The history of science and its lessons for socialists today



I am a scientist by profession. As a scientist and a socialist I am continually exasperated by those who, whilst applying a strictly evidence based approach to certain aspects of their lives, are happy to abandon empiricism when it comes to politics says Colin Piper.


I think the history of science is full of lessons for us today as we try and build a new left movement and I would like to share some with you now.


I’m sure most comrades are broadly familiar with the story of Copernicus. He was a 16th century Polish monk who realised that the evidence pointed to a Universe that had the Sun at its centre and not the Earth. Copernicus correctly anticipated the reaction this idea would get from the established church and was justifiably scared, he therefore delayed publication of his book until just before his death. His ideas were later taken up by the Italian Galileo who was charged with heresy in 1633 and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.


The heliocentric model of the Solar System had in fact been proposed in the 3rd century B.C. but did not become widely accepted until the late 1600’s and not by the church for another hundred years. In short, it took two thousand years for an idea which we now know to be true to be universally acknowledged as the truth.


In 1912 the German meteorologist and polar explorer Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift. He went to West Africa and Brazil and found compelling evidence that the two had indeed been joined together at one time. He was universally dismissed as “a nutter” (to quote a post on this site describing me and other signatories to the Socialist Platform). Fifty years after his death incontrovertible evidence was found that proved he was correct after all.


Charles Darwin was another scientist who was acutely aware of the opprobrium his ideas would attract and he too delayed publication of his work as a result. As a scientist I find it interesting that, even today, Darwin’s theories remain one of the most contentious of scientific ideas despite actually being based on everyday experience and observation and backed by overwhelming evidence.


Darwin’s theory is essentially based on three observations that are non-controversial to any farmer or grower: 1) organisms produce more offspring than survive 2)  there are differences between individuals and 3) characteristics can be inherited.


Nevertheless the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection continues to attract the most passionate vilification, far more than say Quantum Theory or General Relativity for example, both of which challenge most people’s perceptions of the world in a much more fundamental way.

I think the reason is that Darwin’s ideas grew from the same philosophical stock as Marxism. I don’t think it a coincidence that Engels was one of Darwin’s earliest fans and used Darwin’s ideas in his ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’ a work of 1884 that modern anthropological evidence shows to have been fundamentally correct.


Darwin showed that tiny imperceptible changes, if given geological time to accumulate, could turn a sponge into a gorilla, or more accurately, could turn some unknown single-celled creature into both a sponge AND a gorilla, not to mention all the other myriad creatures on Earth. This is essentially an example of Hegel’s dialectical materialism, ‘quantity turning into quality’. I think it is this ‘revolutionary’ way of thinking that some people find impossible to accept, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.


So what has all this got to do with Left Unity? If you believe, as some contributors to this site certainly do, that socialism has failed, doesn’t work and needs to be abandoned, that is fine. I urge you to argue your case as fervently and coherently as you can and back up your argument with evidence.


If, on the other hand, you are a socialist but, recognising that socialism is currently an unpopular and marginalised idea, think the way to build a movement is to in some way water it down or put it in the small print, then I think you are making a fundamental mistake.


The lives of the scientific pioneers I have touched on above have two lessons for us today in my view. On the one hand great harm has been done and progress stifled by the burying of ideas in an attempt to be more popular or to gain greater patronage and influence in the short-term. On the other hand great pioneers have been prepared to say what they believe to be true, even at the expense of ridicule and isolation, events proved them right.





19 responses to “The history of science and its lessons for socialists today”

  1. Stuart says:

    There’s a big difference though, isn’t there, between politics and science. Not so long ago, physicists were looking for the Higgs boson. Before it was found, there was no agreement about whether it would be or not, and lots of debate about what the implications would be if not, and so on. But all were agreed on just what it was, what experimental result, that would settle the dispute. The experiment was done, the results came in, the dispute was settled.

    Politics and economics is not like that. To take just one contemporary example: is quantitative easing inflationary? Among all those very clever people who spend their lives studying such issues, among them professors and Nobel prize winners, I can find no agreement about whether QE is inflationary in theory – or even whether it had in fact been inflationary in practice! Examples could be multiplied endlessly. Politics is not a science. We should of course back up our arguments with an appeal to the empirical evidence – but we should be aware that our opponents are appealing to that same evidence to make the opposite points. And it’s not all that clear, as it is in science, how the disputes could be settled – except, as both Marx and Harry Hill would agree, in a fight.

    • Patrick D. says:


      I generally agree with what you are saying, but if you are going to compare science with politics, please do so for complex systems such as biology – it is much more appropriate.


      The article was a good attempt, but spends too much time justifying Case A (that great scientists were considered cranks) but then without much connection uses it to justify Case B (that socialism is a good idea). It also doesn’t help that you utilise the bearded ones as your key witnesses. Can we not use some more contemporary justification than 100-400 years ago??

      • colin piper says:

        Hi Patrick,

        Thank you for taking the time to read my article and responding to it.

        The reason for using “the bearded ones” (and by the way the picture was not my choice) is that the use of more modern examples would usually require a detour into discussing the actual science. For example, I chose to sidestep Stuart’s comments about the Higg’s Boson because I don’t really want to get into a long polemic about the Standard Model, String Theory…..

        I also limit myself to two sides of A4 12 point text as I frankly think that is long enough. Someone else needs to write the article as to why socialism is a good idea but my point is that if you think it is, then you should say so irrespective of what everyone else is saying.

    • colin piper says:

      Hi Stuart,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my article and reply to it. I agree of course that politics and economics aren’t the same as physics in the sense that it isn’t always possible in politics or economics to converge on one unequivocally correct answer, whereas in physics that is always the aim.

      I do not accept however that politics is not a science and should not be approached with the same rigour and respect for the evidence. I would argue that the reason for the uncertainty in your question about quantitive easing is that you are dealing with a chaotic, infinitely complex system where it is impossible to accurately predict every outcome. The weather and the human brain are two other oft quoted examples of such systems and yet nobody would suggest meteorology or psychology were not sciences.

      My concern is that, because politics isn’t physics, people feel justified in abandoning all appeals to evidence and reason and truth.

      “you’ll never have socialism, people are too selfish”, “people in Britain will never elect a left-wing government”, “Left Unity will never grow if it calls itself Socialist”. These sort of statements, that I’ve seen more than once on this site, are all at best opinions that ignore the evidence and, at worst, plainly false.

      Best wishes,


  2. Richard Evans says:

    Thanks Colin for this interesting article. However, I believe the appeal to dialectical materialism to be a false one.

    Dialectical materialism cannot be found in Marx or even in the mystical writings of late Engels. It is an invention of post-Marx Marxists, propagated today mainly by those of one of the Leninist schools. It is in fact, despite its name, a form of idealism which leads to a dogmatic and deterministic approach, where adherents claim to know things a priori; a classic symptom of idealism. I have met Marxists who claim to know, without any scientific study, that they know the size of the universe or the size of the smallest particle. I’ve met Marxists who, because Lenin rejected what he called ‘the new physics’ over a hundred years ago, still don’t accept quantum mechanics or Einstein’s relativity. The argument that Einstein drew inspiration from Mach or was a subjective idealist and therefore his theories must be wrong should have no appeal to a materialist. A materialist – or scientist as we now call them- asks the question, does his theory produce predictions that are testable and then if they are shown to be right, we accept his theory until it is proved wrong or is superseded by a better explanation. We should not accept or reject a scientific theory on some spurious philosophical grounds.

    The Marxist theoretician who asserts that they know that the universe is infinite on the basis of their philosophy is no different to the theologian who asserts that the earth is only 6000 years old on the basis of his philosophy. Both are idealists, in the philosophical sense. And both are anathema to science, which is the materialist study of nature. The trouble is, with both the theoretician and the theologian, that they feel free not only to assert scientific fact but also to extend these powers of clairvoyance to also assert the future: there will never be black majority rule in a capitalist South Africa; there won’t be a capitalist resurrection in the Soviet Union; there will be an economic crisis next year and so on. Whereas, genuine materialists know they do not have the power to accurately predict the future in complex systems such as society. We cannot know the future and so should reject anything that smacks of determinism or dogma.

    Although I passionately hope for a socialist organisation in Britain, it needs to be broadly based and reject a rigid, dogmatic approach or else it will remain a sect. Already in the debates around the platforms, I detect an approach which is too fundamentalist. The British left has many good people within it. Many of whom, unfortunately, have been mis-schooled in the Leninist tradition (I count myself as one of these). It’s time we junked the failed Leninist notions of dialectical materialism, the vanguard party and centralism and instead build a socialist organisation that is open to all those who wish to build a better society- a socialist society.

    • Phil Waincliffe says:

      Richard’s arguments do not prove anything.

      1. Marx’s theory was dialectical materialism. He turned Hegel’s idealist dialectics on its head and demonstrated that developments in the material world are best understood through dialectic reasoning. Engels and Lenin further developed the understanding of the real world using the same methodology. How they were supposed to be different is not explained, because they weren’t.

      2. Lenin may have rejected the conclusions “new physics” were drawing (ie neo-Kantian mysticism about the unknowability of all phenomena), but he didn’t reject the physics.

      3. To reject Einstein because he was influenced by “subjective idealism” would be undialectical because materialist philosophy emerged from idealism and in opposition to idealism. Idealism came first: religion was the earliest attempt to understand the world scientifically. Materialism emerged as a result of its limitations.

      4. Dialectical materialism does not reject quantum mechanics. This comment may refer to some rejection or other of the conclusions drawn by some physicists which appear to be mystical. In fact, quantum mechanics has dialectical elements to it as it deals with contradictions.

      5. There is a crisis in physics because the inability to place the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics into a unitary theory (a dialectical rpoblem). This crisis has been explained at length by Lee Smolins in “the Trouble with Physics”. Smolins, however, rejects dialectical materialism and restricts himself to Popperism, which is a modern version of Kant’s unknowability of phenomena. This is a problem.

      6. Theories about the beginnings of the universe are problematic because something must have set the universe in motion. Something cannot start from nothing because nothing doesn’t exist. Big bang theories are falling apart, leaving the need for other material explanations, or God.

      7. The greatest example of dialectical materialist reasoning, Marx’s Capital (and Engels’ and Lenin’s analyses of further developments), has been proved correct more than once. Capitalism does lead to collapse, war and revolution, as we saw in 1871, 1917 and 1945 onwards. This theory has been tested in practice had has proved correct. 2008 is further proof, if proof is needed.

      8. Yes, predictions can be wrong. However, Marxist dialectical materialist philosophy would admit the mistakes and analyse them to find out why the errors were made, as the former ILWP (now the Economic and Philosophical Science Review) did at great length when its position that there won’t be capitalist restoration in Russia proved incorrect. The problem now is that Trotskyism and revisionism refuse go back over their mistakes and resolve them (particularly over the Soviet Union). This is not Marxist.

      9. There can be only one objective truth. Dialectical materialism struggles to understand that truth. Is Richard saying that we can all have our own truths because none of it can ever be resolved? We would be living in contradiction for ever. Science doesn’t work in this way. This is just idealism.

      • Richard Evans says:

        Thanks Phil for your reply.

        The objective truth that you write about is only a theoretical possibility, but it is this notion that you can have an absolute truth or absolute knowledge that is an idealist one. It is perfectly possible for a materialist to hold that there is no absolute truth (or at least there is little likelihood of knowing it) without holding the position that truth is subjective to each individual. After all, isn’t this the position of science? Scientific facts are not absolute but represent our best understanding of reality at that particular time. These objective ‘facts’ are provisional and subject to change with future discovery or evidence. Materialists know that they probably do not know the absolute truth and all they can hope for is a better understanding of the material universe.

        The idea that the fundamental rules of the universe can be known, a priori, by philosophy is anathema to materialists. Marx said that questions about the material world would no longer be decided by ‘speculative philosophy’. Materialists don’t assert a priori rules but instead have to start from an agnostic position. Then they use the scientific method to achieve the best explanation possible, always retaining the scepticism that their paradigm may be wrong. Materialists should never allow themselves to believe that they know the objective truth.

        Science has paradoxes (you can call them contradictions, if you prefer) because it doesn’t have absolute knowledge. The goal of science has to be to try and explain these paradoxes. Merely calling them a contradiction (however dialectical) is not, in itself, an explanation of a phenomenon.

        The problem of producing a unified theory for quantum mechanics and relativity, that you have referred to, is indeed one of these paradoxes. So, theoretical physicists are attempting to find a solution. However in the end, M theorists, string theorists and others will have to come up with hypotheses that can be empirically tested. If they fail, other possible explanations will come to the fore. This is the way of science; theoretical thinking is allowed (and should be encouraged) but eventually hypotheses must be tested. The problem is that modern physics is often dealing with things that cannot be directly observed, so designing experiments to test the hypotheses empirically is often difficult to do. This process, as a result, can take a long time; for example, 40 years for general relativity and 50 years for the Higgs Boson. Of course, idealist philosophers do not have to go through this process and can just assert their facts. A generation ago, I had dialectical materialists tell me that it was a waste of money to build the Large Hadron Collider as they already knew the answers. That is the trouble with dialectical materialism. Its adherents claim it explains everything and yet, they are unable to put forward testable hypotheses in the same way that we expect scientists to do.

        Unfortunately, most present day Marxists learn their Marxism through Lenin and they learn that dialectical materialism is the philosophy of Marxism, despite Marx not mentioning it. You would think that if dialectical materialism was such a key component to Marx’s thought, he would have at least given it a mention in the tens of thousands of pages of his writings.
        Of course, the young Marx was, like other German philosophers of the mid nineteenth century, a Hegelian and this influenced his thinking about the development of society. It is no accident that the young Marx follows Hegel’s five stages in the development of society. The difference being that Hegel believed that it was in gaining a greater consciousness of freedom that moved society forward whereas, Marx believed that the development of the productive forces was the key. However, in his later writings, he reminded his supporters that these stages were not the only path of development for humankind. A point that has been lost on many modern Marxists.

        Marx clearly became more ambivalent towards dialectics as he moved away from the Hegelianism of his youth. He would often joke that he said something was dialectical when he didn’t know. It’s just that many Marxists have failed to see the joke. Long ago, I came to the conclusion that when somebody says, ‘It’s dialectical, comrade’ what they really mean is, ‘I haven’t got a clue why it happens’.

        The theories of Marx do indeed predict economic crises. Or more precisely, it would be better to say that Marx believed that capitalism has an inbuilt tendency towards periodic crisis. The mechanism for this is still subject to debate; is it overproduction, is it declining rates of profit, is it the imbalance between the different sectors of the economy, are there different cycles in operation and so on? The debate between Marxist economists is particularly rich at the moment, as they strive to find an understanding of the causes of crises and to what extent they are able to predict the future development of the economy. This is far better than simplistic notions of the death agony of capitalism with capitalism permanently standing on the edge of a terminal crisis that never seems to appear. A materialist doesn’t know the future and is very wary of claims of philosophies that say otherwise. The determination of dialectical materialism has held back Marxism for too long. Getting rid of it would allow the richness of Marxist critique to blossom in the same way that science was to develop after the dogma of the church was thrown off.

      • Phil Waincliffe says:

        Hi Richard,

        There is an objective truth. If you run into a brick wall I guarantee you will not feel very good afterwards. This wouldn’t be a ‘provisional fact’. It’s also an objective truth that the earth revolves around the sun. Of course we can obtain deeper understanding of facts and some new findings may emerge that cause us to reassess our understanding but this does not mean they are subject to change. If presumed ‘facts’ were overturned then they wouldn’t be facts in the first place, just dis-proved theories.

        The idea that Marx became ambivalent to dialectic in later life is plain nonsense. Take his afterword to the German edition of Capital written in 1872, for example. He explained the difference between his philosophical understanding and Hegel’s, writing:

        “My dialectic is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life processes of the human brain, i.e. the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea”, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external phenomenal form of “the Idea”. With me, on the contrary, the idea is nothing more than the material world reflected in the human mind, and transformed into forms of thought.”

        That doesn’t sound like he had “moved away” from from dialectics or saw it as a joke. Furthermore, he helped Engels write his theoretical study of dialectical materialism “Anti-Duhring”, and read and approved of it (could this be the “late mystical Engels” you referred to in your previous post?).

        “Periodic crises” of capitalism may not be unique to Marx, but Marx explained how crises accumulate into a universal crisis of capitalism that tears the system apart and create the conditions for revolution. Take the 1872 afterword again:

        “The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeoisie most strikingly in the changes in the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of actions will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom-upstarts of the new, holy Prusso-German empire.” (or into the heads of Left Unity “agnostics” we could say today)

        He wrote this in 1872, the crisis broke out into world war in 1914. It wouldn’t have mattered if he was alive to continue to predict this every year all the way up to the outbreak of world war: his catastrophic theory of capitalist collapse would have still proved true.

        As for the unnamed supposed “dialectical materialists” who claimed that they already knew the answers before the Large Hadron Collider was built, they don’t sound like dialectical materialists to me.

  3. Patrick D. says:


    You are obviously passionate about dialectical materialism. However, though I was handed leaflets extolling its virtues when I was a teenager. No-one has ever been able to explain what it actually means to a simple person like myself. Reading your text above, I see many points (some of which I strongly disagree with), but I still don’t get any idea of what it is – Wikipedia didn’t help either :-(

    Given that the article is about science, lets start from there. In the scientific field, the difference between philosophy and a proper theory is what is known as falsifiability. i.e. Can the theory make a prediction which can be tested and disproved – if it is wrong.

    For example quantum mechanics is a proper theory – it can and has been tested and proven. String theory is a complex exercise in mathematical masturbation as it can (perhaps) never be tested in experiment.

    So, (and I ask this in a friendly way) in simple terms that someone like myself can understand:
    1.Can you give a simple (two sentence soundbyte) explanation of what dialectical materialism actually is?
    2.What exactly does Dialectical Materialism predict?
    3.Given that falsifiability is the basis for a philosophy to move to proper theory – what aspects of 2. above can be tested?

    • Phil Waincliffe says:

      There are no pithy sound-bites to explain dialectical materialism. It took Lenin an entire volume of work (“Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”) and another larger volume of notes to get to grips with it. I suggest reading his book and working from there.

      The basic understanding is that all development, human or natural, is revolutionary. All phenomena is in motion and the contradictions within them accumulate to the point where a qualitative change comes about – just as happens with water when it comes into contact with heat. Development leads to and emerges from crisis, leaps and revolution.

      As I said, dialectical materialism predicted the crisis we are living through. No other philosophy did this. It has been tested in practice and can be disproved. If the crisis never occurred, and if there were no similar revolutionary crises in the past that led to slump, war and revolution, then Marx’s theory may have been said to have been proved incorrect. They did happen and dialectical materialism was proved to the correct and only scientific approach to understanding the world. No other philosophy got anywhere near to predicting it, and they had all set themselves against dialectical materialism.

      Having said that, evolution cannot be tested in a laboratory. It cannot be falsified either, and yet it is a “proper theory” now accepted as fact; bourgeois scientific methodology is limited (but is still able to make significant contributions to understanding).

      The best starting point is to argue through differences in understanding to a conclusion. You say there are points in my comments you strongly disagree with. What are they and why?

      • Richard Evans says:

        Hi Phil

        The theory of evolution is more than just an assertion. It is supported by a large body of evidence including the mutation of bacterium in a laboratory and could be falsified by finding a species in the fossil record that appears before less evolved species, for example, if horse fossils were found in Precambrian strata, the theory of evolution would be falsified.

        It is not good enough for materialists to observe a phenomenon, such as the boiling of water, and then say that dialectical materialism explains it. This is not sufficient for a materialist. It is no more an explanation as saying it is the will of God. Materialists seek to explain why these phase transitions take place. The work of scientists including Lord Kelvin led to an explanation through a branch of science we now call thermodynamics. Of course, as materialists, we realise this may not be the absolute answer and the theory may have to be modified or even superseded by future discoveries.

        Again, an appeal to dialectical materialism is not sufficient to explain economic crises. It does not explain why crises happen and cannot predict them. The idea of periodic crisis is not unique to Marxism and can be empirically ascertained by looking at history. The challenge for materialist economists is to find the cause of these crises and so be able to predict future ones. Saying every year that there will be a crisis next year doesn’t count. A proper materialist analysis of the economy should also be able to predict booms as well as slumps.

        As to the idea that someone wishing to learn about dialectical materialism should start with Lenin’s ‘Materialism and Empirio-Criticism’; I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. In fact I’d say, if you wish to see the mysticism of diamat, dip into this volume but I wouldn’t spend too much time on it. It’s certainly a summer I’ll never get back. I particularly recommend chapter five where he asserts the absolute nature of time and space. The subsequent veneration of Stalinists for the prophet held back Soviet science until the 50s and I still meet Trotskyists who prefer Lenin to Einstein on this question. At least Lenin realised, in later life, that he had not understood Marx.

      • Phil Waincliffe says:


        I’ve just posted comments to your previous response that deals with much of this.

        On evolution: The mutation of bacteria in a laboratory only demonstrates that bacteria mutates. It is not possible to prove human evolution in a laboratory. The “precambrian horse” would only demonstrate that there is something we don’t understand the evolution of horses and some related species. It would not falsify evolution because the body of evidence demonstrating the truth of evolution is overwhelming. It wouldn’t falsify genetic and DNA evidence, for example. I did not call evolution an “assertion”. It is a fact and our understanding of it will deepen over time.

  4. Roy Wall says:

    Dialectical materialism is the method of analysis of Marxism. It’s materialism is opposed to idealism, i.e., it believes that a real world exists out there, and that this real world is not the product of ideas in someone’s or some god’s head. So, materialism answers the following question with an emphatic YES: “If a tree falls over in a forest, and there is no-one there to witness it, does the tree falling make a sound?”

    Idealism, on the other hand, extends the commonly-accepted idea that, e.g., “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” to the erroneous claim that “reality is in the eyes of the beholder”. No, reality exists quite independently of whether there is someone, or some god, observing it and/or interpreting it.

    When a Marxist analyses something, they can often observe contradictory things in whatever they are analysing. They, e.g., may simultaneously see both good and bad features of whatever they are trying to analyse. This is contrary, e.g., to the Christian notion of counterposing good to evil; or to the habit of seeing things in simply black or white terms. A classic mistake often made on The Left is to pose the question: are we “for or against” something? Reality is usually far too complex to allow us to simply characterize it in the logic of digital computers, i.e., for or against, true or false, right or wrong.

    It would, e.g., be wrong for us in Left Unity to approach the question of the Labour Party in terms of simply being “for or against” it. Okay, we are against it in the sense that it has divorced itself from it’s base among the working class, but this doesn’t mean we should IGNORE the Labour Party, i.e., be driven by the simple logic of being “for or against”, “love or hate”. Clearly, in the next General Election, we will be obliged to favour a Labour government rather than a Tory government, because we believe that the attacks on the working class and oppressed will be SLIGHTLY less with a Labour government. In this sense, we must have a DIALECTICAL approach to the Labour Party.

    Like a number of the sciences, Marxism is not an EXACT science. In particular, it is often impossible to predict concrete events. E.g., British society seems to be inevitably heading towards a situation when there will be blood on the streets. But it is effectively impossible to predict EXACTLY WHEN this is going to happen.

  5. Komodo says:

    Another angle on that quantitative easing problem :
    Null hypothesis: Quantitative easing is intended to increase the money supply. Therefore it is inflationary, if not matched by a commensurate increase in production.
    Testable hypothesis: Quantitative easing is intended to benefit the economy. Therefore it is not inflationary, as its designers have a reasonable expectation that its application will increase production
    Pitfall 1: the data available supporting either hypothesis is valueless as the course of the economy following any historical quantitative easing may have had nothing whatever to do with QE.
    Pitfall 2: As suggested above, the market economy is demonstrably a chaotic system (and Mandelbrot demonstrated this), about which no predictions can be made without ALL the data, down to – say – the amount of change in my pocket on the 14th June at 1600 hours.

    I share Phil’s mystification re. dialectical materialism. Is it capable of mathematical expression? If not, it’s going to be hard to lever it into a scientific context…

  6. Richard Evans says:

    Hi Phil,

    This is a reply to your contribution on 21st November, 12.21. I sorry if it doesn’t appear in the correct place but there doesn’t seem to be a reply button there.

    It seems an open and shut case; either I have bumped into the wall or I haven’t. However, I like to have a few beers and when I do, sometimes I hallucinate and think I have done things that I haven’t actually done. So I can no longer say with a hundred percent certainty that I did actually bump into the wall. There is now an alternative explanation that says I didn’t bump into the wall. So, although I’m prepared to accept with a high degree of certainty that I ran into the wall, I still don’t know absolutely and it may never have happened.

    Even when we think that we have a 100% belief (ie absolute certainty) about a thing, we have to retain a degree of scepticism that it is not true. So we can never know something with a 100% certainty. It is particularly important in science to maintain this scepticism. Even the old certainties of Newton’s laws were eventually shown to be false. The idea of absolute truth doesn’t exist in science. However well supported a law or theory may seem to be, there is always the possibility that we may be wrong. Absolute knowledge is for theologians not scientists.

    At the end of the 19th century and the beginning years of the 20th, the absolutes of Newtonianism were coming to an end and it is understandable that a non-scientist such as Lenin was left bewildered by the new physics. What is less forgivable is that the canonisation of Lenin and the veneration of his works by his later supporters preclude a critical reading of his writings, even to the extent of denying modern science.

    How key to Marxism dialectics are, is subject to debate to those who have studied Marx. There are certainly passages in Marx, particularly in his letters to Engels, where his tongue is clearly in cheek such as when he says he has put enough dialectics into ‘Capital’ to keep the professors busy or he made his article for the New York Tribune on the military situation in India sufficiently dialectical to be right either way. But what is clear, Marx never wrote about dialectical materialism.

    The extent to which Marx collaborated in the writing of the series of articles that are now known as Anti-Duhring is also subject to dispute. You say “he read and approved it” but Engels himself says only that he read it to Marx. It strikes me as strange that Marx, who read, copied and critiqued works year after year didn’t even read Anti-Duhring for himself. However, the really ‘mystical’ work is ‘The Dialectics of Nature’. It is difficult to blame an author for scribblings that are published posthumously. Kautsky should have heeded the advice of Leo Arons, a member of the SPD and a top physicist that was barred by the Prussian state from teaching in university as a result of his political activity, who counselled against its publication. The friends of Isaac Newton did him a favour in locking his writings on alchemy in a trunk that remained undiscovered for 400 years, so allowing his scientific genius to be unsullied. If only Engels’ literary heirs had followed Arons’ advice, Engels’ memory could have been the brilliant ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ and his beautiful, flowing prose of the ‘Communist Manifesto’. But, I suppose he could never have imagined that Kautsky and Plekhanov would mangle his later writings into their invention of dialectical materialism and its stifling effect on future Marxists.

    • Phil Waincliffe says:

      Hi Richard,

      You may not know what happened if you bumped into a wall while drunk, but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, unless you are going along with the ludicrous Bishop Berkley notion that things like walls do not have an independent existence but are only ideas in the minds of the people who perceive them. This is a reactionary idealist philosophical perspective which persists today in quantum physics, as this piece shows:

      It is this sort of mystical god-building within science that Lenin wrote his book to challenge; not because he was perplexed by “new physics”. If this is your argument, then I can understand why you don’t like dialectical materialism!

      Newton’s laws of motion were not falsified. They still hold up when it comes to most earthly phenomena. They were the best possible approximation to the truth at that time. It still has practical application today. It falls apart when when we are dealing with high velocities, which is why it was superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity. For this reason, Newtonian physics is still taught in schools. To suggest it is false is to suggest that scientific development built from it is false too, which is just ludicrous. You can say that “old certainties” that Newtonian physics explained everything was broken down by Einstein, but that it a different phenomenon.

      Nowhere in Lenin’s book “denies” modern science. There may be some who called themselves “Leninists” who denied modern science (who they are you don’t say), but it should not be conflated with Lenin’s work.

      In fact, Engel’s pointed out to this problem when he wrote “Unfortunately, people all too frequently believe they have mastered a new theory and can do just what they like with it as soon as they have – not always correctly – its main propositions”. He went on to reproach certain “Marxists” who were “responsible for some peculiar stuff” (Letter to Bebel 21-22 September 1890). You seem to have talked to a lot a lot of these peculiar people from what you write. The opportunistic appeal to dialectical materialism elsewhere on this thread to justify calls for votes for Labour seems to be an example of this such peculiarity.

      Whether Marx read Anti-Duhring or it was read to him is neither here or there. He was ill and approaching the end of his life and his wife and daughter had recently died, so it would be understandable if he didn’t read it. The letters between Marx and Engels testify that he did contribute to the work in terms of passing on relevant publications and sketching out certain aspects for Engels to incorporate in the book, especially in volume 45. The editors of the collected works concluded that he had read and approved the work,that’s why I said it.

      Marx was too busy to write about dialectics but he always intended to do so. On 16th January 1858 he wrote, “If ever the time comes when such a work is again possible,I should very much like to write 2 or 3 sheets making accessible to the common reader the rational aspects of the method which Hegel’s not only discovered but also mystified.” On 9th May 1868 he told Dietzgen that he wanted to write a study called “Dialectics”. He was too busy writing Capital (a vastly more important activity) and working for the 1st International to do this. Engels planned to do it with Dialectics of Nature, which Marx said was “more important” than Anti-Duhring (Marx to Leibknecht 7th October 1876).

      All this distancing Marx from Lenin and others seems to me to be more about a desire to expunge the revolutionary essence of Marx’s dialectics in order to make it acceptable to the bourgeoisie. As I have already said, his theory of capitalist collapse leading to revolution has been proven more than once because it is inherent in the capitalist system. It has to happen out of necessity. It may not be possible to predict specific details over when and how, but that does not invalidate his dialectics.

      When did Lenin ever say he “had not understood Marx”? What is your reference for this.? He didn’t say anything of the sort.

      Once last point, I did not try to explain the boiling of water to Patrick D as you wrote in a previous comment, merely to describe an observable common dialectical event. All matter is in motion and goes go through revolutionary qualitative changes. You have yet to refute this. In fact, it can be argued that quantum physics is demonstrating the truth of this dialectical materialist theory.

  7. Richard Evans says:

    Hi Phil

    My example was supposed to show that although the wall was real it is possible that I hadn’t run into it. I am a materialist, more correctly in modern day terminology, I am a physicalist. By that I mean that I make the metaphysical assumption (and it is only an assumption, I cannot prove it) that the material world is real. So to make an even clearer cut case for something that we know, let’s assume in the running into a wall example that I recall that I have run into the wall, there are independent witnesses to the event including CCTV footage and that my injuries have been forensically examined and are consistent with running into the wall including having brick dust from the wall embedded in them. Even then I am not prepared to concede absolutely that it happened. I may accept with a ninety nine point something percent certainty that it happened but I still retain a degree of scepticism that I may be wrong. This need to keep an open mind that there are alternative explanations is particularly important in science; not least because we have many examples of when we thought we know something with a certainty that a layperson would consider to be absolute, that have later been shown to be false. The idea of absolute certainty was a mistake of 19th century science, as materialism was now called.

    The idea of a battle between materialism and idealism is a very 19th century distinction that only exists at the margins today. Science won. In the advanced world, almost all people believe in materialist science. Even those who prostrate themselves in prayer on their Sabbath, still go to their doctor to cure illness or look to science to provide an explanation of the world. The scepticism that ushered in the enlightenment had turned to scientific certainty by the post-enlightenment of the 19th century. Scientists thought they could explain the world through absolute knowledge. At this time the brilliant scientist, Lord Kelvin reportedly said that, ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement’. I accept that there is a dispute over whether he actually spoke these words but it reflects the point of view of many scientists at that time. But they were wrong; the old certainties of science were about to be overturned and scientists have maintained a healthy scepticism ever since.

    You say that, ‘Newton’s laws of motion were not falsified’, but in the 1890s, Hendrik Lorentz and others were already showing that they were not absolutely true. You say that, ‘Nowhere in Lenin’s book “denies” modern science’ but his whole book ‘Materialism and Empirio-Criticism’ is precisely an attack on this revolution that was taking place in modern science. He believes his philosophy could answer scientific questions. To believe otherwise is just wishful thinking. You and Lenin may believe that Newtonian absolutes still hold but I put my trust in Einstein field equations. Not absolute trust mind you, as I retain some scepticism and one day these too, may be shown to be false. It’s time to come clean Phil, do you accept relativity or are you with Lenin and believe that time and space are absolute?

    You say, ‘When did Lenin ever say he “had not understood Marx”? What is your reference for this? He didn’t say anything of the sort’. At the end of 1914, Lenin was studying Hegel and this study transformed his understanding of Marx. As he wrote, ‘half a century later [after ‘Capital’] none of the Marxists understood Marx!!’. He didn’t say that only he had understood Marx but that none of the Marxists had understood him. The trouble was that Lenin had learnt his Marxism from Plekhanov and now he realised that the tradition of Marxism that he had grown up with, had not understand Marx. This would be a good lesson for modern day Marxists to absorb. The idea that many of us have been taught, that there were three, four or five great teachers (depending on the organisation doing the teaching) suggests that each of these thinkers held the same viewpoint as the preceding one. Not only did they hold different views but even within the works of each, there are contradictions. The beauty of Marx is not that he has some didactic explanation of the correct position but the fact that he doesn’t have a worked out theory of crisis, that he changes his mind on the immediacy and nature of revolution, that he puts forward different views on human nature and so on. Marx and the others did not write scripture, we should read it critically, in the same way that Marx himself would have done.

    • Phil Waincliffe says:

      Hi Richard,

      Lenin did not say that he “had not understood Marx”. You are misquoting him, and doing so out of context. This is not a scientific approach.

      After pointing to a degree of “vulgar-materialism” in Plekhanov in the way he tackled Kant, and saying that other Marxists criticised Kant more in the manner of Feuerbach than Hegel, Lenin wrote:

      “It is impossible to completely understand Marx’s ‘Capital’, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s ‘Logic’. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!”

      He did not say that he had not understood Marx and to suggest otherwise is pure speculation. This quote was a note written for himself in the margins of Hegel’s ‘Science of Logic’. Only he would know what he meant by it. There was no retreat from dialectical materialism in his later works, as your use of the quote suggests. In fact he led the Russian Revolution when there were huge amounts of pressure to dissuade him. This earth-shattering event, the culmination of a revolutionary process of quantity turning to quality, proved Marx’s dialectical theory in practice.

      If anything, his quote actually suggests that Marxists had not understood the dialectic logic underpinning ‘Capital’. They hadn’t been dialectical enough! It certainly would not back up your argument that Marx had “moved away” from dialectics.

      I didn’t say “Newtonian absolutes still hold”. I said that Newton’s theory was a close enough approximation of the truth for earthbound phenomena. Einstein’s theories of relativity revolutionised our understanding of the objective reality of the universe, but that does mean that Newton’s theory does not have practical application today. Einstein did not “falsify” Newton. His theory was an advance which has deepened our understanding, but Newton still holds a relative truth.

      Lenin’s section on space and time in his book was an argument against Mach’s notion that space and time does not have an objective reality outside of human experience. He described this as a manifestation of philosophical idealism that has its roots in Kant. For Mach, space and time are relative to human perception. Einstein’s theories of relativity do not depend on an observer. Time is relative to the movement of an object, and space is relative to a point of reference. This does not contradict Lenin.

      Lenin was not against the new physics. He was against the use of the physics by philosophical idealism and agnosticism, and the conclusions they came to. When he wrote about “relativism”, he was referring to the relativism of our knowledge and not the theories of relativity. His conclusion makes the distinction between modern science and philosophical idealism clear:

      “The vast majority of scientists, and in the very special branch of science in question, viz., physics, are invariably on the side of materialism. A minority of new physicists, however,influenced by the breakdown of old theories brought about by the great discoveries of recent years,which has clearly revealed the relativity of our knowledge, have, owing to their ignorance of dialectics, slipped into idealism by way of relativism.”

      Note, he talked about “great discoveries”. This isn’t the words of someone opposed to the new physics and in thrall to Newtonian absolutism!!

      Philosophical idealist influence still persists today. Popperism is the dominant philosophical approach in modern science. It insists that it is not possible to prove objective truths. For him, the purpose of science is to develop theories that can be demonstrated as false. This takes us straight back to Kant and the unknowability of all phenomena. It may have some particular practical applications in physics, but to demand that all theories have to be falsifiable is disastrous for science because it opens the door to fideism.

      On scepticism, this article makes some good points, despite its woodenness at times:

  8. Phil Waincliffe says:

    Oops! I should have said this:

    When he wrote about “relativity”, he was referring to the relativity of our knowledge and not the theories of relativity.

    There are too many relatives!!

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