Marxism and the Philosophy of Science

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Apr 14 05:55:15 MDT 2002

While strolling through the vendor displays at the Socialist Scholars
Conference yesterday, I was pleased to discover that Humanities Press
was back in business, under the Prometheus imprint. This is one of
the finest publishers of serious Marxist scholarship in the world.
Among the titles that will now be available once again are
LeBlanc-Wald's "Trotskyism in the USA" and Lowy's "Marxism in Latin

But I was particularly pleased to see that they have made Helena
Sheehan's "Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: a Critical History"
available in paperback. This book is an exhaustively researched, but
eminently readable, study of how Marxists have tried to apply their
method to the natural world, starting with Marx and Engels
themselves. Parts of Sheehan's book are online at: I have referenced them
in the past to demonstrate how the early Soviet Union attempted to
integrate scientific research into the overall revolutionary project.
Here's a brief excerpt from the introduction to chapter 4, which is

"Because of his concern for winning over the existing intelligentsia
and because of his special interest in the philosophy of science,
Lenin was particularly interested in gaining the support of natural
scientists. When the distinguished biologist K.A. Timiriazev
announced his fervent loyalty to the new regime, Lenin was overjoyed.
The bolsheviks received him with open arms and named a research
center after him: the State Timiriazev Scientific Research Institute
for the Study and Propaganda of Natural Science from Point of View of
Dialectical Materialism (mercifully reduced to Timiriazev Institute
in all but the most formal references to it).

"Another success was the N.I. Vavilov, who was put in charge of a
whole network of biological institutions. The physicist A.F. Joffe
had actually joined the anti-bolshevik exodus of scholars to the
Crimea in 1917, but returned to Petrograd, resolved to connect his
fate with that of the land of the Soviets, although it was by any
means clear that the civil war would be won. He became a member of
the Leningrad soviet and doyen of soviet physicists, although it was
not until 1942 that he joined the party.

"There was a concerted campaign to win working natural scientists
over to a materialist position in the philosophy of science. Through
such agencies as Union of Scientific Workers, the All-Union
Association of Workers Science and Technology for Assistance to the
Construction of Socialism (VARNITSO), and the Central Commission for
Improving the Condition of Scholars, various societies for
materialist natural scientists corresponding to various scientific
disciplines, the bolsheviks fought to win their hearts and minds."

While Sheehan's book makes no reference to the Sokal affair, it
clearly illustrates that revolutionary socialism has an entirely
agenda than Alan Sokal and his tutor Norman Levitt (who organized a
"science wars" conference at NYU using Olin Foundation money), and
much of the anti-pomo left. For Sokal, science is a kind of ivory
tower pursuit that should be protected from meddlers who haven't been
initiated into its sacred rites, especially the postmodernists who
don't know the difference between a quark and a quirk. For reasons
too complicated to go into now, Sokal was assumed to be speaking in
the name of socialism or Marxism during this controversy. But his
approach has more in common with "freedom of inquiry" liberalism, or
even worse, the sort of libertarianism that is promoted by organized
skeptic circles.

Revolutionary socialism has failed to carve out its own identity
successfully during the "science wars", in my opinion. If it will
succeed in this mission down the road, having Sheehan's book at its
disposal will help. Not only does it provide information available
nowhere else, it does so in a compelling fashion. This excerpt from
chapter 4, which is not online, deals with Trotsky's views on
science, which are unsatisfying in my opinion. It helps to shed light
on why Bukharin, rather than Trotsky, pioneered ecological thought in
the infant Soviet republic. It also suggests why Trotsky even went so
far as to promote "socialist" eugenics in the over-the-top article
"If America Should Go Communist":

Another politbureau member who turned to philosophy of science and
who has been associated with the mechanistic trend, was Leon Trotsky,
born Lev Davidovich Bronstein. In his major statement on philosophy
of science, his address to the Mendeleyev Congress in 1925, Trotsky
unfolded before the assembled chemists a sweeping reductionism:

"Psychology is for us in the final analysis reducible to physiology,
and the latter to chemistry, mechanics and physics.... Chemistry...
reduces chemical processes to the mechanical and physical properties
of its components. Biology and physiology stand in a similar
relationship to chemistry.... Psychology is similarly related to

Extending this scheme under the influence of Pavlov, Trotsky held
that the "so-called soul" was nothing more than a complex system of
conditioned reflexes, completely rooted in elementary physiological
reflexes that, in turn, through the potent stratum of chemistry,
found their root in the subsoil of mechanics and physics. Society was
simply a more complex system of conditioned reflexes, in the final
analysis, a combination of chemical processes. It was "a product of
the development of primary matter, like the earth's crust or the

Within this framework, the role of philosophy was to systematize the
generalized conclusions of all of the positive sciences, linking all
phenomena into a single system. To Trotsky's way of thinking,
reductionist assumptions were necessary to the achievement of this
enterprise. The essence of Marxism, according to Trotsky, consisted
in the fact that it examined human history "as one would a colossal
laboratory record." There should be no gap between the methods of the
natural sciences and those of the social sciences.

To be sure, Trotsky did introduce a cautionary note against
transplanting the methods and achievements of one science into
another. The methods of chemistry or physiology could not simply be
applied to human society. Public life was neither a chemical nor a
physiological process, but a social process, shaped according to its
own, sociological, laws. Each field of complex combinations of
elementary phenomena required a special method. Yet it was not always
clear whether these special methods were required by the special
character of each level of phenomena or by the fact that science had
not yet developed far enough to reduce the analysis of all phenomena
to a single method. Sometimes it seemed that Trotsky believed the
obstacle to a total reductionism to be only one of time. When it came
down to it, Trotsky had occasion to say, the final goal of science
was the reduction of all phenomena, whether chemical, biological,
social, or intellectual, to the ultimate reality of elementary
material particles:

"Scientific thought with its methods cuts like a diamond drill
through the complex phenomena of social ideology to the bedrock of
matter, its component elements, its atoms with their physical and
mechanical properties."

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 04/14/2002

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