Why We Need to Adopt Friedrich Engels’ Thinking on Science in These Times

Yves here. One of the oddities of history is how some thinkers who are influential in their time are relegated to lesser positions over time, while others see their stature elevated. Erasmus was a best seller in his day and is still recognized as seminal. At the time of his death, Confucius was in despair that his beliefs had not gotten much of a following. By contrast, Friedrich Engels, a name often invoked with hostility, since Engels, with Marx, was notorious as a father of Communism. Prabir Purkayastha in the essay below contends that some of Engels’ important observations about science have gone by the wayside, in part because some of his ideas were developed through debates with contemporaries, and those arguments were often too granular to be enduring, and other disputes that might have stuck, such as over Darwinism, were unfinished at Engels’ passing.

By Prabir Purkayastha, the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement. Produced by Newsclick and Globetrotter

Reflecting on the contributions of Friedrich Engels on his bicentenary brings three issues to mind. The first issue is, how do we read his writings today? A lot of his writings were polemics against defenders of the existing order, or those proposing theories that ran counter to Marx and Engels’ views on the struggles of the working class for a new and just society. To understand this point, we have to consider what Engels was writing against, as those figures, such as Dühring, live on only because of Engels’ Anti-Dühring. The second problem is the language of the text. It is written for its time (and space) and, therefore, takes for granted much of what we may not be aware of today. The third problem is that when it comes to science, we barely recognize the terrain about which Engels was writing. The subject matter—the sciences—have moved far away from Engels’ times.

So why do we need to plow through polemical texts of Marx and Engels, written against people whose writings have otherwise been forgotten? There are two reasons for going back to the basics, particularly as science is often presented as neutral, and autonomous from society. Instead, science is inextricably linked to the classes that control society and therefore also control the development of science.

It is no accident that big science in capitalist countries is tied to either war or the greed of capital. This is especially being sharply reflected during the present pandemic when we find that a large number of vaccines are for-profit, even if they have been funded by public money. Or when we see the link between weapons and science research in universities. J.B.S. Haldane, the well-known evolutionary biologist and British Marxist, had said, “… even if the professors leave politics alone, politics won’t leave the professors alone.” So science and scientific research have always been political even if individual scientists, in their own view, are not.

The second reason is that science and technology are not just academic disciplines. They have been acting as the motors of development in recent times, even if the development takes us in dangerous directions. It is not possible to talk about the dangers of nuclear-armed, hypersonic or space-based weapons and the danger they pose to humanity without a knowledge of these issues. Or how Googleor Facebookand their version of surveillance capitalism are changing what we know, and capitalism itself.

The U.S. withdrawal from almost all nuclear restraint treaties and its formation of Space Command poses new dangers. Yet, there are virtually no protests of the kind we saw during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or later in the 1980s against the development of the neutron bomband Reagan’s Star Wars program. While the weakness of the peace movement is not entirely due to the lack of politics in the scientific community, nevertheless, this is one of its significant weaknesses. Scientists were a vital component of the peace and the anti-nuclear weapons movements after World War II.

In the present scenario, there is a need for the left to be able to enter the arena of science and technology, not simply by talking about the consequences of the work of the practitioners but also to excite their imagination through a Marxist view of science and technology. Without these sections of our society, we will be much weaker in arguing on a host of issues, from nuclear war, public health and the COVID-19 pandemic to surveillance capitalism.

Marxism has always attracted scientists, doctors and technologists, as it provides a larger framing of science in society and connects it to the living problems of society. Similarly, the history of technology, its relationship with science and production, becomes clear when we look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of what advanced capitalist countries can do if their economies are threatened as opposed to when infectious diseases are only a problem of the poorer countries.

Will this automatically lead to people realizing the relationship between capital, profits and public health? Not unless we can bring our understanding to the people through a larger people’s science movement; or a people’s health movement. And for that, we need to enter the larger scientific community.

This is where Engels and his materialist dialectics becomes important to us. Both Engels and Marx had an enormous interest in the sciences of the day, which they followed closely. Marx was deeply interested in technology, as can be seen in his writings on the technological changes in the textile mills of England. In his work on ground rent, he wanted to know the impact of the use of fertilizers on soil productivity. But when it came to writing on science, he let Engels, who followed science more closely, lead the way. It was Engels who wrote on dialectics in Anti-Dühring, contrasting it with the metaphysical thinking of Eugen Dühring. He elaborated what materialist dialectics means in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy and his unfinished book Dialectics of Nature.

If the laws of Hegelian idealist dialectics are imposed on nature, philosophically, it shows that there has been a general retreat both from dialectics and a materialist view of nature. Instead, the realist school, closest to materialism, while accepting the external reality of the world that science describes through its theories, is reluctant to call itself materialist. Materialism is a “tainted” word, with its association to Marx, Engels, and later the communists. The retreat from dialectics has also been through a rejection among scientists of a need for a philosophy of science and a view that science itself is enough, and no larger organizing principles of science are required. Some may be surprised to learn that Engels and Marx criticized environmental destruction.

Dialectics provides larger organizing principles through which we can unify different parts of science. Underlying dialectics is the belief that everything including matter is in motion, or in a process of change. When we look at society or nature, instead of looking at them as if they are frozen in time and space, we have to look at them from the point of view of change.

Engels in Anti-Dühringenunciates the three principles of dialectics: quantitative to qualitative change (or what physicists would call phase change), the role of contradictions in nature, and new emergent properties rising out of increasing complexity (negation of the negation). Instead of calling them laws, which in science tends to limit them to a specific phenomenon, these should be looked at as larger organizing principles, within which we understand the scientific laws.

Marx wrote that he did not derive his economic laws from dialectics, but showed that after deriving the laws of capital, they conformed to the laws of dialectics. Engels similarly does not prescribe dialectical laws to science but showed that laws of nature that have been discovered in science can be framed within a dialectical framework.

Engels never finished Dialectics of Nature. Haldane, in his preface to the 1939 publication of Dialectics of Nature, regrets that it remained unpublished for a long time, and writes, “Had his remarks on Darwinism been generally known, I for one would have been saved a certain amount of muddled thinking.” One of its unfinished fragments is on the role of labor in human evolution, more specifically the evolution of the hand. It is the evolution of the hand through the process of labor—creating tools—that distinguishes humans from apes. Engels writes, “Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.” It is not the evolution of the hand that led to our evolution as a species but the coevolution of the hand and labor as a historical process.

There has been a criticism of Engels for subscribing to Lamarckism with respect to evolution and therefore criticizing how he describes the inheritance of the skills of labor. What people forget is that Darwin while propounding natural selection also supported Lamarck’s inheritance of acquired characteristics as a driver of evolution. In his theory of heredity, which he published in 1868, Darwin called his evolutionary theory pangenesis, which contained both natural selection and Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. Mendelian genetics was not known to biologists at the time, and it was only much later that biology incorporated Mendelian genetics.

Engels’ major contribution was to show that nature was not merely unchanging, or a backdrop, for its history. He showed that nature, instead of being unchanging, is also in evolution; just as the species in nature are. Nature and its species, including humans, are both a part of this dynamic process of change and evolution, which is a historical process.

One of the major focuses of study for both Marx and Engels was the study of science and technology and their relationship with production. While Marx focused more on technological changes in industry and agriculture, he needed somebody to understand not only such changes but also the advances in science that made the technological changes possible. Though Marx followed the developments in science, he often turned to Engels for help in understanding how the latest developments of the sciences affected technology practice.

Engels had not only written about the condition of the working class in England as a consequence of the industrial revolution but also worked as a partner in a Manchester textile mill. He was very much a part of the ongoing industrial revolution in England and counted Carl Schorlemmer, a chemist and a lifelong communist, among his close friends. It was Schorlemmer, a leading scientist in his times, a fellow of the Royal Society, who helped both Marx and Engels in their understanding of science.

The division of labor between Marx and Engels was also about writing on science, or in combating the metaphysical thinking that denied change as a fundamental property of nature and society. If Capital:Volume Iis one of the most incisive accounts of the history of technology in the industrial revolution, Dialectics of Nature, even in its unfinished form, shows the extent and the depth of Engels’ understanding of the developments in sciencetaking place during his lifetime.

There have been many critics of Marx and Engels, who hold that Marxism suffers from a productivist bias that considers nature an infinite resource for the development of productive forces. This has been the criticism of Gandhians in India as well, that Marxism and capitalism both focus on industrial development that would change nature and lead to an ecological crisis.

On the contrary, Marx and Engels have written extensively on the enormous damage to nature and the inability to sustain production that can follow an unthinking expansion of production. The examples included the desertification of Mesopotamiaand the disastrous policy of the British in India that destroyed its cotton weavers. Marx writes in Capital: Volume I, “[T]he English cotton machinery produced an acute effect in India. The Governor General reported 1834-35: ‘The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.’”

Engels was fully aware of the threat that capitalism posed to the productive capacity of nature. John Bellamy Foster writes  in Monthly Review on November 1, “Engels had indicated [in Anti-Dühring] that the capitalist class was ‘a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety-valve the driver is too weak to open.’ It was precisely capital’s inability to control ‘the productive forces, which have grown beyond its power,’ including the destructive effects imposed on its natural and social ‘environs,’ that was ‘driving the whole of bourgeois society towards ruin, or revolution.’ Hence, ‘if the whole of modern society is not to perish,’ Engels argued, ‘a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place.’”

Instead of being oblivious to the destruction of nature by capital, Engels and Marx were aware of the crisis in nature that it was creating. The eco-socialist movement has brought out the need for the working-class movement to address the problems of a capitalist mode of production that does not think beyond the next quarter’s profits and the value of their shares in the stock market.

The left movement has to bring in the best of scientific and technological minds to fight the multiple disasters that the greed of capital is creating. This is what the independence movement in countries like India did in their struggles against colonialism. We need to show that other alternatives exist within science, technology and society. Yes, science and technology by themselves will not solve the problems of society and nature. But their contribution is necessary to find a solution to such problems. This is the example that Engels set before us, and which we need to follow.

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  1. DJG

    Thank you for posting this interesting article. One of the most important observations is that dialectics itself is now neglected. This is the problem, widespread in U.S. and English culture, of arguing that identity is somehow permanent, with rather strong outlines that separate one and one’s ideas from the rest of the world. Yet much of history, philosophy, and science has said otherwise. I’m thinking of Herakleitos, who may be the father of dialectics. Then there is Lucretius, who writes in his On the Nature of the Universe about atoms, endless change, and how to take comfort and pleasure in change, in spite of everything. So, mirabile dictu!, Marx and Engels are humanists–trying to find a way that will serve human beings in a constantly changing world. Well, we wouldn’t want that!

    We live in selective times and rigid times.

    1. zagonostra

      I remember reading “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt which looked at Lucretius’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) and appreciating the element of the unpredictability that he introduces. The world, even when you accept a materialistic/atomistic undergirding, still allows for free will and randomness.

      Thanks NC for above link on Engels, look forward to reading when time permits.


      1. David J.

        I have not read “the Swerve” but I remember from my studies (albeit almost 40 years ago, so probably not perfectly) that Epicurus supplemented Democritus’ notion of atoms falling through the void to introduce the swerve, which was essential to set up the collisions by which matter interacted. Interestingly, Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on atomism, with an emphasis on Epicurus (again, my memory may be faulty.) Personally, I fall into the camp which asserts that there is more than just mere materialism at work in the universe. So, while I think Marx is mistaken with respect to materialism (and Engels, too) I think it better than Lenin’s attraction to Ernst Mach, which strikes me as being a bit too phenomenological in orientation.

        1. Daniel

          Actually, Lenin was very (even bitterly) critical of Ernst Mach, excoriating his “subjectivism” (and solipsism) in his polemical MATERIALISM AND EMPIRIO-CRITICISM (1909), which was Lenin’s response to the inroads empirio-criticism was making among Marxists (including Lenin’s close comrade of the time, Alexander Bogdanov).

          1. David J.

            Thanks for the correction. That’s the book I had in mind but apparently I have it backwards. I’d like to get back into re-reading a lot of this material but my reading list is already pretty vast.

            1. Daniel

              Yes, for sure — so much to read! FWIW, IMO: Precisely because it is a hammer-and-tongs polemic against what he considered a grave danger to Bolshevik ideology, Lenin’s MATERIALISM AND EMPIRIO-CRITICISM is not the best source for appreciating his philosophical sophistication. His Philosophical Notebooks (not intended for publication, and appearing only many years after his death) are much more interesting.

      2. DJG

        zagonostra: The Swerve in an excellent book, which reads like a detective story. Will he find the book? Which monastery has it? And now what to do with the manuscript?

        I also recommend Lucretius, on the Nature of the Universe, in the poetic and jaunty translation by A.E. Stallings.

  2. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Lamarckian framework is making a subtle comeback. As is the concept of the aether. So knowing Engel’s thinking in this regard makes him more attractive.
    “Engels had indicated [in Anti-Dühring] that the capitalist class was ‘a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety-valve the driver is too weak to open.’ “- So Casey Jones by the Grateful Dead is a subtle reference to Engels! cool!

    1. Sue inSoCal

      Great article, thanks. And re the above:

      Yeah, ridin’ that train! I wouldn’t doubt the reference…

      Trouble ahead, trouble behind.

      Thanks, GvH! I needed a smile! :)

  3. AW

    Author and editor of the Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster for some time has been addressing matters relating to the climate. In the November 2020 issue of the journal there are two articles that resonate with Purkayastha’s commentary on Engels and Marx, Foster’s “Engels’s Dialectics of Nature in the Anthropocene ,” and Kaan Kangal’s, “Engel’s Emergentist Dialectics.”

  4. Geo

    Great article! Thank you.

    Much to chew on but this is a line I will be sure to hold on to and share: “Science is inextricably linked to the classes that control society and therefore also control the development of science.”

  5. Alex Cox

    Protests during the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What is the author talking about? There were no protests as these atrocities were committed.

    1. Edward

      I think many of the physicists in the Manhattan project were opposed to nuking Japan. There was a letter, I think, from Szilard (sp?) and Einstein to Roosevelt warning of the dangers of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, physicist Edward Teller became a pro-nuclear militarist.

      1. John Steinbach

        Actually, several letters and protests at Los Alamos & University of Chicago. Einstein referred to his letter to Roosevelt as his “greatest mistake.” Out of these protests came the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists & the Federation of American Scientists.” Opposition to the bombings directly gave birth to the anti nuclear movement.

        1. Edward

          I didn’t know that about Einstein– so much for that example. I thought the cosmological constant was his “greatest mistake”?

    2. timotheus

      I knew people in the 1960s who had participated in protests over Hiroshima at the time. Of course, they were drowned out by the triumphalism of the times.

  6. Cliff

    I believe in science. Geology, ecology, biology, physics.

    Anyone want to discuss “transgenderism” and how it fits in with mammalian biology and the reproductive cycle?

    1. mikkel

      When a flock of chickens has no rooster (or the rooster isn’t protecting them properly) then a hen will step up into that position. When a female dog has a dominant personality it will act like a male. Some prides of lions kick out their dominant male because he’s become abusive and are willing to live with many males who are submissive. Some fish and amphibians will swap sex back and forth depending on what’s in need. Several bird species have been observed rescuing eggs that were abandoned, with males taking on female roles.

      Maybe transgenderism seems on the rise in people because our static notion of gender is failing our society. Maybe the amount of abuse and trauma caused by the otherness of gender has become too much for us to bear.

      Sexuality and gender aren’t scientific constructs at all. If developmental biology teaches us anything, it is that the germ of both sexes is present in all of us and is differentiated by the most subtle hormonal switches. There is no black, there is no white, there is no purpose. There is simply tendency towards, and a universe of variation that is created by an unimaginable amount of variables and relationship.

      This dynamic relationship is exactly what the post is talking about – nature is dialectic and that’s why I find it so beautiful. For me, as a lifelong scientist, the attempt to put everything into neat boxes and proclaim it just so is an affront against nature itself. It is a primary reason why we stand on the precipice of the abyss.

      1. Massinissa

        Hyena’s are yet another interesting case study. Female Hyenas are larger, stronger, more aggressive, and more socially dominant than male Hyenas. Basically the reverse of how things work in most other mammals. Also they have… Essentially one of the strangest reproductive systems of mammals (at least in the females), which I can’t elaborate on here due to NC being a family blog.

      2. Tom Pfotzer

        Great post. We are adaptable. So let’s not spend any more time awaiting top-down authorization or funding. Let’s design what’s needed and be it.

      3. ckimball

        mikkel…How very beautiful..a perspective imagining wholeness as it folds in
        upon itself in our great organic inclusive mixture that works beyond our control. supraconciousness

    2. Ander

      Much as Mikkel said, ‘transgenderism’ doesn’t relate to biological sex, it relates to psychological and social gender. It’s a sociological phenomena, not a biological one. If we are talking about biological sex, though, much as Mikkel points out the boundaries are fuzzy. A bit over 1% of us are intersex, meaning we have both male and female genitalia, possibly underdeveloped versions of both sets of genitals, or possibly sex chromome irregularities. As the average hormonal load of our species changes (as a result of numerous factors, not the least of which is pollution) our visible sex, if not our genetic sex, has changed also.

      If you want to define sex solely as genetic sex, rather than genitalia, hormonal load, or secondary sex characteristics, there are numerous sexual chromosomal irregularities which are not all that uncommon, and many of them do not lead to infertility. You can have people with XXY, XYY, XXX, or even stranger sexual chromosome mutations. And all of this is occurring at the present time, in this very small window of the evolutionary history of our species.

      As far as more philosophical topics go, such as gender and sexuality, disbelieving in ‘transgenderism’ makes as little sense to me as disbelieving in homosexuality. Maybe you can’t approve for religious or personal reasons, but transgender people exist, and have been recorded in countless human cultures throughout our history as a species. This shouldn’t be surprising, if gender is the performance of sexual roles in a social context, and sex itself can be highly variable, why wouldn’t we expect a subset of the population to adopt a gender that doesn’t necessarily exactly match their biological one?

      An unusual example, in my own life, of a transgender friend is a young man who had been born intersex, was genetically female, but for whatever reason had more testosterone than estrogen and decided at a fairly young age that they identified more readily with the male gender. His family was fairly socially conservative, but given the unusual situation they acquiesced and helped their kid transition. I never would have guessed the young man wasn’t biologically male unless he had confided in me. Again, not the usual situation, but not an unheard of one either.

      Mushrooms meanwhile have dozens of sexes. If they developed sentience and gender roles I can only imagine how interesting their queer culture would be.

  7. YPG

    I read a book recently that was very much in line with this thinking: Biology as Ideology by Richard Lewontin. Lewontin is geneticist and Marxist and he outlines how capitalism shapes our notions of individual vs. society and how this flows into science. The book is 25 years old so some of what he says is a bit dated but much of ideological critique felt very fresh to me, especially with regard to what the general public believes science to be.

    There’s also free audio of the whole book on YouTube (lookup: Lewontin Massey Lectures) as the book was really a collection of essays that Lewontin delivered on Canadian radio.

      1. ultrapope

        Levin and Lewontin authored another book more recently (2007) titled Biology Under the Influence. There is a large portion of the book dedicated to infectious disease, epidemiology, and capitalism. A must read during COVID times imo

  8. Michael Fiorillo

    Interesting post, but how does Marx’s quote about the bones of India’s weavers refute the criticism of him as “productivist?” That was a criticism among Left enviros – yes, there were some – back in the day. Absent anything else, the quote suggests social and productive relations as the source of the weaver’s misery, not environmental degradation as a result of capitalism.

    1. Wmkohler

      It is a strange choice of quote, in particular considering there are much better examples to be found within Capital Volume I. In particular, Marx spends some time on the topic of industrialized agriculture, which proved capable of yielding greater harvests with a smaller and more spread-out workforce. This is where Marx develops the idea that has subsequently been referred to as the “metabolic rift.” Put bluntly, with more and more people pooping in the cities and fewer and fewer pooping in the countryside, the natural cycle by which nutrients return to the soil is broken, causing the soil to become more rapidly exhausted.

      All the same, as Marx makes plain in the Theories of Surplus Value, he agreed with Ricardo that production for production’s sake is the end and goal of human activity. For Marx, production for production’s sake meant nothing other than the development of the human productive capacities and thus the development of the wealth of human nature as its own goal or end in itself. In this respect, capitalism was crucial for creating the conditions of material abundance that would set the stage for communist society, in which all time would be disposable time and people would freely engage in production simply because they understood its necessity for the continuation of society.

  9. Edward

    I feel a bit skeptical about this. It sounds to me like a misuse of science. My impression of Marxism is that it was an over-reach; Marx and Engels tried to cast their theory with the inevitability of the motion of a ball in gravity, but their theory was messier then this. I don’t think either capitalism or socialism really describe the world adequately. We lack a good understanding of how societies work. I think the success of an economic system depends on the attitudes and beliefs of a society; if a society agrees to follow certain rules and beliefs it can succeed. I think either socialism or capitalism can succeed or fail depending on the qualities of a society. Both the doctrines of socialism and capitalism are missing “X” factors that are relevant to their success or failure, so they are incomplete, unsatisfactory theories. We have a poor understanding of what the important features are.

    1. shtove

      Capitalism has worked relentlessly to establish an imaginary – those attitudes and beliefs of a society – yet I don’t see how it can be said to be succeeding by those criteria, since it leaves dissatisfied those who are urged to adopt those attitudes and beliefs. If that’s how it’s supposed to work, then it has the dynamic of a religion that perpetually puts off the day of reckoning. Foucault had it covered decades ago.

      1. Edward

        Our systems of checks and balances is kaputt. I think our political system has historically mediated between different interest groups. The different interest groups are selfish, not altruistic, and try to acquire selfish advantages. The government must adapt to new situations to maintain the balance, but it has now lost that race. At this point it is like an immune system that has been overwhelmed by a disease. Corruption now controls the tools of government that fight corruption. Like water pouring out of a collapsed dam, corruption is now filling the Unites States.

    2. Tom Pfotzer

      I think you’re right.

      I believe that one of the “X” factors is informed buy-in of the people within the society. It takes a lot of work to get that buy-in. The U.S. political and commercial realm is rife with people actively dividing us to achieve narrow(er) sub-group aims. We’re going away from where we need to get.

      The contra-force is highly informed citizens that know where their interests lie, and how to prosecute their interests effectively.

      We don’t currently seem to have tools for “common-grounding” which are up to the job.

      Got ideas?

      1. Edward

        I think actually there is a good potential common ground for Americans. Unfortunately, most Americans are giving their attention and energy to a side of the pro-Trump/anti-Trump issue. It is very convenient for the establishment, because otherwise people might be thinking about the truly outrageous 2008 bailout, or wondering why we are involved in so many wars, or thinking about campaign finance reform, or noticing all the white collar crime. If people are divided into “Ins”– the establishment, and “Outs”– the neglected masses, then I think these are concerns shared by the Outs. For the moment, though, the Outs are divided into a “left” and “right” and are fighting each other over Donald Trump.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          Yes. There is plenty of commonality among us. We the people have decided to be distracted and divided. It’s not a given at all that we continue doing this.

          We need a means to identify, rank, sort, affirm/deny/debate our schedule of priorities and solutions. The tools we have to do this with are not currently up to the job.

          We need new tools which are:

          a. hard to corrupt/capture
          b. cheap to operate
          c. widely available
          d. designed to build consensus about priorities and solutions

          Top-down communications tools like facebook do fine at b and c, but fail on items a and d. Building tools like these could readily be done via open-source methods, but the operations would cost some money (hosting, anti-hacking, curating)

          Model it (to some degree) on Wikepedia. Content provided by users, structure and design from a few smart people, coding by open-source developers. Hosted as peer-systems on many platforms which exchange data (no single point of failure)

          Lastly, aim the “solutions” toward things that can be done by an individual starting right now, with no (or few) external dependencies (like top-down approval, funding, etc.)

          The bottom layer (e.g. the 99%) of the socio-econ pyramid needs to “sprout legs” and get moving.

          1. Anarcissie

            If you are thinking about communications tools which avoid control by large corporations and the government, take a look at PeerTube and others of its kind. Many of the tools we now use constantly and are familiar with, especially smart phones and other computers, can communicate with each other along several channels not requiring centralized servers. The software to do this is being composed now. Ignition will be slow because you can’t make a billion dollars overnight with it, but it’s happening and will continue to happen.

          2. Edward

            Youtube and Google started out as such tools, but were bought out and turned into profit-making ventures in the service of capital.

            I think the political mess we are in is complicated. Movements that emerge seem to get co-opted, such as “the resistance” to Trump wasting its time on the bogus Russiagate scandal, instead of championing more progressive issues, where the Dems are also guilty, such as anti-imperialism, or environmental concerns. The internet is being used by outfits such as Cambridge Analytica to manipulate societies.

            I think Alex Jones is an example of someone on the right who is concerned about basic issues like the 2008 bailout. Needless to say, the establishment press tries to discredit him. Jones has appeared on the Joe Rogan show. Glenn Greenwald has appeared on the Tucker Carleson show. I think there are some example of bridge building between the anti-establishment left and right but so far it hasn’t reached a critical mass.

    3. Harold

      My understanding is that mechanistic determinism in the manner of Newton and the Enlightenment, has been superseded, with the seeds of doubt having being planted in the 18th c. by Hume. Kropotkin, a scientist, criticized Marxism as unscientific. On the other hand, scientists must proceed as though determinism were true, so I understand. And Kropotkin may not have been familiar with the full corpus of Marxist writings.

      As someone who studied the Italian Renaissance, I disliked Greenblatt’s The Swerve. I felt that Greenblatt was projecting 18th-century attitudes back onto the Renaissance. Peter Gay mentions Lucretius many times in his book, “The Enlightenment:The Rise of Modern Paganism. Greenblatt doesn’t mention Peter Gay. The Renaissance humanists of the 1300-1500s tended to be sincerely devout, and most were employed by the Church. Most of them admired Cicero and St. Augustine (who was an admirer of Cicero).

      St. Augustine, by the way, was a defender of science. He said that if the church says something that science has shown to be absurd, then the church must defer to science so as not itself to seem absurd. Petrarch’s brother was an Augustinian friar and Martin Luther was also an Augustinian.

      Modern scholarship has shown that contrary to Greenblatt, Lucretius was read during the Middle ages and that many copies existed besides the one that Poggio found and copied. Poggio’s immediate predecessor, the poet Petrarch (“the first modern man”), was the one who popularized book hunting. Petrarch had probably read Lucretius because his poetry praises Spring in the way the opening of De rerum natura does.

      But be that as it may, if the book got some people interested in Poggio and the other colorful humanists, then it was not a bad thing.

      1. Harold

        The reason Lucretius was popular in the Enlightenment was not atoms or Epicureanism so much, but rather his famous denunciation of superstition and religion: tantum religio potuit suadere malorum — to such great evils could religion persuade men. The Enlightenment was reacting against the previous century’s prolonged wars of religion, the Inquisition, and Louis XIV’s highly unpopular Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (Edict of Toleration).

        1. Harold

          Science has been around since the Mesopotamians. In antiquity it was not called that, though, they called it “Natural Philosophy.” This term was only dropped in the mid-19th century, and indeed, in other languages, such as German, the word science has a broader meaning than in English and usually means “disciplined inquiry.” (In Latin scientia means “knowledge” from the verb scio, scire, “To know”)
          Historians say that experimental science as we understand it started in the 13th c., in Italy and England.
          Galileo cited St. Augustine in his defense of his theories. https://chem.tufts.edu/science/Stear-NoAiG/no-AiG/saintaugustine.htm

            1. Harold

              I think they had in mind the science of their time (or slightly before), namely Newtonian mechanics. Engels even calls it “natural science,” after the custom of the day.

              I just realized that my mother gave me “Socialism Utopian and Scientific” (an excerpt from Anti-Duhring I just found out) when I was fourteen years old. I puzzled over it for many years. I think it is very valuable to study Marxism because, right or wrong, it is an example of disciplined analysis.

              The scientists and thinkers of the nineteenth century accomplished an incredibly great deal (when you think of the limitations they faced). As Francis Bacon said (echoing one of those scientific monks of the middle ages) we moderns stand on the shoulders of giants.

  10. Daniel Raphael

    The essential insight of Marxist analysis is that capitalism–which creates its own contradictions, thus transforming its own character–steadily degrades and ultimately destroys both human beings and the environment. It’s a both/and, of course, though we have been tardy to recognize the significance of this mundane observation. And that brings us to our contemporary crisis.

    1. Massinissa

      “steadily degrades and ultimately destroys both human beings and the environment”

      I’m under the impression that FDR essentially saved Capitalism, and that the first few decades of the post FDR era were a historical exception rather than the rule. We’re pretty much at a new Gilded Age at this point, where absurdly rich and powerful monopoly capitalists dictate what happens in society.

  11. LilD

    It is no accident that big science in capitalist countries is tied to either war or the greed of capital.


    Got a PhD funded by DOE & DARPA … fellowship at cal space
    Peace dividend of 1993 cut funding in half so on to wall st.
    Career of (a) bombs and rockets, and (2) making billionaires richer.
    All I really wanted to do was cool math but ended up a tool.


    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Don’t apologize. Almost everyone else, in one form or another, did the same thing. I certainly did. Use those wonderful capacities you have to gen up some new solutions.

  12. jpr

    @Edward: “Marx and Engels tried to cast their theory with the inevitability of the motion of a ball in gravity, but their theory was messier then this.”

    Welcome to the fun-house of Marx and Hegel, buddy! There are several indications that Marx’s ultimate goal was to be regarded as the Newton of his age (having discovered the “laws” of society), but there are many passages where it seems he’s agreeing with Hegel in dismissing Newton as well. As Pareto, a careful reader of Marx observed a century ago, what you find in one part of Marx/Engels can be countered with its exact opposite in another part :)

    May I recommend Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume work entitled ‘Main Currents of Marxism’ as an antidote to such vapid warmed-over Heraclitus-thought and neo-Platonism as “[Engels] showed that nature, instead of being unchanging, is also in evolution”? A few other writers whose name comes to mind to fend off this pestilence of “poshlost” (something full of BS, with flies, paradoxically being praised to high heavens as the most admirable of intellectual achievements) from that bearded sage of Trier:

    1. Cornelius Castoriadis (A Society Adrift)
    2. Karl Korsch (Ten Theses on Marxism)
    3. Gabriel Kolko (After Socialism

    If you don’t have the time to trawl through above works (if I had to recommend one, the slim ‘After Socialism’ would be the one), then here’s an excerpt from a heartfelt personal letter by one Max Nettlau written in 1936, high noon of Fascism and Stalinism:

    “I call Marx ‘triple-faced,’ because with his particularly grasping spirit he laid a claim on exactly three tactics and his originality no doubt resides in these pan-grasping gests. He encouraged electoral socialism, the conquest of parliaments, social democracy and, though he often sneered at it, the People’s State and State Socialism. He encouraged revolutionary dictatorship. He encouraged simple confidence and abiding, letting ‘evolution’ do the work, self-reduction, almost self-evaporation of the capitalists until the pyramid tumbled over by mathematical laws of his own growth, as if triangular bodies automatically turned somersaults. He copied the first tactics from Louis Blanc, the second from Blanqui, whilst the third correspond to his feeling of being somehow the economic dictator of the universe, as Hegel had been its spiritual dictator. His grasping went further. He hated instinctively libertarian thought and tried to destroy the free thinkers wherever he met them, from Feuerbach and Max Stirner to Proudhon, Bakunin and others. But he wished to add the essence of their teaching as spoils to his other borrowed feathers, and so he relegated at the end of days, after all dictatorship, the prospect of a Stateless, an Anarchist world. The Economic Cagliostro hunted thus with all hounds and ran with all hares, and imposed thus–and his followers after him–an incredible confusion on socialism which, almost a century after 1844, has not yet ended. The social-democrats pray by him; the dictatorial socialists swear by him; the evolutionary socialists sit still and listen to hear evolution evolve, as others listen to the growing of the grass; and some very frugal people drink weak tea and are glad, that at the end of days by Marx’s ipse dixit Anarchy will at last be permitted to unfold. Marx has been like a blight that creeps in and kills everything it touches to European socialism, an immense power for evil, numbing self-thought, insinuating false confidence, stirring up animosity, hatred, absolute intolerance, beginning with his own arrogant literary squabbles and leading to inter-murdering socialism as in Russia, since 1917, which has so very soon permitted reaction to galvanize the undeveloped strata and to cultivate the ‘Reinkulturen’ of such authoritarianism, the Fascists and their followers. There was, in spite of their personal enmity, some monstrous ‘inter-breeding’ between the two most fatal men of the 19’th century, Marx and Mazzini, and their issue are Mussolini and all the others who disgrace this poor 20’th century.”

  13. jpr

    @Harold, Mazzini bequeathed a rather complex and contradictory legacy (a short list of those influenced by him: Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Mahatma Gandhi, Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion, Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sun Yat-sen), but I believe that the reason Nettlau is citing him as a pernicious influence is because he–paraphrasing a recent author on a similarly forgotten figure–“provides a lens” through which to examine Fascism’s “cultural antecedents and the psychological and emotional needs” to which it pandered.


  14. jpr

    Here’s a clip of Cornelius Castoriadis, who for obvious reasons was well-versed in Greek philosophy, including its blind-spots–on the “antinomic” character of Marx whereby he was able to speak out of both (or per Nettlau, out of at least 4) sides of his mouth at the same time:


    The eminent philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi also wrote perceptively on the rhetorical technique of “riding 2 horses at once” to which he unfortunately gave a ponderous label, “Dynamo-Objective Coupling”:

    A dynamo-objective coupling, according to Polanyi, is a “moral inversion” in which a repressed moral belief is consciously denied in the service of a presumed objectivity. This had affected many modern intellectuals. As a result there was no conscious outlet for the innate moral passions. A dynamo-objective coupling, such as Marxism, allows an outlet for these moral passions while preserving the conscious illusion of objectivity. This results in covert unconscious moral actions which lack the moral and ethical limitations of a consciously held morality. Thus quite inhumane actions may be undertaken for “objective” reasons.

    A dynamo-objective coupling is extremely difficult to alter. If attacked on objective grounds, it is defended with all the moral fervor of the covert moral position; and if attacked on moral grounds, it is defended as a completely “objective” position having nothing to do with morality. This is the structure of militant Marxism, actively fomenting the overthrow of governments in order to further a process that is theoretically said to occur through historical necessity independent of conscious intentions.


    PDFs of all the above cited authors are available online (may need to do some creative searching). If anyone can’t find something in particular, just leave its name in the comments section and I’ll try to unearth it).

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