What do Marxists think about the future.

brendan holland brendan.holland at ntlworld.com
Mon Sep 15 02:43:42 MDT 2003

To find the theoretical foundations of dialectical materialist atheism we
must, rather, look to Engels' important work on the Dialectics of Nature
(Engels 1880/1940), and specifically to the introductory sections of this
work. What Engels clearly had hoped to be able to show was that the dynamic
of social-historical progress (development of the productive forces) which
he and Marx had identified, and which provided the criterion by which they
judged the relative merits of various economic structures, was in fact part
of a larger dynamic of cosmohistorical progress, the upward surge of matter
from less complex to more complex forms of organization. This in turn would
have provided at least something of an ethical foundation for socialism --an
answer to the question "Why should we be so concerned about developing the
productive forces anyway?" Anyone who reads the opening sections of the
Dialectics cannot help but be impressed by the depth and tragedy of Engels'
failure. Middle and late nineteenth century physics, obsessed as it was with
the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the imminent "heat death" or "entropic
disintegration" of the universe, did not support Engels' hope for a vision
of cosmohistorical progress. The best that Engels can manage is a "desperate
hope" that even as life and intelligence are defeated at one point in the
universe, they reassert themselves elsewhere in an endless cycle of birth,
growth, death and rebirth which is reminiscent of Nietzsche's doctrine of
the eternal return. Engels was unable or unwilling to break with bourgeois
science and its pessimistic cosmology and to mount an argument for cosmic
teleology. And universes which end in heat death or entropic disintegration
have no room for God.

There has been considerable discussion in recent years regarding the
emergence of a new scientific paradigm centered on holism and
self-organization. This discussion has been motivated by a number of
distinct developments in such diverse fields as physical cosmology and
nonlinear thermodynamics, all of which seem, however, to point in a common
direction. On the formal side there is a push towards the unification of
physical theory, while on the substantive side there is an increasing
willingness to talk about the universe as a radically interconnected system
with a fully intelligible structure, which develops towards ever higher
degrees of organization. Proponents of the so-called "anthropic cosmology"
even suggest that the universe may be fine-tuned in just such a way as to
make possible, or even necessary, the emergence of complex organization,
life, and intelligence (Prigogine et al 1977, 1979, 1984, 1988, Bohm 1980,
Barrow and Tipler 1986, Gal-Or 1987, Pines 1987, Lerner 1991, Tipler 1994,
Harris 1991, 1992)...........

.....The aim of science is to explain as much as possible using as little as
possible --i.e. to reduce the complex diversity of sensory experience to the
smallest number of principles possible, and if possible to rise to a single
first principle from which, were we to understand it perfectly enough, all
particular phenomena could be derived. In the process, we hope to discover
what purpose, if any, the universe possesses, and what role we play in the
realization of that purpose..........

.......mechanistic science has profound difficulty coming to terms with
certain critical bodies of evidence. The standard "Big Bang" cosmology has
run into increasing empirical difficulties --the existence of large scale
structure which contradicts assumptions of cosmic homogeneity, missing dark
matter, stars older than the universe itself is supposed to be, and
incorrect predictions regarding the basic ratios of such elements as
Deuterium, Helium, and Lithium (Lerner 1991). More important is the
inability of mechanistic science to explain adequately the emergence of
complex organization, something which appears to be ruled out by such basic
principles of thermodynamics as the Second Law and the Boltzmann Order
Principle (Prigogine 1977, 1984). And even where mechanistic science is able
to patch together an authentically powerful explanation of a range of
natural phenomena, it does so only with theories which ultimately contradict
each other.........

.........The "new" science, as it is generally called in popularizations, is
more or less defined by an attempt to resolve some or all of these
difficulties, and thus to unify, or at least significantly advance the
unification of, science, while arguing, in one way or another, for the
ultimate meaningfulness of the universe. Let us consider briefly three very
different variants of this program, and see why it is, in fact, quite
impossible to carry out --at least without a more fundamental
epistemological rupture and what amounts to a return to the alternative,
teleological strategy of explanation.........

.......Similarly, Prigogine's theory of self-organization is ultimately
descriptive rather than explanatory. It tells us how complex organization is
possible, and how it emerges, but not why. We never advance to a principle
which can explain why the universe is, and is as it is, and not otherwise.
Similarly, as with Gal-Or, we never get an argument regarding the ultimate
meaningfulness of the universe. Clearly this is not because either scientist
is hostile to the idea. On the contrary, both are clearly friends of
progress, human and cosmic, and make it clear that they would welcome a
convincing argument that our labors here are not in vain. Rather, it is a
result of the limitations of mathematical physics itself, of the tyranny of
the formalism and of what the Thomistic tradition calls formal abstraction,
which allows us to grasp the structure or order of a system, without telling
us what it is, something which depends of what Aquinas called "total
abstraction," or why, which depends on "separation" or what we prefer to
call "transcendental abstraction (Aquinas, In Boethius De Trinitate Q5,6)."
The concepts of essence and of final cause simply have no place within
mathematical formalism. And only a scientific strategy which has room for
these concepts can generate a complete explanation, telling us what things
are and why as well as how, and only a such scientific strategy can approach
in an open-ended way the question of the ultimate meaningfulness of the

...Openness to transcendental abstraction does not, to be sure, by itself
settle the question of cosmic teleology. That depends on empirical research.
But it does provide us with a way to account for the evidence we have, and
continue our search for truth in a spirit of hope and wonder at the beauty,
intelligibility, and goodness of the universe, a wonder which is the mother
of all scientific exploration.

Engels presents a more complex problem. His Dialectics of Nature (Engels
1880/1940) is nothing if not an attempt to argue for the ultimately
meaningfulness of the universe and thus to supply dialectical materialism
with a more adequate cosmological foundation --a foundation which is
"metaphysical" from the standpoint of the political-theological critique, if
not from the standpoint of the authentic metaphysics of Aristotle and
Thomas. Specifically, he argues that matter has within itself a principle of
motion which leads to the development of ever more complex forms of
organization. This motion is governed by the "three laws of the dialectic:"

1) Quantitative changes in material systems eventually develop to the point
where they lead to qualitative difference, and thus new forms of

2) This process is driven by internal contradictions, such as those which
Marx discovered between the forces and relations of production but which,
not confined to the social form of matter, characterize physical and
biological systems as well.

3) The contradictory character of material systems notwithstanding, the
drive is always towards a higher synthesis, the "negation of the negation"
of which Hegel had spoken, so that not only human history but the whole
cosmic evolutionary process has a definite upward direction.

Engels' strategy, however, foundered on the emerging pessimism of nineteenth
century science, something which was reflected most immediately in the
somber predictions of cosmic heat death after the discovery of the Second
Law of Thermodynamics but which, as we have noted, finds its fullest
expression in the Nietzschean doctrine of cosmic struggle and eternal
return. The most he can offer is the hope of a continuous cycle of birth,
death, and rebirth. This growing cosmological pessimism was partly, of
course, a spontaneous product of the deepening internal contradictions and
growing stagnation of the market system. But mathematical physics, which has
been the carrier of cosmological pessimism in the capitalist era, from the
very beginning received no small aid and comfort from the forces of the
Augustinian reaction. As Pierre Duhem (Duhem 1909) pointed out at the
beginning of this century, it was the Augustinian critique of Aristotelian
physics, motivated by a concern that this physics undermined divine freedom
and human responsibility, which set in motion the turn toward empirical
investigation in the later Middle Ages, a turn which was especially advanced
in Franciscan circles, from Robert Grosseteste, who developed a kind of
early version of the Big-Bang theory, to William of Occam, whose principles
still govern scientific investigation of the more empiricist sort. If God is
radically free to organize the universe in whatever way he wills, then the
only way to discover that organization, is through empirical research. The
effect, of course, is to drain the universe itself of any intrinsic meaning.
Contemporary physical cosmology, with its willingness to violate the
principle of sufficient reason by positing an origin through "quantum
fluctuations," and its extreme pessimism regarding the long-range future of
the universe, is simply an extension of this trend........

........Cosmological pessimism retained its hold over the defeated workers
movements. But in Europe as in the Soviet Union, the conscious political
strategies of the bourgeoisie also played a role. Even as Stalin and Mitin
moved to constrain the resurgence of metaphysics in the Soviet Union,
European Marxists rejected Soviet "diamat" and the dialectics of nature,
which remained an integral part of Soviet doctrine even after Mitin, in
large part because it seemed to chain them to a larger cosmohistorical
process --and a central political authority legitimated by that process--
which constrained their autonomy. Socialist humanism became simply a
left-wing form of secular bourgeois individualism.
Eventually, of course, the European left recognized this. The response,
however, was not a turn towards metaphysics in search of a ground (and this
in spite of the powerful opening by and to the Catholic Church during the
1960s and 1970s) but rather the "Althusserian reaction" which, even more so
than Mitin's diamat gave priority to the principle of contradiction, and
rejected the search for meaning and direction in even the limited arena of
human history in favor of concrete political analysis of "complex structured
totalities." Marxism was reduced to an analytic tool for the workers
movement, which asked for an needed no ethical justification.

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