Marxism and mathematics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Feb 2 18:47:52 MST 2001

Tonight I attended the first session of a class at the Brecht Forum in NYC
on "Mathematics for the Millions". I have been meaning for years to teach
myself mathematics and this class was just what I needed to get a jump-start.

There are two motivations for me, which I explained at the round-robin
introductions that started the class. One, I believe that it is important
for Marxists to be knowledgeable about science and math, taking the example
of Marx and Engels themselves who studied the sciences all through their
life. As was mentioned here recently, a European publishing house devoted
to the works of Marx is about to come out with his Scientific Notebooks,
which number in the hundreds of pages apparently.

Another motivation is that much of the economics literature, which rises
above the generalist framework, uses mathematics. For better or for worse,
I should add. For example, I have a copy of Philip T. Hoffman's "Growth in
a Traditional Society: The French Countryside 1450-1815" that refutes many
of the empirical claims of Robert Brenner and his co-thinkers about the
uniquely productive character of British farming. However, Hoffman's case
rest largely on a cliometric analysis of vineyards, etc., that involves
what appears to be calculus--at least to my untutored eye. I want to be
able to understand this material and integrate it into a Marxist analysis
that works within Jim Blaut's general framework, but I need the math to do
it properly.

Speaking of Jim Blaut, there were some interesting points made in tonight's
session from the 'anti-Eurocentric' perspective. Sam Anderson stated that
it a case can be made that the origin of mathematics is in the East African
hunting and gathering societies of 20,000 years ago when women were forced
to contend with the mathematics of the menstrual cycle, based on the lunar
calendar. Reproducing life, after all, is one of the prime requirements of
homo sapiens. With the evolution of class society, especially western
capitalist society, math becomes more and more abstract and loses this kind
of connectivity. Despite this, there are often occasions when
"ethno-mathematics" serves the needs of more advanced societies. For
example, an IBM engineer grappling with the problem of designing an
electrical circuit using the most direct path found inspiration in the
textile designs of "primitive" Angolan people, whose use of math was woven
literally into their everyday life.

Sam is one of the directors of the board of the Brecht Forum which has been
a central element of the nonsectarian left in the New York area for nearly
25 years. In fact one of the inspirations for the mailing list is the
Brecht Forum itself, which gathers together people for classes, forums and
lectures for the sole purpose of advancing the theoretical and political
level of our movement. He appears to be about my age and has taught
mathematics since the 1970s. As an African-American youth growing up in
Bedford-Stuyvesant, he first developed an interest in math from reading
science fiction comic books, particularly those that dealt with space
travel. He kept at his studies despite the widespread prejudice that math
was over the head of black people. This prejudice was also belied by the
fact that half the students were black and female, thus refuting racial and
sexual stereotypes in one fell swoop.

The other teacher is Sudeb Mitra, who grew up in Calcutta. As a teenager,
he had an intense interest in math and science. One day a friend of his
father and a CP cadre gave him a copy of "Dialectics of Nature" by Engels.
He found the book intriguing, since it connected what appeared to be
totally unconnected disciplines: science and revolutionary socialism. When
he showed it to a science professor, he was told that the book was not to
be taken seriously. He was advised to read the Communist Manifesto instead.
At that point, he backtracked away from the notion that science and math
have some sort of connection to socialism. That belief was finally
dispelled when the CP cadre returned several weeks later with a copy of
Albert Einstein's "Why Socialism" which appeared in the very first issue of
Monthly Review in 1949. Sudeb decided that if the greatest mathematician of
the 20th century could embrace Marxism, then he so would he. Furthermore,
he was determined to see if they had connections. In tonight's session, he
claimed that they did. Calculus, the mathematics of dynamic change, is very
much in the spirit of dialectical materialism, a point that he intends to
elaborate in future sessions and which I will be reporting on.


Mathematics for the Millions

Sam Anderson & Sudeb Mitra

The goal of this course is to understand mathematics as part of daily life,
as the "Mirror of Civilization." It is inspired by the work of the famous
Marxist scholar and scientist Lancet Hogben. Marx is known to have told
Paul Lafargue, "A science is not really developed until it has learned to
make use of mathematics." The choice of topics will also serve as a
preparation for studying Marx's "Mathematical Manuscripts." We will discuss
the following mathematical topics, always exploring the historical
development of fundamental concepts:

1. The non-European roots of mathematics.
2. What you can do with geometry--some basic ideas of measurement;
equilateral and isosceles triangles, similar triangles, polygons, emphasis
on the Pythagoras Theorum.
3. Basic algebraic operations--solving simple equations and quadratic
equations, simple fractions and laws of indices.
4. Basic trigonometrical ratios and how to use trigonometry. As an example
we will look at how to calculate the distance of the moon from the earth
(based on the calculation of Hipparchus).
5. What is calculus all about? We will look at velocity and rate of change
leading to the concept of derivative. Emphasis on applications.

Sam Anderson has been teaching mathematics since 1966 in various New York
metropolitan colleges. He is Education Director at Medgar Evers College
Center for Law and Social Justice and a member of the Brecht Forum board of
directors. Sudeb Mitra is a mathematician, teacher and activist. He is
especially interested in the relationship between Marxism and the sciences.

Brecht Forum:

Louis Proyect
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