Marxist Encounters with Science
Marxism has always been marketed by Marxists as a scientific method of understanding society. According to Marxist indoctrination, just as Darwin discovered the mechanism of organic evolution, so did Marx discover the scientific mechanism of societal evolution. However, a closer look at the way Marxist dogma and Marxist states approach science reveals that Marxism encounters science in the same way a closed Abrahamic theology encounters science.
The problem of Marxist encounters with science, like other problematic aspects of Marxism, starts with its founding fathers Marx and Engels. It was a great unifying vision that Karl Marx had unveiled as early as 1844, and it was:
Natural sciences will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science, there will be one science.
Thus, the nascent vision that Marx had for his theory as an all encompassing cosmological vision was as religious a vision as that of any zealot’s incorporation of physical sciences with ‘the science of man,’ which, of course, would be Marxism.
Karl Marx published the first volume of his magnum opus, ‘Das Kapital,’ in 1867 eight years after Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859). Marx was initially enthralled by Darwin. In 1861 Marx wrote:
Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.
However, Marx gradually became disillusioned with Darwin. By June 1862 he wrote to Engels:
I’m amused that Darwin, at whom I’ve been taking another look, should say that he also applies the ‘Malthusian’ theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr Malthus’s case the whole thing didn’t lie in its not being applied to plants and animals, but only — with its geometric progression — to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.
By 1866, Marx had come to the conclusion that Darwin had been superseded by Pierre Trémaux, a French orientalist and architect with a lot ethnographic studies to his credit. Marx now wrote:
A very important work which I shall send on to you (but on condition that you send it back, as it is not my property) as soon as I have made the necessary notes, is: ‘P. Trémaux, Origine et Transformations de l’Homme et des autres Êtres, Paris 1865. In spite of all the shortcomings that I have noted, it represents a very significant advance over Darwin. …In its historical and political applications far more significant and pregnant than Darwin. For certain questions, such as nationality, etc., only here has a basis in nature been found. E.g., he corrects the Pole Duchinski, whose version of the geological differences between Russia and the Western Slav lands he does incidentally confirm, by saying not that the Russians are Tartars rather than Slavs, etc., as the latter believes, but that on the surface-formation predominant in Russia the Slav has been Tartarised and Mongolised; likewise (he spent a long time in Africa) he shows that the common negro type is only a degeneration of a far higher one.
What we see here in the initial rumblings of Marx against Darwin is not the result of a personal shortcoming of understanding exhibited by Marx – it shall become an abiding basic nature of Marxism. Like any closed theological system, Marxism wants science to be a hand maiden of theory – ‘the Theory’. It has specific preferences towards and bias against different hypotheses, not based on observed facts but based on the proximity of a hypothesis to ‘Theory’. A scientific theory aligned with the Marxist worldview should be promoted and that which is perceived as going against the Marxist creed should be opposed, and where Marxists have state power should be suppressed. This is what happened to Science in one of the darkest histories of persecution against science – not in the medieval dark ages, but in the twentieth century and with much more efficiency than any of the Church-run inquisitions.
Owing to the over-arching nature of the ‘Theory’ which sought to incorporate physical science with Marxism, Marxist theoreticians, starting from Engels, have had an abiding interest in the advancements of physical sciences. This, in itself, is neither good nor bad. But the problem is that what Marxists have is a closed system of dialectical materialism and they want the nature to fall in line with their ‘Theory’.
By 1905, Marxism had become a fashionable ‘ism’ among an influential section of Western socialists and some Russian political exiles, and Marx and Engels were already safely dead (and therefore immortal). It was against this backdrop that a paradigm shift had been brewing in physics for more than a decade occurred. In the words of Helge Kragh, historian of science:
The new physics that arose in the early years of the twentieth century was not a revolt against a petrified Newtonian worldview, something analogous to the revolt of Galileo against Aristotelianism. By 1905, the mechanical worldview had been under attack for more than a decade, and for this reason alone, there never was much of a clash between Einstein and Newton.
One of those Russian political exiles was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. He was viewing with increased contempt the way in which physics was moving away from what he perceived as the theoretical framework of dialectical materialism. By 1908 he brought out a book titled “Materialism and Empirio-criticism”. In this book Lenin gives his verdicts on those scientists and philosophers of science like Bogdanov, Wilhelm Ostwald, Poincaré, Le Rey and Berman. It would be a good exercise to see the dogmatic judgments Lenin makes on some of the scientists and philosophers of science of that period and their relevance to the history and philosophy of science subsequently.
Pierre Duhem was a physicist and a philosopher of science. In his book “The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory”, he considered the laws of physics as “neither true nor false but approximate” because they are “symbolic” picturing the reality “in a more or less precise, a more or less detailed manner.” To Lenin this statement “contains the beginning of the falsity. However, the later developments in physics would reveal that Duhem was actually probing into the heart of a problem that physicists would debate passionately in the coming decades. For example, Louis de Broglie, one of the founding fathers of the new Physics and famous for his equation of particle-wavelength, evaluated the work of Duhem as, “a beautiful and great work where physicists of today can still find numerous topics worthy of reflection and study.”
The focus of Lenin’s contemptuous attack was the work of physicist-philosopher, Ernst Mach. Mach called his philosophical method universal phenomenology. He considered the laws of physics as purely descriptive. Between two hypotheses that explain the same facts, the one that is economical should be chosen. Mach considered the laws of nature not as objective forces but summaries of human experience expressed economically. This economical principle, in turn, is based on a biological goal of working with minimum loss of energy. In other words, data derived from human sensory experiences are organized into hypotheses and those which are economical in terms of physical energy expenditure get selected. Naturally Mach’s philosophy of science had attracted many young Marxists then. But there was an irreconcilable point of difference. Suzanne Gieser explains:
Historical materialism was, however, so firmly based on nineteenth century ‘concretism’ that in the end it could not accept Mach’s emphasis on human experience as the foundation of science. In consequence, Lenin accused Mach of ‘idealistic solipsism’ because Mach made sensory impressions and not objective matter the basis of fact.
Lenin was so bitter about Mach that he employs a vivid, emotional religious imagery against the scientist:
But this is all sheer obscurantism, out-and-out reaction. To regard atoms, molecules, electrons, etc., as an approximately true reflection in our mind of the objectively real movement of matter is equivalent to believing in an elephant upon which the world rests! … The philosophy of the scientist Mach is to science what the kiss of the Christian Judas was to Christ. Mach likewise betrays science into the hands of fideism by virtually deserting to the camp of philosophical idealism. Mach’s renunciation of natural-scientific materialism is a reactionary phenomenon in every respect.
The subtle and almost subliminal juxtaposition of an oriental stereotype of a primitive worldview against a romantic theological imagery of Christendom can also be noticed here. However, the progress of science shows how exactly those aspects of Mach’s philosophy of science that came under the most bitter criticism from Lenin helped in the unfolding of one of the greatest achievements of modern physics.
A.V. Vasil’ev was a mathematician at Kazan University. His book series, ‘New Ideas in Mathematics,” when translated from Russian into English carried an introduction by Bertrand Russell. Alexander Vucinich, an eminent historian of Russian science, explains how Vasil’ev discovered the Machian influence on the development of Einstein’s theory of relativity:
Scrupulously and not without enthusiasm, Vasil’ev looked closer into Einstein’s indebtedness to Mach. From Mach, Einstein had received a solid grounding in epistemological arguments in favor of a fusion of physics and geometry as a unitary system of scientific operation, and, in general, of the “anthropomorphic” -or subjective- nature of the reality physicists considered their main target of inquiry. Vasil’ev was particularly impressed with Mach’s denial of any other reality apart from our sensations, an idea elaborated by a long line of philosophers. That idea, in his view, made a marked impression on Einstein who linked it with his construction of a relativistic approach to physical reality.
Perhaps physicists and historians of science world over consider the transition period of Newtonian physics to new physics a period of great renaissance but for Lenin, this period was one of “a temporary deflection, a transitory period of sickness in the history of science, an ailment of growth.” More importantly, Lenin gave specific instructions as to the direction in which science should be made to progress:
…One school of natural scientists in one branch of natural science has slid into a reactionary philosophy, being unable to rise directly and at once from metaphysical materialism to dialectical materialism. This step is being made, and will be made, by modern physics; but it is making for the only true method and the only true philosophy of natural science not directly, but by zigzags, not consciously but instinctively, not clearly perceiving its ‘final goal’, but drawing closer to it gropingly, hesitatingly, and sometimes even with its back turned to it.
Once science is turned into the handmaiden of Theory, who shall make the scientists come to the ‘only true philosophy of nature’ except the theoretician? And how can a theoretician of the Theory wield that power if the state is not Marxist?
What is without state power a mere fulmination against the progress of science shall become a powerful inquisition-like drive when Marxism captures state power. And here are the seeds laid down by none other than Lenin.
If Marx envisioned Marxism as a holistic social science integrated with physical sciences, by 1913 Lenin presented Marxism in rapturous, religious glory rich in Euro-centrism:
The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. It is comprehensive and harmonious, and provides men with an integral world outlook irreconcilable with any form of superstition, reaction or defence of bourgeois oppression. It is the legitimate successor to the best that man produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.
Marxism thus differs from other philosophical systems in not just being rooted in materialism, but in considering itself true and omnipotent and rejecting anything its adherents perceive as contrary to it, as reactionary, superstitious, or a defence of bourgeois oppression. It is in this aspect that Marxism is simultaneously dangerously similar to and many times more efficient than medieval Christendom.
When Leninists captured power in Russia and established the Bolshevik state, scientific establishment came under the control of Marxist theoreticians. Historian of science Alexander Vucinich explains the initial problem Soviets had with Einstein:
Marxist philosophers were the most active – and the most inconsistent- interpreters of Einstein’s theory. Much of their uncertainty stemmed from Lenin’s warning that the modern revolution in physics was not only a great leap in man’s incessant effort to unlock the mysteries of nature, but also an enticing invitation to physical idealism. As defined by Lenin, physical idealism included all philosophical orientations in modern physics that refused to view matter as the primary substratum of physical reality, emphasized the subjective origins of scientific knowledge, and challenged the effectiveness of causality as the basic explanatory principle in science….
A few scientists, professing outwardly to be Marxists, did try to salvage Einstein out of being branded as an idealist heretic in the new Marxist theocracy. But shrill voices had the official blessings of Marxist high priests. ‘Materialism and empirio-criticism’ penned by Lenin in 1908 had become, in the 1920s to Marxist academic censorship of USSR, what the Malleus Maleficarum was to the medieval Church.
Two Marxist theoreticians who waged the war against Einstein were A.K.Timiriazev and A.A.Maksimov. Timiriazev was the most influential scientist in the Communist Academy of the Social Sciences and the most active member of the editorial board of the Marxist theoretical journal, Under the Banner of Marxism.
According to Timiriazev, Einstein’s theory opposed ontological materialism and epistemological objectivism. He found Einstein’s theories “at times hailed by the world press” falling “far below the norm” and “a long way from adequate empirical verification”
Timiriazev’s article on Einstein filled Lenin with “a hope that the journal will succeed in effecting an alliance” “with those modern natural scientists who incline towards materialism and are not afraid to defend and preach it as against the modish philosophical wanderings into idealism and skepticism which are prevalent in so-called educated society.”
The encouragement from Lenin made Timiriazev’s voice get even shriller that, by the mid-1920s, he sarcastically denied in a public meeting having suggested that Einstein be shot.
In 1924, Lenin died and Stalin came to power.