[Book] Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science

18. The theory of knowledge

“It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions.” (T.H. Huxley)

The basic assumption underlying all science and rational thought in general is that the physical world exists, and that it is possible to understand the laws governing objective reality. The great majority of working scientists accept that the universe is governed by natural law, a fact pointed out by Philip Anderson:

“Indeed, it's hard to imagine how science could exist if they didn't. To believe in natural law is to believe that the universe is ultimately comprehensible—that the same forces that determine the destiny of a galaxy can also determine the fall of an apple here on earth; that the same atoms that refract the light passing through a diamond can also form the stuff of a living cell; that the same electrons, neutrons, and protons that emerged from the big bang can now give rise to the human brain, mind, and soul. To believe in natural law is to believe in the unity of nature at the deepest possible level.” 26

The same is true of the human race in general. Every new discovery of science and technique broadens and deepens our understanding, but by so doing, also poses new challenges. Every question answered immediately raises two more questions. Like a traveller who, with growing excitement, approaches the horizon, only to discover a new one, beckoning him from afar, the process of discovery unfolds with no end in sight. Scientists delve ever deeper into the mysteries of the subatomic world, in search of the “ultimate particle”. But each time they reach the horizon with a triumphant cry, it stubbornly recedes into the distance.

It is the illusion of every epoch that it represents the ultimate peak of all human achievements and wisdom. The ancient Greeks thought that they had understood all the laws of the universe on the basis of Euclid's geometry. Laplace thought the same in relation to Newton's mechanics. In 1880, the chief of the Prussian patent office declared that everything that could ever be discovered had already been invented! Nowadays, scientists tend to be slightly more circumspect in their pronouncements. Even so, tacit assumptions are made that, for example, Einstein's general relativity theory is absolutely true, and the principle of indeterminacy has a universal application.

The history of science shows how economical the human mind is. Very little is actually wasted in the process of collective learning. Even mistakes, when honestly analysed, can play a positive role. Only when thought becomes ossified into official dogma, which treats new ideas as heresy to be prohibited and punished, is the development of thought paralysed and even thrust back. The dismal history of science in the Middle Ages is sufficient proof of this. The search for the philosopher's stone was based upon a mistaken hypothesis, yet the alchemists made important discoveries, and laid the basis for the development of modern chemistry. The big bang theory, with its search for a non-existent “beginning of time”, has scarcely any better scientific credentials, yet, despite this, there is no doubt about the big advances which have been, and are being, made.

As Eric J. Lerner correctly observes:

“Good data, competently obtained and analysed, is of scientific value even if the theory that inspired it is wrong. Other theorists will find uses for it that were little imagined when it was first gathered. Even in theoretical work, honest efforts to compare a theory to observation almost always prove useful regardless of the theory's truth: a theoretician is bound to be upset if his idea is wrong, but time won't have been wasted in ruling it out.” 27

The development of science proceeds through an infinite series of successive approximations. Each generation arrives at a series of fundamental generalisations about the workings of nature, which serve to explain certain observed phenomena. These are invariably considered to be absolute truths, valid for all time in “all possible worlds”. On further examination, however, they are found to be not absolute, but relative. Exceptions are discovered, which contradict the established rules, and, in turn, demand explanation, and so on ad infinitum.

“The first discoveries were realisation that each change of scale brought new phenomena and new kinds of behaviour. For modern particle physicists, the process has never ended. Every new accelerator, with its increase in energy and speed, extends science's field of view to tinier particles and briefer time scales, and every extension seems to bring new information.” 28

Should we therefore despair of ever achieving the whole truth? To pose the question in this way is not to understand the nature of truth and human knowledge. Thus Kant thought that the human mind could only ever know appearances. Behind the world of appearances lay the Thing-in-Itself, which we can never know. To this Hegel replied that to know the properties of a thing is to know the thing itself. There is no absolute barrier between appearance and essence. We start with the reality that presents itself to us in sense perception, but we do not stop here. Using our intellect, we penetrate ever deeper into the mysteries of matter, passing beyond appearance to essence; from the particular to the universal; from the secondary to the fundamental; from the facts to the law.

To use the terminology that Hegel used to answer Kant, the whole history of science and of human thought in general is the process of changing the Thing-in-Itself into a Thing-for-Us. In other words, what “cannot be known” at a given stage of the development of science is eventually explored and explained. Every barrier placed in the way of thought is broken down. But in solving one problem, we immediately come up against new ones which must be solved, new challenges to be overcome. And this process will never come to an end, because the properties of the material universe are indeed infinite.

“To pursue our analogy further, we may say that with regard to the totality of natural laws we never have enough views and cross-sections to give us a complete understanding of this totality. But as science progresses, and new theories are developed, we obtain more and more views from different sides, views that are more comprehensive, views that are more detailed, etc. Each particular theory or explanation of a given set of phenomena will then have a limited domain of validity and will be adequate only in a limited context and under limited conditions. This means that any theory extrapolated to an arbitrary context and to arbitrary conditions will (like the partial views of our object) lead to erroneous predictions. The finding of such errors is one of the most important means of making progress in science.

“A new theory, to which the discovery of such errors will eventually give rise, does not, however invalidate the older theories. Rather, by permitting the treatment of a broader domain in which they are inadequate and, in so doing, it helps define the conditions under which they are valid (e.g. as the theory of relativity corrected Newton's laws of motion, and thus helped to define the conditions of validity of Newton's laws as those in which the velocity is small compared with that of light). Thus, we do not expect that any causal relationships will represent absolute truths; for to do this, they will have to apply without approximation, and unconditionally. Rather, then, we see that the mode of progress of science is, and has been, through a series of progressively more fundamental, more extensive, and more accurate conceptions of the laws of nature, each of which contributes to the definition of the conditions of validity of the older conceptions (just as broader and more detailed views of our object contribute to defining the limitations of any particular view or set of views).” (Bohm) 29

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Professor Thomas Kuhn pictures the history of science as periodic theoretical revolutions, punctuating long periods of merely quantitative change, mainly devoted to filling in details. In such “normal” periods, science operates within a given set of theories which he calls paradigms, which are unquestioned assumptions about what the world is like. Initially, the existing paradigm stimulates the development of science, providing a coherent framework for investigation. Without such an agreed framework, scientists would be forever arguing about the fundamentals. Science, no more than society, cannot live in a permanent state of revolutionary upheaval. For this very reason, revolutions are relatively rare events, both in society and science.

For a time, science is able to advance along these well-trodden paths, piling up results. But in the meanwhile, what were originally daring new hypotheses become transformed into rigid orthodoxies. If an experiment produces results that conflict with the existing theories, scientists may suppress them, because they are subversive to the existing order. Only when the anomalies build up to the point where they cannot be ignored is the ground prepared for a new scientific revolution, which overthrows the dominant theories and opens up a new period of “normal” scientific development, on a higher level.

While it is undoubtedly over-simplified, this picture of the development of science, as a broad generalisation, can be accepted as true. In his book Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels explains the dialectical nature of the development of human thought, as exemplified both in the history of science and philosophy:

“Truth, the cognition of which is the business of philosophy, was in the hands of Hegel no longer an aggregate of finished dogmatic statements, which, once discovered, had merely to be learned by heart. Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering so-called absolute truth, a point at which it can proceed no further, where it would have nothing more to do than to fold its hands and gaze with wonder at the absolute truth to which it had attained.”

And again: “For it [dialectical philosophy] nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher. And dialectical philosophy itself is nothing more than the mere reflection of this process in the thinking brain. It has, of course, also a conservative side: it recognises that definite stages of knowledge and society are justified for their time and circumstances; but only so far. The conservatism of this mode of outlook is relative; its revolutionary character is absolute—the only absolute dialectical philosophy admits.” 30

What is the scientific method?

In the 3rd century B.C. the Greek scholar Eratosthenes read that a vertical stick, positioned in a place called Syrene, cast no shadow at midday. He then observed that in his own city, Alexandria, a vertical stick did cast a shadow. From these observations of real physical phenomena, he deduced that the earth was round. He then sent a slave to Syrene to measure the distance from Alexandria. Then, using simple geometry, he calculated the circumference of the earth. This is the real method of science in action. It is a mixture of observation, hypothesis and mathematical reasoning. Eratosthenes began with observation (both his own and that of others). Then, on the basis of this, he drew a general conclusion, the hypothesis that the earth is curved. He then made use of mathematics to give a precise form to his theory.

The brilliant achievements of Alexandrine science were eclipsed by the rise of Christianity in the Dark Ages. For centuries, the development of science was paralysed by the spiritual dictatorship of the Church. Only by freeing itself of the influence of religion did science manage to develop. Yet by a strange quirk of history, at the end of the 20th century determined attempts are being made to drag science backwards. All kinds of quasi-religious and mystical ideas are floating in the air. This strange phenomenon is closely related to two things. Firstly, the division of labour has been carried to such extremes that it has begun to cause serious harm. Narrow specialisation, reductionism, and an almost complete divorce between the theoretical and experimental side of physics has had the most negative consequences.

Secondly, there has been no adequate philosophy which could help to point science in the right direction. The philosophy of science is in a mess. This is not surprising, because the prevailing “philosophy of science”—or rather the philosophical sect of logical positivism, which set itself up in this capacity—is least of all able to help science out of its difficulties. On the contrary, it has made matters worse. In recent decades, we have seen a growing tendency in theoretical physics to approach the phenomena of the natural world from an excessively abstract and mathematical standpoint. This is clearly the case in the arbitrary attempt to reconstruct an alleged beginning of the universe. As Anderson pointed out in an article written in 1972:

“The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. In fact, the more the elementary particles physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, the less relevance they seem to have to the very real problems of the rest of science, much less society.” 31

In recent decades the prejudice has become deeply rooted that “pure” science, especially theoretical physics is the product of abstract thought and mathematical deduction alone. As Eric Lerner explains, Einstein was partly responsible for this tendency. Unlike earlier theories, such as Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism, or Newton's laws of gravity, which were firmly based on experiment, and soon confirmed by hundreds of thousands of independent observations, Einstein's theories were initially confirmed on the basis of only two—the deflection of starlight by the sun's gravitational field and a slight deviation in the orbit of Mercury. The fact that relativity theory was subsequently shown to be correct has led others, possibly not quite up to Einstein's level of genius, to assume that this is the way to proceed. Why bother with time-consuming experiments and tedious observations? Indeed, why depend upon the evidence of the senses at all, when we can get straight to the truth through the method of pure deduction?

We must remind ourselves that the great breakthrough in science came in the Renaissance, when it separated itself from religion, and began to base itself upon observation and experiment, setting out from the real material world, and always returning to it. In the 20th century, however, there has been a partial regression to idealism, both to Platonism and, still worse, to the subjective idealism of Berkeley and Hume. For all his unquestioned genius, Einstein was unable to free himself from this trend, although he frequently recoiled against the consequences that flowed from it. It is to his credit, for example, that he conducted a stubborn rearguard action against the subjective idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics put forward by Heisenberg.

Like many scientists, Einstein did not feel at home with philosophy, and honestly confessed that great scientists tend to make poor philosophers of science. Nevertheless, he himself made a number of pronunciations of a philosophical or semi-philosophical character, which, given his colossal prestige, were bound to be taken seriously by many scientists—with some very unfortunate results. In 1934, for example, he wrote:

“The theory of relativity is a fine example of the fundamental character of the modern development of theoretical science. The hypotheses with which it starts are becoming steadily more abstract and remote from experience. The theoretical scientist is compelled in an increasing degree to be guided by purely mathematical, formal considerations in his search for a theory, because the physical experience of the experimenter cannot lift him into the regions of highest abstraction. The predominantly inductive methods appropriate to the youth of science are giving place to tentative deduction.” 32

In point of fact, it is not true that Einstein arrived at his theories through a process of pure reasoning and deduction. As he himself states in his Essays in Science, his theory of special relativity was derived from Maxwell's work on electricity and magnetism, which, in turn, was based on the work of Faraday, with its solid experimental foundations. Only after 1915, when he turned to cosmology did Einstein turn to the method of abstract deduction to obtain his results. Here he departed from the established method by taking as his fundamental hypothesis an assumption which was contradicted by observation: the notion that the universe as a whole is homogeneous (evenly spread throughout space).

Setting out from this proposition, Einstein used his general theory of relativity to prove that space is finite. According to this view, the greater the mass of a given density, the more it “curves space”. A sufficiently large mass will lead to a situation where space curves round on itself altogether, thus producing a “closed universe”. This marked, in effect, a regression to the mediaeval world outlook of a finite universe, previously rejected as unscientific. However, even in 1915, there was sufficient evidence to show that the universe was not homogeneous. The theory collided with the facts established by observation. It is no coincidence that Einstein's search for a unified theory of gravitation and electromagnetism during his last thirty years ended in failure, as he himself admitted.

Limits of empiricism

Real philosophy ended with Hegel. Since then, we have seen only a tendency to repeat old ideas, occasionally a filling out of this or that detail, but no real breakthrough, no great new idea. This is hardly surprising. The unprecedented advances of science over the past hundred years make philosophy in the old sense of the word redundant. There is very little point in speculating about the nature of the universe, when we are in a position to uncover its secrets with the aid of ever more powerful telescopes, space probes, computers and particle accelerators. Just as the debate about the nature of the solar system was decided by Galileo's telescope, so the advances in technique will settle the question of the history of the universe, only to pose new questions for future generations to solve.

“As soon as each separate science is required to clarify its position in the great totality of things and of our knowledge of things, a special science dealing with this totality is superfluous. All that remains in an independent state from all earlier philosophy is the science of thought and its laws—formal logic and dialectics. Everything else merges into the positive science of nature and history.” (Engels) 33

Yet philosophy still has a role to play, in the only two areas left to it—formal logic and dialectics. Science, as we have seen, is not merely concerned with accumulating facts. It still requires the active intervention of thought, which alone can discover the inner meaning of the facts, their lawfulness. It is still necessary to make hypotheses, which can guide our investigations along the most fruitful channels, to grasp the real interrelations between apparently unrelated phenomena, to derive order from chaos. This requires training and a thorough knowledge of the history of both science and philosophy. As the American philosopher George Santayana put it, “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” One of the most pernicious consequences of the influence of logical positivism in 20th century science is that all the great schools of the past were treated like a dead dog. Now we see where this attitude leads us. Those who haughtily dismissed “metaphysics” have been punished for their pride. At no time in the history of science has mysticism been so rampant as now.

The purely empirical school of thought inevitably leads to this, as Engels pointed out long ago:

“Exclusive empiricism, which at most allows itself thinking in the form of mathematical calculation, imagines that it operates only with undeniable facts. In reality, however, it operates predominantly with traditional notions, with the largely obsolete products of thought of its predecessors, and such are positive and negative electricity, the electric force of separation, the contact theory. These serve it as the foundation of endless mathematical calculations in which, owing to the strictness of the mathematical formulation, the hypothetical nature of the premises gets comfortably forgotten. This kind of empiricism is as credulous towards the results of the thought of its predecessors as it is sceptical in its attitude to the results of contemporary thought. For it even the experimentally established facts have gradually become inseparable from their traditional interpretations…They have to resort to all kinds of subterfuges and untenable expedients, to the glossing over of irreconcilable contradictions, and thus finally land themselves into a medley of contradictions from which they have no escape.” 34

It is impossible for scientists to remain aloof from society, on the grounds that they are purely impartial. None of us live in a vacuum. As the American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky says:

“Scientists often have a naïve faith that if only they could discover enough facts about a problem, these facts would somehow arrange themselves in a compelling and true solution. The relation between scientific discovery and popular belief is not, however, a one-way street. Marxists are more right than wrong when they argue that the problems scientists take up, the way they go about solving them, and even the solutions they are inclined to accept, are conditioned by the intellectual, social, and economic environments in which they live and work.” 35

It is sometimes asserted that Marx and Engels considered the dialectic to be some kind of Absolute—the last word in human knowledge. Such a notion is a self-evident contradiction. The Marxian dialectic differs from the Hegelian in two fundamental ways. Firstly, it is a materialist philosophy, and therefore derives its categories from the world of physical reality. Nature is infinite, not closed. Likewise, truth itself is endless and cannot be summed up in a single all-embracing system. The negation of the negation, as Engels explains, is a kind of spiral of development—an open-ended system, not a closed circle. That is the second fundamental difference with the Hegelian philosophy, which ultimately contradicted itself by attempting to express the dialectic as a closed and absolute System.

Marx and Engels worked out the outline of a new dialectical method, the usefulness of which was brilliantly shown in the three volumes of Capital. But the enormous advances of 20th century science provide ample material with which to fill out, develop and extend the content of dialectics. The further evolution of chaos and complexity theory can provide the basis for such a development, which would be of immense benefit to both the natural and social sciences. We cannot therefore say that dialectical materialism will not in the future be overtaken by some new and more satisfactory mode of thinking. But we can certainly say that up to the present time, it is the most advanced, comprehensive and flexible method of scientific analysis available. Let Engels speak for himself on this subject:

“Further, if no philosophy as such is needed any longer, then no system, not even a natural system of philosophy, is needed any longer either. The recognition of the fact that all the processes of nature are systematically interconnected drives science on to prove this systematic interconnection throughout, both in general and in detail. But an adequate, exhaustive scientific exposition of this interconnection, the formation of an exact mental image of the world system in which we live, remains impossible for us, as it does for all times. If at any epoch in the development of mankind such a final, definitive system of the interconnections within the world—physical as well as mental and historical—were constructed, this would mean that the realm of human knowledge had reached its limit, and that further historical development would be cut short from the moment when society had been brought into accord with that system—which would be an absurdity, pure nonsense.

“Mankind therefore finds itself faced with a contradiction: on the one hand, it has to gain an exhaustive knowledge of the world system in all its interconnections, and on the other hand, this task can never be completely fulfilled because of the nature both of men and of the world system. But this contradiction not only lies in the nature of the two factors—the world and man—it is also the main lever of all intellectual advance, and constantly finds its solution, day by day, in the endless progressive development of humanity, just as for example mathematical problems find their solution in an infinite series or continued fractions. Actually, each mental image of the world system is and remains limited, objectively by the historical situation and subjectively by its author's physical and mental constitution.” 36

Prejudice against dialectics

Modern science furnishes an abundance of material which completely confirms Engels' assertion that “in the last analysis, nature works dialectically.” The discoveries of science since Engels died completely confirm this view.

“When we reflect on Nature, or the history of mankind, or our own intellectual activity, the first picture presented to us is of an endless maze of relations and interactions, in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes out of existence. This primitive, naïve, yet intrinsically correct conception of the world was that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and also is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.” (Engels) 37

Let us compare this to another quotation from Hoffmann:

“In the world of quantum, particles are incessantly appearing and disappearing. What we would think of as empty space is a teeming, fluctuating nothingness, with photons appearing from nowhere and vanishing almost as soon as they were born, with electrons frothing up for brief moments from the monstrous ocean to create evanescent electron-proton pairs and sundry other particles adding to the confusion.” 38

The rise of chaos and complexity theory indicates a welcome reaction against the stultifying reductionism of the past. Yet very little attention has been paid to the pioneering work of Hegel, Marx and Engels. This astonishing fact is largely to be explained by the widespread prejudice against dialectics, partly as a reaction against the mystical way that dialectics was presented by the idealist school after Hegel's death, but mainly because of its connection with Marxism. Hegel's dialectics have been described as the “algebra of revolution”. If the law of quantity and quality is accepted as valid for chemistry and physics, the next step would be to apply it to existing society, with most unfortunate consequences for the defenders of the status quo.

The scientific writings of Marx and Engels cannot be separated from their revolutionary theory of history in general (historical materialism), and their analysis of the contradictions of capitalism. These are evidently not very popular with those who currently possess a monopoly of economic and political power, and who control, not only the newspapers and television companies, but also hold in their hands the purse strings that determine the fate of universities, research-projects, and academic careers. Is it surprising that dialectical materialism is a taboo subject, which is systematically passed over in silence, except when it is denounced as unscientific mumbo-jumbo, by people who have clearly never read a single line of Marx or Engels? True, a small number of brave souls have raised the question of the contribution of Marxism to the philosophy of science, but even then, such mentions are frequently hedged round with all kinds of qualifications, aiming to show that dialectics may be valid for a given field of science, but cannot be accepted as a general proposition.

Nowadays, the idea of change, of evolution, has deeply penetrated the popular consciousness. But evolution is generally understood as a slow, gradual, uninterrupted process. As Trotsky put it, “Hegel's logic is the logic of evolution. Only one must not forget that the concept of 'evolution' itself has been completely corrupted and emasculated by university professors and liberal writers to mean peaceful 'progress'.”

In politics, this common prejudice finds its expression in the theory of reformist gradualism, where today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today. Sadly, human history in general, and the history of the 20th century in particular, provides precious little comfort for the supporters of this tranquillising view of the social process. History knows long periods of gradual change but this is by no means a continuous and smooth process. It is interrupted by all kinds of explosions and catastrophes: wars, economic crises, revolutions and counter-revolutions. To deny this is to deny what everyone knows to be true. So how do we regard these phenomena? As sudden, inexplicable outbreaks of collective madness? As accidental “deviations” from the gradualist “norm”? Or, on the contrary, are they to be seen as an integral part of the process of social development—not accidents but the necessary outcome of tensions and stresses that build up gradually and unseen within society and which, sooner or later, must force their way to the surface, just as the pressures that accumulate along a fault-line in the earth's crust result in an earthquake?

Any attempt to banish contradiction from nature, to smooth out its rough edges, to subject it to the neat rules of formal logic, as the gardeners at Versailles subjected rude nature to the rules of classical geometry, is doomed to fail. Such efforts may well have a soothing effect upon the nerves, but will prove to be utterly useless to arrive at an understanding of the real world. And what is true for inanimate and animate nature is also true for the history of human society itself, despite the stubborn attempts to demonstrate the contrary. The history of society reveals the selfsame tendencies—the inner contradictions that impel development; the rise and fall of different socioeconomic systems; the long periods of gradual “evolutionary” change, punctuated by sudden upheavals, wars and revolutions, which stand at the crossroads of every great historical development. Are such striking phenomena merely to be shrugged off as accidents, temporary and unfortunate deviations from the alleged evolutionary “norm”? Or irrefutable proof of the stupidity or inherent wickedness of human beings?

If this is the case, then all attempts to arrive at a rational understanding of human development must be abandoned. We are compelled to echo the opinion of Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire who described history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” But if, as we firmly believe, human history proceeds according to the same dialectical laws that we observe throughout nature (and why should the human race claim the unlikely “privilege” of being entirely exempt from objective laws of development?) then the pattern of human history for the first time begins to make sense. It can be explained. It can even—within certain limits—be predicted, although predictions of complex phenomena are not as straightforward as ones involving simple linear processes. This applies just as much to predicting an earthquake or the weather as it does to anticipating the movement of society. No one can say for certain when the city of Los Angeles will fall victim to a catastrophic earthquake, but one can predict with absolute certainty that such a thing will happen.

Despite the most strenuous efforts to deny the validity of dialectics, the latter always takes its revenge on its most hardened detractors. The conservative geological community has been compelled to accept continental drift, the birth and death of continents, which they once laughed out of court. Biologists have been compelled to accept that the old idea of evolution as a gradual, uninterrupted process of adaptation is one-sided and false; that evolution takes place through catastrophic qualitative leaps, in which death (extinction) becomes the precondition for birth (new species).

At every turn, the wealth of material furnished by the natural sciences compels scientists to adopt dialectical conclusions. However, they soon become uncomfortably aware of the potentially “subversive” implications of such ideas. It is at this point that they hasten to resort to all kinds of embarrassed disclaimers and subterfuges in order to cover up their tracks. The usual get-out is to protest ignorance concerning philosophy in general. Like Oscar Wilde's “love that dare not speak its name”, these authors who wax eloquent about everything under the sun, find themselves utterly unable to pronounce the words dialectical materialism. At best, they insist, in effect, that dialectical materialism is valid for their own narrow speciality but has no application to the broader field of science or (perish the thought!) to society at large.

It is surprising that even those proponents of the theory of chaos who come quite close to a dialectical position display a complete lack of knowledge about Marxism. Thus, Ian Stewart and Tim Poston could write in Analog (November 1981) the following lines:

“So the 'inexorable laws of physics' on which—for instance—Marx tried to model his laws of history, were never really there. If Newton could not predict the behaviour of three balls, could Marx predict that of three people? Any regularity in the behaviour of large assemblies of particles or people must be statistical, and that has quite a different philosophical taste.” 39

This is completely off the mark. Marx did not base his model of history on the laws of physics at all. The laws of social development must be derived from a painstaking study of society itself. Marx and Engels devoted the whole of their lives to such a study, based upon a colossal amount of carefully collected empirical data, as even the most superficial examination of the three volumes of Capital alone will reveal. Incidentally, both Marx and Engels were highly critical of mechanical determinism in general and Newton in particular. The attempt to establish some parallel between Marx's method and that of Newton and Laplace is without the slightest foundation.

The closer chaos and complexity theory moves to an examination of existing society, the greater is the potential for arriving at an understanding of the contradictions of capitalism:

“But in the United States, the ideal is maximum individual freedom—or, as [Brian] Arthur puts it, 'letting everybody be their own John Wayne and run around with guns.' However much that ideal is compromised in practice, it still holds mythic power.

“But increasing returns cut to the heart of that myth. If small chance events can lock you into any of several possible outcomes, then the outcome that's actually selected may not be the best. And that means that maximum individual freedom—and the free market—might not produce the best of all possible worlds. So by advocating increasing returns, Arthur was innocently treading into a minefield.” 40 (Brian Arthur is an economist and one of the theoreticians of complexity.)

Stephen Jay Gould, who has made an important contribution to current evolutionary theory, is one of the few Western scientists who has openly recognised the parallels between his theory of “punctuated equilibria” and dialectical materialism. In his book, The Panda's Thumb, he says the following:

“If gradualism is more a product of Western thought than a fact of nature, then we should consider alternative philosophies of change to enlarge our realm of constraining prejudices. In the Soviet Union, for example, scientists are trained with a very different philosophy of change—the so-called dialectical laws, reformulated by Engels from Hegel's philosophy. The dialectical laws are explicitly punctuational. They speak, for example, of the 'transformation of quantity into quality.' This may sound like mumbo jumbo, but it suggests that change occurs in large leaps following a slow accumulation of stresses that a system resists until it reaches the breaking point. Heat water and it eventually boils. Oppress the workers more and more and bring on the revolution. Eldredge and I were fascinated to learn that many Russian palaeontologists support a model similar to our punctuated equilibria.”

Palaeontology and anthropology are, after all, only separated by a very thin wall from the historical and social sciences, which have potentially dangerous political implications for the defenders of the status quo. As Engels pointed out, the nearer one gets to the social sciences, the less objective and the more reactionary they become. It is therefore encouraging that Stephen J. Gould has come quite close to a dialectical point of view, despite his obvious caution:

“Nonetheless, I will confess to a personal belief that a punctuational view may prove to map tempos of biological and geologic change more accurately and more often than any of its competitors—if only because complex systems in a steady state are both common and highly resistant to change.” 41

In the 19th century, Marx ironically pointed out that most of the natural scientists were “shamefaced materialists”. In the last half of the 20th century, we have a still greater paradox. Scientists who have never read a word of Marx or Hegel, have independently arrived at many of the ideas of dialectical materialism. We are firmly convinced that the future development of science will confirm the importance of the dialectical method, and that those who pioneered it will finally obtain the recognition which has been denied them.

Stalinist caricature

A serious obstacle in the path of many who approached the ideas of Marxism in the past was the caricature presented by Stalinism. This played a contradictory role. On the one hand, the tremendous successes of the nationalised planned economy in the Soviet Union powerfully attracted many workers and intellectuals in the West. Prominent scientists such as the celebrated biologist J.B.S. Haldane in Britain were drawn to Marxism, and began to apply it to their own fields with promising results. A large number of works appeared which attempted to explain the latest discoveries of science in a comprehensible language. The results were uneven, but this literature was infinitely preferable to the mystifying stuff produced for popular consumption today.

There is no doubt that the unprecedented advances of culture, education and science in Russia served as a point of reference not just for the international labour movement, but for the best of the intellectuals and scientists in the West. These achievements showed the potential of a nationalised planned economy, despite all the monstrous bureaucratic distortions that ultimately undermined it. They stand in stark contrast to the present situation. The fall of the Soviet Union, and the attempt to move in the direction of a “market economy” has produced a frightful collapse of the productive forces and culture. Overnight, a colossal ideological counter-offensive has been launched on a world scale against the idea of a planned economy, Marxism and socialism in general. The enemies of socialism have taken advantage of the crimes of Stalinism to attempt to blacken the name of Marxism. They aim to convince people that revolution does not pay and that, consequently, it is better to put up with the rule of the big banks and monopolies, accept mass unemployment and falling living standards, because, they say there is “no alternative”.

In reality, what failed in Russia was not socialism, but a bureaucratic caricature of socialism. A totalitarian and bureaucratic system is incompatible with a regime of nationalised planned economy, which as Leon Trotsky explained in 1936 needs democracy as the human body needs oxygen. Without the active and conscious participation of the population at all levels, without complete freedom of criticism, discussion and debate, it would inevitably lead to a nightmare of bureaucracy, corruption, red tape, bungling and mismanagement, which would undermine the basis of the planned economy in the end. This is precisely what happened in the former Soviet Union, as predicted by Marxists decades ago.

The totalitarian regime of Stalinism, with its inevitable companions, corruption, conformism and toadyism, had its most negative effects in the fields of science and the arts. Despite the enormous impulse given to education and culture by the October revolution and the nationalised planned economy that issued from it, the free development of science was held back by the suffocating bureaucratic regime. More than any other section of society, science and the arts need to develop in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, freedom to think, to speak, to explore, to make mistakes. In the absence of such conditions, creative thought will wither and die. Thus the USSR, with more scientists than America and Japan together (and they were good scientists), was unable to get the same results as in the West, and gradually fell behind in a whole series of fields.

One of the things that created all kinds of misconceptions about Marxism was the way that it was presented by the Stalinists. The ruling elite in Russia could not tolerate freedom of thought and criticism in any sphere. In the hands of the bureaucracy, Marxist philosophy (“diamat” as they called it) was twisted into a sterile dogma, or a variety of sophism used to justify all the twists and turns of the leadership. According to Lefebvre, at one point things got so bad that the Soviet army high command insisted that lessons on formal logic be put back on the curriculum of military academies because of the shameful confusion caused by the teachers of so-called diamat. At least lessons in logic would teach the cadets the ABCs of reasoning. This little incident is enough to expose the caricature nature of the “Marxism” of the Stalinists.

Under Stalin, scientists were forced to accept without question this rigid and lifeless caricature, as well as a number of false theories with no scientific basis that happened to suit the bureaucracy, such as Lysenko's “theory” of genetics. This discredited the idea of dialectical materialism in the scientific community to a certain extent, and prevented a fruitful and creative application of the method of dialectics to different fields of science, which would have made possible serious advances both in the sciences themselves and in the further elaboration of the philosophical ideas which Marx and Engels explained in outline, but left to future generations to develop and fill out in detail.

It is a condemnation of the Stalinist regime that, for more than six decades, with all the resources of the Soviet state at its disposal, the bureaucracy was unable to introduce a single original idea into the theoretical arsenal of Marxism. In spite of the tremendous advantages of the nationalised planned economy, which created a powerful industry and technology, they proved incapable of adding anything new to the discoveries of Karl Marx, working alone in the library of the British Museum.

Despite everything, the benefits of a planned economy permitted outstanding progress in many fields, a fact which the present avalanche of propaganda would like to conceal. Moreover, where scientists did apply the dialectical method to different fields, interesting results were obtained. This is shown precisely by chaos theory, one area in which Soviet scientists, undoubtedly influenced by dialectical materialism, were in advance of the West by at least two decades. It is not generally realised that the original research into chaos theory was done in the Soviet Union, and this gave an impulse to those Western scientists who were independently coming to the same conclusions, and whose ideas in turn stimulated the further development of Soviet research into chaos, as Gleick admits:

“The blossoming of chaos in the United States and Europe has inspired a huge body of parallel work in the Soviet Union; on the other hand, it also inspired considerable bewilderment, because much of the new science was not so new in Moscow. Soviet mathematicians and physicists had strong tradition in chaos research, dating back to the work of A.N. Kolmogorov in the fifties. Furthermore, they had a tradition of working together that had survived the divergence of mathematics and physics elsewhere.” 42

26. Quoted in Waldrop, M. Complexity, The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, p. 81. 

27. Lerner, E. The Big Bang Never Happened, p. 155. 

28. Gleick, J. op. cit., p. 115. 

29. Bohm, D. op. cit., p. 32. 

30. MESW, Vol. 3, pp. 339-340. 

31. Quoted in Waldrop, M. op. cit., p. 81. 

32. Quoted in Lerner, E. op. cit., p. 128. 

33. Engels, F. Anti-Dühring, p. 31. 

34. Engels, F.The Dialectics of Nature, pp. 185-6. 

35. Dobzhansky, T. Mankind Evolving, p. 138. 

36. Engels, F.Anti-Dühring, pp. 45-6. 

37. Engels, F. Anti-Dühring, p. 24. 

38. Hoffmann, B. op. cit., p. 210. 

39. Quoted in Stewart, I. op. cit., p. 40. 

40. Waldrop, M. op. cit., p. 48. 

41. Gould, S. The Panda's Thumb, pp. 153 and 154. 

42. Gleick, J. op. cit., p. 76. 

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