“An animal reproduces its own nature, but humanity reproduces all of nature.”
K. Marx, “1844 Manuscripts”
“We know only one science: the science of history”.
K. Marx/F. Engels, The German Ideology
Marx and Engels devoted a great deal of attention to the question of “science” and to the establishment of their theories as “scientific”. This included an approach to natural science, although virtually all the writing on this subject was done by Engels. The abortion of Soviet scientific philosophy, and the nonsense produced in the name of “proletarian science” in various “Marxist” regimes has reduced this dimension of the Marxian project to near invisibility today in the advanced capitalist world. Such is the Zeitgeist that even those (such as this writer) who see current developments in the world economy as a complete vindication of Marx’s theory of capitalist crisis are circumspect about trumpeting that fact as a victory for “scientific socialism”.
Marx and Engels, revolutionaries that they were, still bore the earmarks of their era, and that era was one of almost boundless faith in the achievements and uses of natural science, conventionally understood. We, in contrast to Marx and Engels, know the meanings of names such as Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Bophal, Chemobyl; we know all too well a world in which the linear application of micro-rationality is quite compatible with macro-barbarism.
It is thus easier for us, today, to see that Marx and Engels took the natural science produced by bourgeois society pretty much at face value. It is true that Engels, in Dialectics of Nature, tried his hand at “standing Hegel on his head” by puerile applications of quantity ‘and “quality” to natural processes. Lenin, later, in Materialism and EmpirioCriticism. similarly intervened in an intra-party dispute on the side of a distinctly preKantian materialism. The “Marxism” popularized by the Second, Third and Fourth Internationals has been the Marxism of an Hegelianized, or ontologized matter, in which classical bourgeois science, above all physics, is taken as a virtual model for any science, including a science of society. Marx and Engels knew better, but their popularizers did not, and the founders left some of their most revolutionary conceptions in their 1840’s embryo and consigned most of itto “the grawing critique of the mice”.
What lies like a chasm between us and such a concept of materialism is the vastly expanded view of Marx which has developed in the last 60 or 70 years, but particularly since World War II, a Marx who was unknown to all but a handful of scholars before 1945, and who was certainly unknown in the mass workers’ movement which invoked his name. This is the Marx who wrote the Grundrisse, the “Theses on Feuerbach”, the 1844 “Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts”; this is the Marx who drew deeply on Hegel’ s Logic when elaborating the method of Capital, the Marx of whom Lenin spoke in 1914, upon reading Hegel’s Logic, when he said that “no previous Marxist” (including himself) had adequately understood Marx.
What has also enriched our understanding of Marx has been the demonstration, by figures such as Kolakowski and Ernst Bloch, that the “active side developed by idealism” to which Marx refers in the “Theses on Feuerbach” comes straight out of the neo-Platonism of late antiquity, or such medieval and early modern neo-Platonists as Eckhardt, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, Jakob Boehme, all predecessors of Hegel (1) and rarely , if ever, invoked by the “hard-headed materialists” of the classical workers’ movement. But both historical developments, and serious research, make these connections banalities today for those with a minimum of literacy and honesty.
Finally, the history and philosophy of science itself, as one expression of the deepening “ecology crisis” (i.e. the crisis of the planet’s self-reproduction) , has in the past three decades opened up perspectives on the origins of modern bourgeois science that would have seemed fantastic to the theoreticians of the classical workers’ movement. Today, we know that Newton, the very paradigm of bourgeois science, had a lifetime interest in astrology and alchemy, and in all likelihood read Boehme himself (who had enjoyed great popularity during the radical phase of the English Revolution of the 1640’s). Historians such as the Jacobs have shown meticulously that the ideology of “Newtonianism”, from which astrology, alchemy and Boehme had all vanished, was the product of a vast social battle against the extremist “enthusiasts” on England’s radical fringe. Thus even the “queen of the sciences” is today revealed to have imposed itself in a deeply political and ideological wat. “It may be possible to understand the English Revolution without understanding Newton”, as one writer put it, “but it is impossible to understand Newton without understanding the English Revolution”.
All this notwithstanding, it is little recognized today that the world view articulated by Marx between 1843 and 1847, to which he had little opportunity to return where questions of natural science were concerned, in fact contains an implicit vision of a completely different kind of science than that developed by capitalism, or later by official Marxism. Historical experience allows us, and in fact compels us, today, to return to these undeveloped theses of Marx and see where they lead us in the development of a conscious, self-reflexive, sensuous conception of global praxis (the latter being exactly what Marx actually meant by the word “science”)
What follows, then, is a small contribution to the elaboration of that completely different kind of science which grows from that “germ of a new world outlook”, as Engels called the Theses on Feuerbach. I present them in the form of theses/dialogue, to be elaborated in response to subsequent critique and comment.
1. What destroyed the classical revolutionary workers’ movement of the 1848-1930 period?
The answer must be: the state, Social Democratic (Keynesian) and Stalinist.
2. What were the “value” foundations of this institutional modification (i.e. of the appearance, in 1933-1945, of the Schachto-Keynesian state) ?
Answer: the transition from absolute to relative surplus-value as the main source of capitalist accumulation.
3. “Marxism” from Engels to Lenin was essentially the IDEOLOGY of the substitute bourgeois revolution, from Germany in the 1860’s to Cambodia in 1975, necessary to make the transition out of pre-capitalist social relationships (essentially, the destruction of feudal relationships on the land) and accumulation centered on absolute surplus value, derived from a lengthening of the working day of labor power recruited in large part from the countryside. “Vulgar Marxism” (i.e. the recapitulation of pre-Kantian materialism) necessarily arose as the expression of this, the real content of the 1870-1945 “socialist” movement.
4. The phase of accumulation in which relative surplus-value, derived from the intensification of the production process and the reduction of labor power to its generally abstract form, was generally reached in Europe and the United States in the 1870-1945 period. This is the period in which capitalism forges a technology appropriate to itself, as opposed to its earlier commodification of existing technologies. Capital, therefore, is, in this phase, a MATERIALIZED social relationship, and a materialized ideology. What ideology?
5. Answer: the ideology of mid-17th century England and English empiricism, developed by Bacon, Newton, Hobbes, Locke and Smith, simultaneously and in unitary fashion in physics, philosophy and political economy (with all of them making contributions in more than one area–Locke in both philosophy and political economy, Newton as head of the British mint, etc.) Where did that ideology come from?
6. Answer: ultimately, from the Parmenides-Zeno “bad infinity” continuum developed in Greece in the 6th century BC, which has always been the foundation of the IDEOLOGY of science in the West. Parmenides elevated Being above space and time, and developed an ontology of the infinite divisibility of space and time in the visible, “fallen” world. Democritean atomism agrees with the Parmenidean division of reality, transforming Being into the “void”, and affirming only the existence of randomiy associated atoms. What is excluded from “science” by this ideology is the creative act, the creation of the world in cosmology, as in Plato’s Timaeus. Religious or philosophical creation cosmology is the ideological expression of humanity’s “sensuous transformative praxis”, i.e. man’s anti-entropic role in the biosphere. Human history is the history of the creation of new biosphere environments.
The Parmenidean plane of (undetermined) Being above space and time is also the philosophical counterpart to the commoditization of social relations in 6th century BC Greece. Value, like Being, strips individual objects of all contingent, secondary qualities and relates them to a general standard of pure abstraction: non-contingency, or labor time. Thus abstraction in philosophy and value in political economy are (as Sohn-Rethel has argued for ancient Greece), two sides of the same general process, both founded on the autonomization of the world from its creators. What was the result?
7. Answer: in a later, more mature commodification of society, 17th century England, Parmenides-Zeno’s “ontology” of (bad) infinite divisibility of space and time passed from being an ontological prejudice to being a “material force”, in the asymtotes of Newton’s derivative for the description of motion. The successes of Galilean-Newtonian atomism in the description of the (local) motion of bodies, fine in and of itself, was “mistakenly” generalized as an ontology, an ontology founded on the manifest successes of the method on the lowest level of significance. The simultaneous triumph of an atomistic physics, philosophy and political economy repeats at a higher level the invasion of all spheres of social life by the commodity categories of value, therefore of labor. which had occurred 2200 years earlier in Greece. The result, for science, was the “death of nature”, de-cosmization, vis a vis the earlier Renaissance neo-Platonic (“astrobiological”) views, in which human imagination was grasped (as in Paracelsus) as a natura naturans, a creating nature. The natural world of Galileo, Newton and Descartes receded into a represented extension, from which human participation (the creative act of transformative innovation), was excluded. Many currents of contemporary ecology ideology, most notably the Gaia theory, are founded on this diminution or exclusion of the human contribution to the renewal of nature through biosphere innovation.
8. This ontology, successfully realized as a “material force” by 17th century physics and then falsely generalized from limited, correct applications in statics and dynamics to a total view, reached its completion in 1850 with Clausius’ formulation of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Carnot, in 1808, had formulated the (1st) Law of Conservation for the study of steam engines; Clausius generalized this approach to a theory of entropy for closed systems, i.e. systems without “outside” intervention, or negentropic intervention reversing entropy in a local system by depleting energy from a larger system. The obvious consequence was to generalize the entropic movement of a closed system without intervention to the ultimate “closed system”, the universe as a whole. Therefore, from the ontological prejudice of the Parmenides-Zeno continuum, to Newton’s derivative, to thermodynamics, in which energy is defined as a “form of motion” and measured in categories of work, the “bad infinity” ontology which excludes the “creative act” (negentropy) is progressively generalized into a massive material force, tending toward the heat-death extinction of the universe. In such a de-cosmized universe, in which time and space are conceived as uniform and the coherence of matter as contingent and random, the appearance of life itself must appear as an accident. The exclusion of the creative, negentropic, lawful intervention of living matter in the reversal of entropy, first positied ontologicallylphilosophically, becomes in 1666 and finally in 1850 a “materialized” nature praxis. What were the consequences?
9. Not accidentally, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all closed systems tend to an equalized dissipation of energy organization, is formulated in the same decade (through the earlier work of Kelvin, Thompson et al. in the 1840’s) as the appearance of Marxism and of the beginning of the end of absolute surplus-value preponderance in accumulation. Marx generally formulates what we called earlier (following Engels) “the germ of a new world outlook”, which, though little developed on the natural science side, essentially rejects the “exclusion of the creative act” from the biosphere and ultimately from the cosmos. In the conception of species-being, Marxism locates “biosphere innovation” as the repeatedly demonstrated ACTUAL infinity of human evolution, and ultimately of evolution generally. Human beings, the first species which contains within its own capacities infinite elasticity of evolutionary modification of the biosphere and hence of itself, repeatedly produces “new natures” by inventing new technologies which tap previously dormant and unusable energy sources. The ontologically-determined “running down” of the universe posited by bad-infinity physics (Parmenides- Zeno/ Newton/ Clausius) “materializes” the infinite REPETITION ontologically presupposed by bad infinite exclusion of the creative act (the latter being first of all improvements in man’s interraction with nature), and materializes the projection into nature of the “atomistic ego” of bourgeois society, just as Marx, by positing the end of the reducibility of the material world to the standard of labor (value) RESTORES the creative act to a conception of biosphere praxis.
10. These more implicit than explicit sides of Marx remained virtually undeveloped until quite recently because of the ideologization of his work described in Thesis 3. The vulgar Marxist recapitulation of the pre-Kantian 18th century materialism, as the ideology of a substitute bourgeois revolution, had no use for a “creation cosmology”, particularly insofar as actual bourgeois natural science, which was its model, continued to score further apparent successes based on the same ideology. Thus the “Marxist” heritage, which in Germany and above all in Russia was developing from a theory of Gemeinwesen (the pre- and post-commodity community) to a glorification of the productive forces, directly appropriated bourgeois natural science almost completely uncritically. It never understood that the simultaneity of the appearance of value categories and of fundamental modifications of “bad infinity” physics in the 6th century BC, the 17th century and in the 1890-1930 relativity/quantum revolution necessarily implied that the suppression of value would also be the suppression/ supercession of “bad infinity” science. But this “Marxism” was the ideology of the transition to relative surplus-value accumulation, and was not about the suppression of the categories of value.
11. These problems would only come to a head through and after the 1968-1973 onset of the world economic/ecology crisis, the END of the phase of accumulation centered on relative surplus-value which had begun after 1850. Georgescu- Roegen, for example, as one ideologue of contemporary austerity, connects the appearance of neo-classical economics (i.e. bourgeois thought in the phase of relative surplus-value, the primacy of the viewpoint on the economy of the CONSUMER), with the entropy law, to affirm one and the other.
12. Simultaneously, the crisis which began in 1968-1973, which was an expression of a revolt of the forces of production against the relations of production, i.e. that the former were too productive to be contaied within value forms, responded to the need to destroy productivity by the process of de-industrialization. The appearance, for the first time, of seriously industrialized countries outside of the “classical” capitalist world of 1914 (Europe/ North America/ Japan) developed by capitalism (e.g. the Asian “tigers”) undermined forever the hegemony of the pseudo-Marxist development ideology for backward countries. This reality, in contrast to the pre-1968 period in which industrialization seemed confined to the classical zone and to the Stalinist-Third Worldist autarchic states, made possibe the recovery of the “Gemeinwesen” dimension of Marxism contained in Marx’s correspondance with the Russian Populists, which was suppressed in the 1880’s and 1890’s ideologization of Marxism. Thus the “substitute bourgeois revolution” as a social force which sustained the ongoing pseudo-Marxist view toward science crumbled along with Leninist’ Stalinist development ideology. This makes possible the return, within the Marxism tradition, of the actual infinity, natura naturans (1) creation cosmology which was always there in the idea of species-being.
For Hegel and for Marx, the idea of “self-reflexivity” was fundamental: Hegel’s self-developing world spirit, Marx’s definition of capital as “value valorizing itself” (sich selbst verwertendes Wert). Such self-reflexivity must move to the center of a science of global sensuous praxis. As we have indicated, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics rested on the assumption of the universe as the ultimate “closed system”. But because of the atomistic assumption of the whole theory, such a closed system precisely does not “act upon itself’. It is perhaps no accident that atomism, in Russell, runs up against its final formal paradoxes in the 1890-1930 period (of the social and political reshaping of the world for the Schachto-Keynesian state and the intensification of the production process), and that with Goedel the whole formalist project is torpedoed forever. Basically, the whole foundation of atomist science rests on the I=I assumption of identity (as articulated by Fichte). We get here into the question of symmetry of time and space. What does identity mean? It means the mirror reversibility of a system. Space and time were supposed by atomism to be uniform, and hence reversible in both directions, backward and forward. When reality is distanced into a representation (a mirror image) then creative intervention is excluded. This is the spectacle transformed into a material force in physics, ideology and, with the bulk of the ecology movement, ultimately in society. Once one “breaks the mirrors”, the linear invertibility of time is also shattered, and can be replaced by the major non-invertible motion: the rotation of a helix. Not accidentally, the helix is the central metaphor of time for Marx (the “Kreislauf” of the cycle of capital). Then, life ceases to appear as contingent to the cosmos, which is the very presupposition of the existence of a cosmos in the first place. Thus the radical critique of Einstein cannot merely limit itself to a a modification of the theory of general relativity by a demonstation of the theory’s atomistic foundations (though that in itself may be a valid critique). The fundamental flaw in Einstein is the exclusion of the appearance of life, and the development of life, as a lawful, non-contingent and negentropic event in the history of the universe.
As the otherwise atomistic quantum physicist Heinz Pagels put it (2): “Conceivably, life might be able to change those laws of physics that today seem to imply its extinction along with that of the universe. If that is so, then might not life have a more important role in cosmology that is currently envisioned? That is a problem worth thinking about.
In fact, it may be the only problem worth thinking about.”
l-“Natura naturans”, “nature which creates, is a term used by a tradition of philosophers from John Scot Erigena (9th century) through Bruno, Paracelsus, up to Spinoza. In our conception, human innovation in the biosphere is “natura naturans”.
2. H. Pagels, The Cosmic Code, (1982), p.322.