when their nest is broken open. These periodic spasms causing a herd-like panic are a graphic illustration of capitalist anarchy. And this is what determines the lives of millions of people. We live in the midst of a society in decline. The evidence of decay is present on all sides. Conservative reactionaries bemoan the breakdown of the family and the epidemic of drugs, crime, mindless violence, and the rest. Their only answer is to step up state repression—more police, more prisons, harsher punishments, even genetic investigation of alleged “criminal types”. What they cannot or will not see is that these phenomena are the symptoms of the blind alley of the social system which they represent.

These are the defenders of “market forces”, the same irrational forces that presently condemn millions of people to unemployment. They are the prophets of “supply-side” economics, which John Kenneth Galbraith shrewdly defined as the theory that the poor have too much money, and the rich too little. The prevailing “morality” is that of the market place, that is, the morality of the jungle. The wealth of society is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, despite all the demagogic nonsense about a “property-owning democracy” and “small is beautiful”. We are supposed to live in a democracy. Yet a handful of big banks, monopolies, and stock exchange speculators (generally the same people) decide the fate of millions. This tiny minority possesses powerful means of manipulating public opinion. They have a monopoly of the means of communication, the press, radio and television. Then there is the spiritual police—the church, which for generations has taught people to look for salvation in another world.

Science and the crisis of society

Until quite recently, it appeared that the world of science stood aloof from the general decay of capitalism. The marvels of modern technology conferred colossal prestige upon scientists, who appeared to be endowed with almost magical qualities. The respect enjoyed by the scientific community increased in the same proportion as their theories became increasingly incomprehensible to the majority of even educated people. However, scientists are ordinary mortals who live in the same world as the rest of us. As such, they can be influenced by prevailing ideas, philosophies, politics and prejudices, not to speak of sometimes very substantial material interests.

For a long time it was tacitly assumed that scientists—especially theoretical physicists—were a special sort of people, standing above the common run of humanity, and privy to the mysteries of the universe denied to ordinary mortals. This 20th century myth is well conveyed by the old science-fiction movies, where the earth was always threatened with annihilation by aliens from outer space (in reality, the threat to the future of humankind comes from a source much nearer to home, but that is another story). At the last moment, a man in a white coat always turns up, writes a complicated equation on the blackboard, and the problem is fixed in no time at all.

The truth is rather different. Scientists and other intellectuals are not immune to the general tendencies at work in society. The fact that most of them profess indifference to politics and philosophy only means that they fall prey more easily to the current prejudices that surround them. All too often their ideas can be used to support the most reactionary political positions. This is particularly clear in the field of genetics where a veritable counter-revolution has taken place, particularly in the United States. Allegedly scientific theories are being used to “prove” that criminality is caused, not by social conditions, but by a “criminal gene”. Black people are alleged to be disadvantaged, not because of discrimination, but because of their genetic make-up. Similar arguments are used for poor people, single mothers, women, homosexuals, and so on. Of course, such “science” is highly convenient to the Republican dominated Congress intent on ruthlessly cutting welfare.

The present book is about philosophy—more precisely, the philosophy of Marxism, dialectical materialism. It is not the business of philosophy to tell scientists what to think and write, at least when they write about science. But scientists have a habit of expressing opinions about all kinds of things—philosophy, religion, politics. This they are perfectly entitled to do. But when they use what may well be perfectly sound scientific credentials in order to defend extremely unsound and reactionary philosophical views, it is time to put things in their context. These pronouncements do not remain among a handful of professors. They are seized upon by right wing politicians, racists and religious fanatics, who attempt to cover their backsides with pseudo-scientific arguments.

Scientists frequently complain that they are misunderstood. They do not mean to provide ammunition for mystical charlatans and political crooks. That may be so. But in that case, they are guilty of culpable negligence or, at the very least, astounding naïvety. On the other hand, those who make use of the erroneous philosophical views of scientists cannot be accused of naïvety. They know just where they stand. Rees-Mogg and Davidson argue that

“as the religion of secular consumerism is left behind like a rusting tail fin, sterner religions that involve real moral principles and angry gods will make a comeback. For the first time in centuries, the revelations of science will seem to enhance rather than undermine the spiritual dimension in life.”

For these authors religion is a useful weapon to keep the underprivileged in their place, alongside the police and prison service. They are commendably blunt about it:

“The lower the prospect of upward mobility, the more rational it is for the poor to adopt an anti-scientific, delusional world view. In place of technology, they employ magic. In place of independent investigation, they opt for orthodoxy. Instead of history, they prefer myths. In place of biography, they venerate heroes. And they generally substitute kin-based behavioural allegiances for the impersonal honesty required by the market.” 4

Let us leave aside the unconsciously humorous remark about the “impersonal honesty” of the marketplace, and concentrate on the core of their argument. At least Rees-Mogg and Davidson do not try to conceal their real intentions or their class standpoint. Here we have the utmost frankness from the defenders of the establishment. The creation of an under-class of poor, unemployed, mainly black people, living in slums, presents a potentially explosive threat to the existing social order. The poor, fortunately for us, are ignorant. They must be kept in ignorance and encouraged in their superstitious and religious delusions, which we of the “educated classes” naturally do not share! The message, of course, is not new. The same song has been sung by the rich and powerful for centuries. But what is significant is the reference to science, which, as Rees-Mogg and Davidson indicate, is now regarded for the first time as an important ally of religion.

Recently theoretical physicist Paul Davies was awarded £650,000 by the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, for showing “extraordinary originality” in advancing humankind's understanding of God or spirituality. Previous winners include Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, evangelist Billy Graham, and the Watergate burglar-turned-preacher Charles Colson. Davies, author of such books as God and the New Physics, The Mind of God and The Last Three Minutes, insists that he is “not a religious person in the conventional sense” (whatever that might mean), but he maintains that “science offers a surer path to God than religion.” 5

Despite Davies' ifs and buts, it is clear that he represents a definite trend, which is attempting to inject mysticism and religion into science. This is not an isolated phenomenon. It is becoming all too common, especially in the field of theoretical physics and cosmology, both heavily dependent upon abstract mathematical models, which are increasingly seen as a substitute for empirical investigation of the real world. For every conscious peddler of mysticism in this field, there are a hundred conscientious scientists, who would be horrified to be identified with such obscurantism. The only real defence against idealist mysticism, however, is a consciously materialist philosophy—the philosophy of dialectical materialism.

It is the intention of this book to explain the basic ideas of dialectical materialism, first worked out by Marx and Engels, and show their relevance to the modern world, and to science in particular. We do not pretend to be neutral. Just as Rees-Mogg and Davidson defend the interests of the class they represent, and make no bones about it, so we openly declare ourselves as the opponents of the so-called market economy and all that it stands for. We are active participants in the fight to change society. But before we can change the world, one has to understand it. It is necessary to conduct an implacable struggle against all attempts to confuse the minds of men and women with mystical beliefs, which have their origin in the murky prehistory of human thought. Science grew and developed to the degree that it turned its back on the accumulated prejudices of the past. We must stand firm against this attempt to put the clock back four hundred years.

A growing number of scientists are becoming dissatisfied with the present situation, not only in science and education, but in society at large. They see the contradiction between the colossal potential of technology and a world where millions of people live on the borderline of starvation. They see the systematic misuse of science in the interest of profit for the big monopolies. And they must be profoundly disturbed by the continuous attempts to dragoon the scientists into the service of religious obscurantism and reactionary social policies. Many of them were repelled by the bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of Stalinism. But the collapse of the Soviet Union has shown that the capitalist alternative is even worse. By their own experience, many scientists will come to the conclusion that the only way out of the social, economic, and cultural impasse is by means of some kind of rational planned society, in which science and technology is put at the disposal of humanity, not private profit. Such a society must be democratic, in the real sense of the word, involving the conscious control and participation of the entire population. Socialism is democratic by its very nature. As Leon Trotsky pointed out “a nationalised planned economy needs democracy, as the human body needs oxygen.”

It is not enough to contemplate the problems of the world. It is necessary to change it. First, however, it is necessary to understand the reason why things are as they are. Only the body of ideas worked out by Marx and Engels, and subsequently developed by Lenin and Trotsky can provide us with the adequate means of achieving this understanding. We believe that the most conscious members of the scientific community, through their own work and experience, will come to realise the need for a consistently materialist world outlook. That is offered by dialectical materialism. The recent advances of the theories of chaos and complexity show that an increasing number of scientists are moving in the direction of dialectical thinking. This is an enormously significant development. There is no doubt that new discoveries will deepen and strengthen this trend. We are firmly convinced that dialectical materialism is the philosophy of the future.

For reasons of convenience, where the same work is cited several times in immediate sequence we have placed the reference number at the end of the last quote.

1. Karl Marx Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence, Letter to Bloch, 21st-22nd September 1890, henceforth referred to as MESC.

2. The Economist, 9th January 1982.

3. W. Rees-Mogg and J.D. Davidson, The Great Reckoning: How the World Will Change in the Depression of the 1990s, p. 445.

4. W. Rees-Mogg and J.D. Davidson, op. cit., p. 27, our emphasis.

5. The Guardian, 9th March, 1995.