Socialist Alternative

Book Review: Marxism and the Philosophy of Science

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Marxists are primarily known for their concern with the development of human society and political struggle. As materialists, however, Marxists necessarily look to developments in science and new ways of understanding the material world. The Marxist interest in science entails both a search for a scientific understanding of the material forces that shape society, as well as the ways social forces shape our scientific understanding itself. Under capitalism, however, the Marxist interest in science hasn’t been accompanied by an embrace of Marxism by scientists. Capitalism portrays science as a purely objective phenomenon and considers any attempt at understanding the political implications of science to be an intrusion of ideology into the sphere of objective, scientific neutrality.

This distrustful attitude of scientists towards Marxism has been exacerbated by the legacy of Stalinism. In addition to waging a campaign of bureaucratic counter-revolutionary terror, Stalinism cracked down on significant scientific developments, dismissing genetics, modern physics, and important breakthroughs in psychology, while promoting pseudo-scientific ideas like Lysenkoism. All of this was done in the name of Marxism, which made it all the easier for capitalists to hold it up as a warning of the danger of letting politics interfere with science. Through this the forces of both Stalinism and capitalism served to bury a vibrant legacy of genuine Marxist thought concerning questions of science and the philosophy of science.

With this in mind, the recent republication of Helena Sheehan’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Science can only be welcomed. Originally written in 1985, but reprinted at the end of 2017, Sheehan’s book recounts a wide history of serious Marxist thought on science starting with Marx and Engels themselves, and going up to the mass workers’ movements of the 1930s and 1940s. In keeping with a dialectical conception of science, Marxist ideas aren’t presented as static but evolving through debate and experiment in the face of new scientific and political challenges. This is a history of revolutionaries grappling with the scientific revolutions of their day, of a flourishing of scientific development in post-revolutionary Russia, of the strangling of that development under Stalinist degeneration, and of a new wave of politicized scientists in the west coming to terms with the political implications of their work.

Sheehan reveals the philosophical outlook of Marxism, often termed “dialectical materialism” to be infinitely more vibrant than the Stalinist caricature that persists in the popular imagination. More importantly she reveals it to be far more vibrant than the views on science that dominate the capitalist world. Western, non-Marxist philosophy of science, has created its own historical lineage of figures like Mach, Carnap, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend. This lineage often featured philosophers dramatically overturning the over-simplistic conceptions of their predecessors, only to replace them with new over-simplistic conceptions of their own. As Sheehan points out “The trajectory of this tradition, from positivism to the current variety of postpositivist philosophies of science, has reflected the pressure of a complex reality upon conceptions too restricted to give an adequate account of it.”

The Marxist tradition, Sheehan points out, provides an alternate view of the history of science. Responding to the same “pressure of a complex reality” the Marxist dialectical approach proved much more resilient, as we’ll examine later.

When this book was first published in 1985, neoliberalism was in the midst of an ideological counter-revolution against socialist and Marxist ideas. But in the field of science, there was still a minority, including figures like Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins as well as the Science for the People movement, who kept fighting the good fight.

The republication of the book comes in a very different time period, one of rising support for socialist ideas, as well as rising discussion around the relation of science and politics. Donald Trump’s attacks on climate science provoked the March for Science, the largest demonstration of scientists in world history. Meanwhile political conflict has flared up within the scientific community as ideas of “race science” have made a comeback among on the far right. In this situation, a better understanding of Marxist views on science, as presented in this book, can be a valuable tool.

Marx, Engels, and Dialectical Materialism

The Marxist conception of philosophy of science began, of course, with Marx and Engels themselves. Sheehan puts these ideas in the context of the nineteenth-century thought they came out of. The previous century saw the enlightenment promise to do away with religious and idealist ideas once and for all with a thorough-going materialist worldview. “Idealism,” in the philosophical sense, refers to the approach that sees ideas or the spirit as the basis of reality, while “materialism” sees the natural universe as the basis. By the nineteenth century, materialism had run into hurdles, seeing a resurgence of idealist thought in the form of Hegel, who challenged the rigid, mechanical formulations of the enlightenment ideas. Marx and Engels came out of the Young Hegelian movement, which tried to more extensively engage in political struggle. And engaging in these struggles brought Marx and Engels back to materialism, but of a different kind than during the enlightenment.

As Marx and Engels threw themselves into the political struggles and revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century they sought, more than any of their political contemporaries, to understand the real-life social forces shaping those political struggles. They looked to the process of labor, the conscious human interaction with nature, and the relations of production, as the basis of those forces. Wider political and ideological questions couldn’t be separated from this interaction but rather had to be seen in terms of the labor and class relations in society. And changing society required understanding the way those classes come into conflict and how social relations break down and transform. This necessitated a materialist worldview applied to questions of history and politics, which had been absent in their Young Hegelian milieu.

Materialist ideas in science predate Marx and Engels by quite a bit, with forms of materialism going as far back as ancient Greece and being a significant part of the philosophy of the enlightenment in the eighteenth century. But the application of materialist methods for understanding the internal workings of society was a revolutionary contribution in more ways than one. Not only did it point to direct social and political revolution, it pointed to a different understanding of materialism itself. The materialism of the enlightenment philosophers was a highly mechanical conception, reducing nature and society to fixed objects either existing in stasis or confined to simple motion. The materialist conception of history put forward by Marx and Engels didn’t adhere to that approach.

This is where Marx and Engels brought in the dialectical ideas from their Young Hegelian upbringing. A dialectical approach to the universe saw objects, ideas, and other categories as dynamic and fluid. Things couldn’t be reduced to fixed categories, but had to be seen as a complex of contradictory processes, coming into being, impacting each other, and becoming transformed into other categories. This was Hegel’s approach, but Hegel saw these contradictions and transformations as taking place only within the world of ideas. From Marx and Engels’ materialist perspective, these contradictions and transformations are part of nature itself.

In the world of science, new discoveries were taking place that increasingly confirmed Marx and Engels’ dialectical worldview and calling into question the mechanical approach put forward by previous materialists. The discovery of geological time early in the nineteenth century, and the discovery of biological evolution in the middle of the century revealed the dialectical character of nature itself. If the Hegelians responded to these developments by eschewing materialism, many of the scientific thinkers of the time attempted to address the question through increased reductionism or increased fracturing of science into different specialties. Marx and Engels paid close attention to new scientific developments and, as scientific questions increasingly collided with political questions, Engels directly brought up this dialectical conception of nature.

Sheehan discusses three key works of Engels on the question: Anti-Dühring, The Dialectics of Nature, and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. The first of these was a polemic against Eugen Dühring, a briefly popular figure in the socialist movement, who put forward a crudely mechanical and schematic approach to science and politics. The Dialectics of Nature was an unfinished work, inspired by Marx’s own desire to write a work salvaging what was rational in Hegel’s thought. And Ludwig Feuerbach was a historical account of the philosophical road leading from Hegel to Marx.

In these works Engels grappled with a number of scientific questions of his day, from a dialectical perspective. He pointed to a number of the laws of development Hegel had put forward, such as the transformation of quantity into quality, and pointed out how they arise in nature and not simply in thought, as Hegel had put forward. He looked into how social conditions shaped scientific discovery. 

In addressing developments like Darwin’s ideas of evolution and natural selection, he made some contributions of his own, pointing to the role of labor in the evolution of consciousness. These ideas served both to challenge some of the crude “social Darwinist” ideas – which stated that capitalism and imperialism were a “natural” state of affairs, embodying the “struggle of the fittest” – while still defending the legitimacy of Darwinism against neo-Lamarckian ideas espoused by figures on the left like Dühring. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was an advocate of evolution predating Darwin who advocated the inheritance of acquired characteristics, rather than natural selection, as the basis for evolution. Dühring identified natural selection with “social Darwinist” ideas and turned back to Lamarck’s ideas on moral grounds. Ironically, when Stalin waged his war on genetics, he was actually putting forward the very neo-Lamarckian ideas Engels polemicized against.

Sheehan contrasts Engels favorably with a number of other philosophers of science who have more respectability in the bourgeois media. Many ideas attributed to twentieth century philosophers were formulated earlier by Engels and with much more nuance. This is seen in Engels’s critique of “positivism.” “Positivism” refers to the rejection of philosophy in favor of adopting an (often oversimplified) understanding of natural science as the basis for all theoretical and practical activity. The critique of the simplistic positivistic conception of scientific discovery, with its crude emphasis on induction, is often attributed to the reactionary “Cold-War Warrior” Karl Popper. But Engels already raised such criticisms long before Popper, and Popper only replaced one simplistic conception with another. Meanwhile, Engels put forward ideas of scientific revolutions and crises that are often attributed to Popper’s opponent, Thomas Kuhn. But Engels brought in a wider social dynamic behind his conception of scientific revolutions that Kuhn didn’t employ.

Sheehan also deals with some controversies that have developed in academic Marxist circles around the relation of Marx to Engels. Various academic trends, either adhering to a crude materialism or a rejection of materialism, have tried to attribute dialectical materialist ideas exclusively to Engels. Either Marx was a positivist and Engels smuggled in dialectics, or Marx was a Hegelian idealist and Engels smuggled in materialism. Since Marx’s published writings didn’t deal as extensively with science as Engels’, this allowed some leeway for these interpretations. But Sheehan clearly shows these ideas are unfounded, pointing to numerous instances of Marx explicitly defending materialist and dialectical conceptions of science.

Since Sheehan’s book was first published in 1985, even further evidence has come out challenging these academic Marxist misconceptions. Previously unpublished scientific notebooks of Marx’s have been re-discovered, with extensive attention given to questions of ecology and agricultural science. More recent writings by John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett, and Kohei Saito have revealed new dimensions of a dialectical approach to science in these writings. In addition, more is known about the role of Carl Schorlemmer, the “red chemist,” an organic chemist and Fellow of the Royal Society who collaborated closely with Marx and Engels and actively embraced a dialectical approach to science.

Given that new research, it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t appear in Sheehan’s book. One can imagine that if it had been written today, Sheehan would have a lot more to say on the topic.

The “Crises” in Marxism and Physics

As a worldview, Marxism was the product of clashes with other political trends on the left, from anarchism to utopian socialism to Blanquist putschism, and of ideological clashes with bourgeois economists and scientists. This is in contrast to more undialectical ideologies, which try to derive their worldview from first principles. Following Marx and Engels’ deaths, Marxism wasn’t just the thought of one or two individuals, but of a whole movement, organized in the Second International, modeled off of the International Workingman’s Association of the time of Marx and Engels.

The late 19th and early 20th century saw a prolonged period of stability for capitalism that provoked what was deemed a “crisis in Marxism.” A trend around Eduard Bernstein sought to ditch Marx’s revolutionary politics in favor of bringing about change solely through reforms. This debate took on a philosophical component as the reformists also relied on a neo-Kantian revival in popular philosophy. Meanwhile, another wing of the movement, centering around Alexander Bogdanov in Russia and Anton Pannekoek in the Netherlands, defended revolutionary politics from a crude, ultra-left, voluntaristic perspective, and appealed to a new wave of positivist philosophy around the physicist Ernst Mach.

The wider development of the neo-Kantian and Machian schools was less motivated by the “crisis in Marxism” and more by a concurrent “crisis in physics.” The Newtonian revolution in physics had exhausted itself, and new discoveries were poking holes in its foundations. The neo-Kantian movement reflected an increasing distrust in science and especially the possibility of scientific progress. Machism was an attempt at defending science by clearing away the problems of previous schools of positivism. Mach tried to build a “second wave of positivism” which downplayed the original positivists’ focus on scientific laws and objects in favor of the methods and processes of science. As with many undialectical approaches to science, it was able to point to legitimate problems with previous undialectical conceptions, only to replace them with new problems.

In the year 1905, two revolutionary events occurred. In Russia, the workers rose up against tsarism, setting up soviets, or workers’ councils, posing the possibility of overthrowing capitalism for the first time since the Paris Commune. The uprising was defeated, but it would prove to be a “dress rehearsal” preparing the Russian masses for the successful revolution of 1917. At the same time, Albert Einstein began a revolution in physics with his discovery of the theories of special and general relativity. These developments pointed the way to resolving both the “crisis in Marxism” and the “crisis in physics.” But it would take time.

Sheehan goes over the various debates within the Second International and comes out with a critical view of many of the leaders of the International for their failure to adequately address the scientific questions. To varying degrees, most of the leading theoreticians of the International, from Karl Kautsky to Paul Lafargue to the Austro-Marxists, sought to reduce the scope of Marxism, either to just economics, or just history. Questions of science and philosophy were treated as private matters. So while Kautsky critiqued Bernstein for his political positions, he argued that Bernstein’s philosophical views were still compatible with Marxism.

Not all of the thinkers of the Second International held that view. Joseph Dietzgen and Antonio Labriola took a more serious approach to philosophy. Most importantly, Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, took the philosophical questions very seriously, and he and the resulting Russian Marxist movement would make the most thorough-going critiques of these new philosophical trends.

In their own ways, neo-Kantianism and Machism posed a challenge to materialism primarily on the plane of epistemology: the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge. A materialist conception would hold that our knowledge of the outside world in some way reflects or corresponds to material reality. The seeming “crisis in physics” revealed that a lot of previously accepted knowledge of physics didn’t correspond to reality. But the solutions posed by neo-Kantianism and Machism only added new problems.

The neo-Kantians argued that there was a rigid separation between the phenomenon, the thing as it appears, and the noumenon, the thing in itself. With this rigid separation between perception and reality, the discovery of truth was confined to “pure reason” and universal principles disconnected from experience. The scientific understanding of society was rejected and socialism, if defended at all, had to be seen as a “moral imperative.” 

The Machians took the opposite approach to the neo-Kantians. They saw perception and reality as identical and dismissed as metaphysics the very idea of any form of reality existing beyond the realm of perception. When scientists were first coming to terms with the limitations of Newtonian mechanics, Mach’s ideas held a certain appeal. But the more relativity and quantum physics were formalized and standardized, the less use Machism had, and this sort of subjective idealism has increasingly been associated with anti-scientific philosophies like postmodernism.

Sheehan points out that Plekhanov, and many other leaders of the Russian Marxist movement, took thorough philosophical aim at these ideas. But they generally avoided taking this philosophical debate into the “crisis in physics” itself. The main exception to this was Lenin, in his 1909 book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. This was a response to the Machian ideas of Bogdanov, who was playing an ultra-left role within Lenin’s Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic and Labor Party. Bogdanov had failed to come to terms with the defeat of the 1905 revolution and was increasingly pushing for adventuristic tactics to will the revolution back into existence, backing this up with appeals to Mach’s ideas. Even though Lenin wasn’t a scientist, he was forced to take up the debates in the scientific community as they had spilled over into politics.

Materialism and Empirio-Criticism argues that, in contrast to the claims of Mach, material reality does, in fact, exist outside of direct perception. The problem wasn’t with materialist epistemology, but with an undialectical, metaphysical materialism, that conflated an era’s conception of reality with reality in general. Due to the nature of dialectics, material reality was in flux, and our ideas of reality were only partial reflections. This open-ended conception meant new discoveries would be made that would require updating our understanding of how material reality operated, but didn’t negate the existence of objective reality or our ability to understand it.

There are many limitations of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and it remains a deeper cut of Lenin’s oeuvre. The revolution in physics was only in the process of being completed, and the book still references things like the luminiferous ether, which was thrown out by the development of relativity theory, but was still being included in the textbooks of the time. Meanwhile quantum physics wouldn’t be formalized until after Lenin’s death, so it’s not dealt with in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism at all. Lenin also makes some unnecessary concessions to the positivists he’s debating with, for instance overstating the role of passive perception in obtaining knowledge at the expense of more active experience. But it is has stood the test of time much more so than the neo-Kantian and Machist ideas he was challenged with.

After Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union, many of the ideas Lenin put forward in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism would be distorted beyond recognition. Lenin was fundamentally defending the new scientific ideas while challenging the bad philosophical views that had accompanied them. Stalin, on the other hand, conflated the scientific ideas with the philosophical ideas, and insisted that relativity and quantum physics themselves were bourgeois perversions. Cold War anti-Communists tended to take Stalin at his word when he claimed to be espousing Lenin’s views, and this was used to levy a number of unfounded attacks on Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Lenin’s real contribution was buried under these twin distortions. And it wasn’t the only Marxist contribution to science to be buried by Stalinism and Cold War anti-Communism.

Science After October

In contrast to the reputation set by Stalin, the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution saw a widening of discussion and debate on scientific and philosophical thought. The Bolsheviks made conscious efforts to win scientists to the revolution. While Lenin and Trotsky rejected many of the bourgeois caricatures of science, they likewise rejected the idea that revolutionaries could simply conjure up their own “proletarian science.” Dialectical materialism presupposes an open-ended conception of science, and Lenin and Trotsky specifically looked to “militant materialist” natural scientists, whether Marxist or not, to develop a more thorough-going dialectical materialism.

The Bolshevik government set up a number of scientific institutions and journals. And they consciously cultivated a wide freedom of discussion on scientific and philosophical matters. Many of the Machians who Lenin had harshly polemicized against were given prominent positions in the scientific institutions. And a wide variety of philosophical schools popped up, many at odds with Marxist views. Sheehan describes these schools, giving focus on the two most prominent: the mechanists and the Deborinites.

The mechanist school developed a wide following among natural scientists attracted to the Russian Revolution. Diverging wildly from a traditional Marxist conception, they adopted a strong positivist approach that saw the development of science as a replacement for all philosophy, including dialectical materialism. While among the most ultra-left figures in combating religious superstitions that remained in the Soviet Union, they tended to be more conservative when it came to the prejudices that existed within the scientific community itself.

Traditionally a “mechanical” or “mechanistic” approach is presented as the opposite of a dialectical approach. And in many ways, the mechanist school advocated the rigid fixed categories that Hegel and Marx had rebelled against. The Soviet mechanist school didn’t reject dialectics as wrong per se. Rather they saw scientific development as going in a more dialectical direction to the point where new understandings of the disturbance and re-establishment of equilibrium could subsume notions of dialectical contradiction. The mechanistic philosopher I.I. Skortsov-Stepanov argued that “the dialectical understanding of nature takes concrete form precisely as the mechanical understanding.” However many of these new scientific ideas would themselves become ossified and overturned in later scientific revolutions, and dialectics still remains necessary to understand the development of science.

The other major scientific school centered around the figure of Abram Deborin. Deborin was a Menshevik and a disciple of Plekhanov who broke with the Mensheviks to support the Russian Revolution. He was well-versed in Marxist philosophy and fully embraced a dialectical approach. But he drew more of his support from professional philosophers than natural scientists, and his school was often prone to less rigorous and more abstract arguments. The debate between the mechanists and Deborinites grew throughout the 1920s.

An important component of this debate concerned the relation of social and political transformation to science. The mechanists, while seeing science as playing a role in the material development of society, saw science itself as a neutral and objective study, unshaped by social change. The Deborinites had a clearer view of the way that different social systems shape scientific discovery. But they also saw science as exclusively part of the “ideological superstructure” in society. But science is a complicated process that can’t fit into one distinct role. The process of scientific research and discovery is shaped by both the “economic base” and the “ideological superstructure,” but science itself studies phenomena in nature that have their own laws, operating independently of both.

In spite of, or because of, these debates, Soviet science was able to see serious advancements that culminated in the impact of the Soviet delegation at the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology held in London in 1931. The delegation, headed by Nikolai Bukharin, brought thinkers from all sides in the debates, and made the case for the Marxist contribution to science. The conference had a profound effect on many radical British scientists in the 1930s. And the delegation’s documents, published under the title Science at the Crossroads, would provide inspiration for a later generation of radical scientists in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But much of the progress represented at this conference would be squelched under the bureaucratic counter-revolution already in progress.

Stalin’s Counter-Revolution in Science

As vibrant scientific debates were taking place throughout Soviet society, another, much less vibrant, “debate” was taking place in Soviet political life. The isolation of the Soviet Union lead to the consolidation of an increasingly parasitic bureaucracy centered around the figure of Joseph Stalin. After consolidating a bureaucratic counter-revolutionary dictatorship, Stalin proceeded to carry out a counter-revolution in the sphere of science. The Bolsheviks’ encouragement of scientific debate was put to an end. The bureaucracy now enshrined specific scientific principles, often of dubious merit. Defenders of legitimate scientific discoveries were thrown into gulags or executed. And all of this was done in the name of “Marxism.” 

During the late 1920s, Stalin confined his purge to his immediate political opponents among the Bolsheviks, first lining up with Bukharin to crush Trotsky’s Left Opposition, and then turning his guns on Bukharin, who formed his own Right Opposition. However, it was still possible to carry on debate about scientific and philosophical questions, provided they were sufficiently detached from the main political disputes. But by the ‘30s, the counter-revolution had expanded to all spheres of Soviet political life, science included. The two wings of the scientific debates of the ‘20s were arbitrarily identified with different opposition groupings, with the mechanists being identified with Bukharin, and the Deborinites with Trotsky. Those opposition groupings were then falsely charged with being fascist agents as part of an increasingly wild official conspiracy theory.

Purges in the field of psychology put a premature halt to the pioneering work of Lev Vygotsky. In the field of physics, even though Lenin had explicitly defended the compatibility of relativity theory with dialectical materialism, the Stalinist bureaucracy insisted otherwise. And in biology, even though Engels expressly defended Darwinian natural selection against the neo-Lamarckianism of Dühring, the Stalinists propped up the neo-Lamarckian agronomist Trofim Lysenko as the face of Soviet Science.

Lysenko rejected the legitimacy of genetics and argued that inheritance of acquired characteristics could allow crops to be rapidly bred to grow in environments they weren’t suited for. The very science of genetics was denounced as bourgeois ideology. Biologists who opposed Lyenkoism, such as Israel Agol and Max Levin were arrested and shot under charges of Trotskyism. Lysenkoism continued into the ‘40s using more and more dubious scientific methods and claiming increasingly implausible results. During the Cold War, anti-Communists would point to the “Lysenko affair” in an attempt to dismiss Marxism as a whole.

The Stalinist bureaucracy, however, was prone to numerous zigzags, both political and philosophical. During World War II, the Soviet military relied on a serious approach to science, at least in certain fields. This forced the bureaucracy to eventually embrace the new physics, and most Soviet physicists were spared from the purges. And while Stalin put forward a caricature of dialectics in the ‘30s, the nationalist promotion of anti-German sentiments during the war led Stalin to downgrade dialectics altogether, holding up formal logic so that “Soviet men may learn to think effectively” while dismissing Hegel as a mere “aristocratic reaction to the French Revolution.”

Sheehan’s history only goes up to 1948, so it doesn’t cover what happened to Soviet science after then. In spite of Stalin’s political and scientific counter-revolution, Soviet science nonetheless made enormous contributions after World War II. A key event highlighting was the launching of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into orbit in 1957. This was a huge shock to U.S. imperialism which led to a massive investment in the race to get to the moon as well as more investment in science education generally.

The successes of Soviet science stemmed from the fact that, in spite of its bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet Union maintained a planned economy. Science education and research was seen as a priority and received significant state support. The planned economy allowed Russia to rapidly develop from a mostly illiterate semi-feudal country under Tsarism, to a world leader in science and mathematics under the Soviet Union. However, this success was hampered by the lack of a dialectical materialist approach to science. This, and the lack of democracy within the planned economy, caused Soviet science to replicate some of the problems of capitalist science. This was most stark in the case of the environment. The Soviet bureaucracy’s refusal to consider the environmental impact of the forced pace of industrialization resulted in Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the ecosystem collapse of the Aral sea.

Sheehan does a good job at outlining the decline in scientific thought that took place under Stalin. But she falters when trying to understand how it happened. She suggests that, had Trotsky or Bukharin succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin, things would have turned out for the better. In her new afterword to the current edition of the book, she more explicitly aligns herself with Bukharin rather than Trotsky. While she correctly rejects the Stalinists’ false identification of Trotsky with Deborinism, she makes her own strained attempt to identify him with the mechanist school. And she makes no attempt to understand Trotsky’s theory of the Thermidorean counter-revolution in Soviet politics, which is vital to understanding the social basis of the counter-revolution in Soviet science.

Unlike Trotsky, Sheehan rejects the notion of a “river of blood” separating Stalinism from genuine Bolshevism. This means that Sheehan is at times both overcritical of Lenin and undercritical of Stalin. At one point she blames “aspects of Bolshevik revolutionary traditions” such as “an insurrectionist mentality, an intolerance towards those who opposed them in good faith, a tendency to subordinate means to ends.” And she sometimes implies that the harsh tone Lenin used in some of his polemics facilitated Stalinism. But at other times, she seems to be making excuses for Stalinism, with comments like “To a degree, perhaps, it was the enormity of their efforts that dictated the enormity of their mistakes. Those who dare little make fewer mistakes and those who dare much make many.”

The Russian Revolution had overthrown capitalism and landlordism, establishing a planned economy and workers’ democracy. The Stalinist bureaucracy was able to develop because of the isolation of the Revolution, but soon crystalized into a social force in its own right. The planned economy remained, and many of the problems with science under capitalism were overcome. But science under Stalinism was shaped in the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy just as science under capitalism is shaped by the interests of the capitalist class. The bureaucracy relied on scientific development when it was directly necessary to developing the productive forces. This resulted in a massive expansion of scientific education in the Soviet Union rivalling the United States. But the numerous bureaucratic zigzags and accompanying purges saw some of the worst pseudo-scientific excesses being peddled in the name of Marxism.

International Debates

The positive impact of the Russian Revolution and the negative impact of the Stalinist counter-revolution weren’t confined to the Soviet Union itself. The Russian Revolution spurred the formation of the Communist International in 1919, bringing revolutionary Marxism to a wider international audience. Under Stalinism, however, this institution was converted into an arm of Soviet foreign policy. Outside the Soviet Union, however, it was still possible for independent Marxist forces to challenge the Stalinist line. But not all of these forces were equal.

Academic trends in Marxism developed that rejected the Stalinist caricatures of science. But these trends tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater, dismissing any role for Marxism in scientific understanding. In Europe, trends associated with Karl Korsch, György Lukács, and the “left communists” – who Lenin polemicized against – launched a neo-Hegelian revival, championing dialectics, but rejecting the more materialist aspects of Marxist thought. In America, a group of academics independent of the Communist International formed around Max Eastman and Sidney Hook, which sought to meld Marxist politics with the pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey. These philosophers were very much in favor of science, but saw dialectics as a mystical hangover from Hegel that had to be discarded for Marxism to be truly scientific.

From opposite directions, these two academic trends converged on a hostility to Friedrich Engels, especially his Dialectics of Nature. Hook argued that Marx was abandoning the dialectics of his youth and moving towards pragmatism, but that Engels insisted on smuggling it back in. Lukács, on the other hand, argued that Engels failed to truly grasp Marx’s dialectics by trying to smuggle in natural science, which Lukács identified with positivism. These diametrically opposed critiques of Engels had an unfortunate impact on later generations of academic Marxism, where Marx was twisted into being an advocate of whatever philosophical fad was popular at the time, while Engels was charged with smuggling in whatever aspects of Marxism were at odds with that philosophical fad. 

But there were others, like Trotsky, who challenged the Stalinist distortions of dialectical materialism, while defending genuine dialectical materialism from the attacks of the academics. By 1940 the conflict between the Trotskyists and the American pragmatist Marxists featured in an open conflict within the Trotskyist movement.

Sheehan mentions Trotsky’s defense of genuine dialectical materialism, and credits other Trotskyist philosophers like George Novack and Pierre Naville for their contributions. But her coverage of these debates is fairly skimpy. Her coverage of the debates in Europe is much more fruitful, and brings up an often-ignored flourishing of Marxism among scientists in 1930s Britain that made significant contributions to advancing a dialectical approach to science.

At the 1931 presentation of Soviet scientists at the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London, the most prominent figure to take inspiration from this was J.D. Bernal, a pioneer in X-ray crystallography and molecular biology. He became famous for his writings on the history of science. Bernal stressed the powerful boost given to science by the rise of capitalism. But the very scientific revolution unleashed by capitalism had begun to outgrow capitalism. In Bernal’s Britain, scientific research was being deprived of funding under the impact of the depression. In neighboring Germany, science had been converted into a tool of Nazi barbarism. And, in spite of the scientific progress of capitalism, pseudoscience and anti-science ideas continue to proliferate to this day. Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism would allow science to reach its full potential.

Sheehan also points to the figures of J.B.S. Haldane and Christopher Cauldwell. Haldane was a biologist who became acquainted with Marxist philosophy during a visit to the Soviet Union. Much of his work continued in the tradition of Engels’ Dialectics of Nature but from the perspective of a full-time scientist. Along with the Soviet scientist A.I. Oparin, he formulated the Oparin-Haldane thesis concerning the origin of life. This thesis held that the early earth developed a “prebiotic soup” of organic compounds that could allow life to come into being given an appropriate energy source. As this new life dominated the earth, they altered their environment, causing the prebiotic soup to give way to the environment we’re more familiar with. This is now a commonly accepted thesis that was one of the first contributions to science resulting from a conscious application of dialectical materialism, rather than “unconscious dialectics.”

Cauldwell, unlike Bernal and Haldane, wasn’t a research scientist, instead working as a technical editor for an aeronautics journal. But he took a wide interest all manner of science, art and Marxism. He put forward a unified critique of a wide range of seemingly contradictory bourgeois cultural and philosophical ideas. He described a growing separation of science and philosophy, with science devolving into a crude positivism, and philosophy being subsumed into anti-science mysticism. The controversies about the “crisis in physics” were a consequence of new scientific discoveries being filtered through these inadequate bourgeois ideas. And, in contrast to the Stalinists, he pointed out how embracing the new developments in physics was not only compatible with dialectical materialism, but easier to grasp from a dialectical perspective.  

Unlike Trotsky, this school of British Marxist scientists never made a decisive break with Stalinism. Their philosophical views were at odds with official Stalinist principles and more in touch with genuine Marxism. But organizationally, they remained affiliated to the Communist Party. This caused some mental gymnastics when confronted with the reality of Stalinism. When engaging in the scientific debates in British society, they were all willing to staunchly defend the legitimacy of genetics against the Lysenkoist distortions. But when confronted with the Soviet suppression of critics of Lysenkoism, they tended to make awkward excuses to avoid taking a stand. And, like Sheehan herself, they lacked Trotsky’s clear understanding of what was actually going on in the Soviet Union. Nonetheless they represented some of the first instances of scientists actively fusing their knowledge in both science and Marxism.

Relevance Today

Sheehan’s History ends in 1948. This date was picked because it served as a hundredth anniversary of the publishing of the Communist Manifesto, making it a centenary of Marxism in a sense. It also marked the consolidation of the Cold War and the entrenchment of the Stalinist distortions of science. In the west, academic Marxism also saw its own entrenchment, with the Lukács-inspired hostility to science burying the legacy of figures like Bernal, Haldane, and Cauldwell. And establishment academia in the west was able to consolidate a full-scale rejection of Marxism in science.

Even without the benefit of Marxist philosophy, science has continued to make breakthrough after breakthrough under capitalism. But while most scientists don’t consciously adopt a dialectical philosophy, modern science can’t function without dialectics. As such the achievements of science under capitalism remain a product of unconscious dialectics. The resolution of the “crisis of physics” could only be accomplished through a dialectical interpenetration of opposites. Highly successful scientific theories like quantum physics, plate tectonics, and the concept of an ecosystem are a confirmation of the Marxist approach.

But capitalism has still proved unable to resolve its contradictions, including in the field of science. In 1969, a new wave of radical scientists was born under the name Science for the People. Science for the People revived interest in Bernal, Haldane, and Cauldwell, while updating their views for the political and scientific problems of a new period of struggle. This produced a revival of Marxism in science, around figures such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, and Stephen Rose. Scientific developments such as Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium show what can be achieved through conscious dialectics in science.

The collapse of Stalinism and the neo-liberal counter-revolution set Marxism back once again. But people are once more taking to struggle. And science has become much more intertwined with these struggles. Capitalism’s role in the global climate crisis reveals more sharply the need for a socialist approach to science. Donald Trump’s attacks on science forced scientists to take to the streets in record numbers. Previously accepted undialectical caricatures of science, like biological determinism, have increasingly been wielded as weapons of the far-right. And the adjunctification of academia has seen scientists increasingly entering the ranks of the proletariat and engaging in labor struggles more traditionally associated with the Marxist movement.

For scientists moving into struggle, or for any activists looking into the political and philosophical implications of their struggles in the field of science, Helena Sheehan’s history provides a useful guide. 

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