Marxism and the philosophy of science

Jurriaan Bendien j.bendien at
Mon Apr 15 11:55:03 MDT 2002

Hey Louis

I'n not trying to knock philosophy of science or Sheehan's book, far from
it, I'd be curious to read it. I was just taking issue with one of your
statements, because I think the imposition of an ideology or cosmology on
the scientists by political fiat, and the consequent evaluation of their
"ideological correctness" by officials, was a bureaucratic mistake. I am
not against metaphysics as such, but I am against imposing a metaphysical
theory like dialectical materialism on people by force.

Now you are writing that "The bureaucracy in the USSR was a function of
social backwardness, not government policy. In fact, the notion of
scientific "independence" is a bourgeois myth." I think you should
reconsider this opinion more carefully.

For a start, it is wrong to attribute bureaucratic degeneration simply to
"backwardness". Sure, backwardness in the sense of a lack of material
resources, a lack of sufficient political awareness, illiteracy etc. did
set limits to the options which could be taken, but even within those
limits there were still various options which could be taken, and that was
a political choice, not historical inevitability. This is proved for
instance by the fact that the Joint and Left Oppositions (among others)
clearly articulated alternative policies through the 1920s.  So I think at
least in part, bureaucratisation was the outcome of government policy, the
product of fights within the Communist Party, which defeated policies that
would have meant less bureaucratisation. If you don't believe that, then
all revolutions in underdeveloped countries are doomed from the start, and
indeed the emergence of a viable socialism in the future is doubtful.

This argument can be extended to other areas as well. You can of course say
that environmental despoilation in the USSR and China was a "product of
backwardness", i.e. people didn't know any better or had no alternative. In
fact, many people did know better, there were alternatives, and
environmental despoilation was in good part a product of the ideology and
policy of the Communist Party, which regarded ecological and environmental
concerns as "bourgeois" or "petty bourgeois", similar to Phil Ferguson. You
may call me an "anti-communist" for saying this if you like, but I for one
am not going to apologise for the errors of a revolutionary regime, even if
it also accomplished much that was progressive.

Is the notion of scientific "independence" a bourgeois myth ? All hinges on
what you mean by the notion of "independence" here. As Richard Fidler said
pertinently to me off-list, we ought at least to distinguish between
"science policy" and "science".

Sure, scientific activity is conditioned by social circumstances, and the
course of scientific development is greatly determined by who has the funds
and who is prepared to put funds into it. Neverthless the discovery of e.g.
quantum physics was to a great extent the result of independent
scientific  inquiry by a number of scientific teams. Had those scientists
been forced to work within the framework of dialectical materialist
ideology (or fascist ideology), under political tutelage, they might never
have gotten there, or even wanted to get there.

I can imagine that a bona fide socialist government would set social
priorities for scientific research and specify the outcomes being sought,
allocating funds accordingly. But that is a different thing from political
people systematically interfering in the specific content and conduct of
scientific research and its consclusions, or placing severe limits on
freedom of inquiry. And that was a tradition which Lenin started.

The Soviet government faced this practical problem of, "how do we get the
scientific intelligentsia on our side ?" and they used certain methods. I
am suggesting that many of those methods were mistaken, wrong, not to say
horrific. Therefore we should not take this as an example of how
revolutionaries today should tackle the problem.

Suppose that you are right in saying that this was all a question of
"backwardness" - well then that's the best reason why we shouldn't take the
policies of the Soviet government as an "exemplary practice" for our own
time. Likewise Lenin and Trotsky weren't great philosophers, they were
revolutionary politicians. Their philosophical contributions ought to be
evaluated accordingly. We can be sympathetic to the bolsheviks' enthusiasm
for rooting out backward prejudices and mystical notions, but we should be
highly critical of many of the methods they chose to do it with.

The more successful Lenin, Trotsky etc. were, the more they sought to turn
Marxism into a philosophical system which could explain life, the universe
and everything, even in advance of serious research or relevant political
practice. I'm saying that we should resist that temptation to overreach

For balance, it might be useful to consult some of Loren Graham's books on
the subject.



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