How Marxists Brought Science to Politics and Politics to Science

Helena Sheehan

From Marx and Engels to the present day, socialists have been deeply engaged with the world of science. With the provision of lifesaving vaccines held hostage by corporate profiteering, the story of this relationship is more important than ever.

The Marx and Engels monument in Berlin. (Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

The COVID-19 pandemic may have been a disaster for humanity, but it’s been a great boon for the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies. Our reliance on Big Pharma for lifesaving vaccines has reminded us how badly we need to understand the links between science, politics, and commercial interests.

For Marxists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these were some of the most important questions to be addressed in their work. The cross-fertilization between Marxism and science had major implications for the development of both.

Helena Sheehan is an emeritus professor at Dublin City University and the author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, a book that traces the history of this encounter.

This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

What connection did Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels see between their own work and the developments in the natural sciences at the time?

Helena Sheehan

Marx and Engels were acutely attuned to the science of their day. They saw it as a kind of rolling revelation of the world. They were constantly writing to each other about various discoveries — which were coming very fast in the nineteenth century — and what they meant. They were struck by three discoveries above all.

One was the discovery of cellular structure, which they thought demonstrated the unity of the organic world. Then there was the discovery of the law of conservation and transformation of energy, which they thought revealed nature as a continuous and dynamic process. But most of all, there was the discovery of the evolution of species, which they saw as demonstrating the natural origins of natural history. They were particularly enthusiastic about Darwinism and the implications of evolution in both the natural world and the historical sphere.

This took place amid a massive shift in mood, as the nineteenth century witnessed a general transition from seeing the world as a static and timeless order of nature to viewing nature as more of a developmental and temporal process. As part of this, and within this whole atmosphere, Marx and Engels pushed the theory of evolution of species further into a theory of the evolution of everything. They explored the implications of this in formulating a philosophy that came to be called dialectical materialism.

Daniel Finn

What were the most significant arguments that Engels made in his work Dialectics of Nature?

Helena Sheehan

Dialectics of Nature was a posthumously published, unfinished manuscript by Engels, which he meant to be a major work elucidating the philosophical implications of the natural sciences. When he died, parts of it were fully written, while other parts were sketchy. Some of the science has been superseded. On the other hand, some of what Engels wrote anticipated scientific discoveries that only came later.

The core of Dialectics of Nature was its methodology, which was an epistemology and ontology of a new materialism — a materialism that was dynamic and fluid, one that saw the world as an interconnected totality, as opposed to an older materialism that was static, mechanistic, and reductionist. The epistemology and ontology were also in contrast to various idealist tendencies.

Daniel Finn

There are two separate arguments that could be made — and have been made — about the attempt by Engels to extend the scope of Marxism beyond the limits of human history. One is to say that you simply can’t come up with any general principles that would apply to the history of the universe and also to human history. The second is to say that the particular set of principles that Engels did come up with were unhelpful and misconceived. What’s your opinion of those two arguments?

Helena Sheehan

I disagree with both arguments. I think it’s impossible to think coherently, or even to live coherently, without working out a comprehensive worldview that encompasses everything. Marx and Engels believed this. They repudiated the idea that there was one basis for science and another for life.

Although some later Marxists tried to blend Marxism with various other philosophies, such as neo-Kantianism, with its sharp dividing line between nature and history, the mainstream of Marxism with which I identify has held on to a more holistic approach in thinking about both the natural world and human history. Those pulling in the other direction — I’m referring here to the Austro-Marxists, the Frankfurt School, the Yugoslav Praxis school, and much of the 1960s New Left — have tended to align natural science with positivism and to leave natural science to the positivists.

However, the best of Marxism, I think, from Marx and Engels on, developed a critique of positivism as well as a nonpositivist philosophy of science. I believe that politics needs to be grounded in a worldview that’s coherent and comprehensive and empirical, and I believe that science is crucial to this, as the cutting edge of empirically grounded knowledge.

Of course, people sometimes get involved in politics on the basis of particular issues, and we can work with people with whom we disagree on other questions. But I think that we need an intellectual tradition and a political movement that pulls it all together. As I discovered in my own journey, and as I hope I conveyed in Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, there’s a brilliant intellectual tradition tied to a political movement that has been doing this, and that’s Marxism.

Daniel Finn

What were the main trends in Soviet philosophy and science during the first decade of the revolution, and how did they interact?

Helena Sheehan

I found this period very exciting when I discovered it and began researching it. In the first decade of the revolution, there were debates about absolutely everything: about industrialization strategy and its relation to the collectivization of agriculture; about nationalities policy; about the nature of the state and the status of law under socialism; about the liberation of women, the future of the family, and free love; about avant-garde art and architecture; about various educational theories; about the idea of proletarian culture.

There were debates within every academic discipline, which also obviously involved debates about philosophy, science, and the philosophy of science. The most interesting debates of all were those among the Bolsheviks themselves. The debate about philosophy of science was a complex philosophical and political struggle, with much higher stakes than most intellectual debates.

At one level, there was a debate about the relative emphasis on Hegel and more generally about the history of philosophy versus the stress on the natural sciences. There were accusations, on the one side, of reversion to idealism or, on the other side, of reversion to mechanistic materialism, both of which had been superseded by Marxism.

There’s always been a tension in Marxist philosophy throughout the history of Marxism, but this debate was supercharged by its implications in complex historical currents and a complex struggle for power within the USSR. In 1931, there was a closing down of these debates and a push to accept one position in all of these different debates as the Marxist position. It was not only a matter of who was making the most convincing arguments in these debates, or who would get university positions or be on editorial boards. It was also a matter of who might be purged.

In philosophy, a group of young philosophers went to Joseph Stalin. Their position was a kind of synthesis between the two positions, which I believe made sense philosophically. But it was also complicated by ambition and opportunism, as is often the case. When I was in Moscow doing research on this, I interviewed Mark Mitin, who was the most prominent of these young philosophers. He argued that the philosophical debates didn’t have political consequences, although my research told me otherwise.

But what’s important about these debates is to see them in a wider context. In my book, I dealt with the whole cluster of debates, particularly this one in the area of philosophy, as well as the other debates in the natural sciences, which involved many factors swirling around each other. Of course, the one in biology was particularly fierce and consequential.

Daniel Finn

What impact did the Soviet delegation that came to London in 1931 for a scientific conference have on the development of British science?

Helena Sheehan

The appearance of a Soviet delegation at the Second International Congress of the History of Science in London in 1931 was the first appearance by any Soviet delegation at a major international academic congress. For this reason alone, it created quite a stir, not only at the congress itself but also in the mass media at the time. A book called Science at the Crossroads also came out of this, where the Soviet papers were published. It was translated into many languages and many editions and circulated all over the world. In fact, it can still be read today.

The delegation was led by Nikolai Bukharin, who was once a contender to succeed Vladimir Lenin. His appearance at the 1931 congress was midway down his trajectory, in terms of his position in the Soviet power structure. Bukharin and the others came forward at this congress with a fresh and vigorous proclamation of Marxism as an integrating philosophy that made more sense of science than anything else on the horizon.

It had a lasting impact, particularly on the Left. Some of the scientists who were present, such as J. D. Bernal, Joseph Needham, and others, were major figures, not only in British science but also in international science at the time.

Daniel Finn

What did J. D. Bernal and J. B. S. Haldane in particular take from Marxism for their scientific work? How did they understand the relationship between politics, philosophy, and science?

Helena Sheehan

What they took from Marxism was philosophical integrality and social purpose, based on Marxism as the key to integrating the various results of the natural sciences to form a coherent picture of the natural world, and then beyond that, for connecting nature to history and science to political economy. Both Bernal and Haldane wrote massive philosophical and historical works about science, as well as continuing their leading role in basic scientific research and organizing a movement for social responsibility in science.

Bernal saw Marxism as extending the scientific method to the whole range of phenomena, from the smallest particle to the whole shape of human history. He saw science as a social activity that was integrally tied to the whole spectrum of other social activities: economic, political, cultural, philosophical. He contrasted science under capitalism with science under socialism. Bernal believed that the frustration of science was an inescapable feature of the capitalist mode of production, and that science could only achieve its full potential under socialism.

Haldane also had a synthesizing approach extending beyond science, reaching for a theory of everything, from the beginning of time to the end of the world. He found this in Marxism. He saw Marxism as a scientific method applied to society, extending the unity to all knowledge, analyzing the same basic processes in nature and society. For Haldane, as for Bernal, there was no hermetic boundary between science and politics. He believed that those who thought otherwise were deluded. On one occasion, he said that even if the professors left politics alone, politics wouldn’t leave the professors alone.

Daniel Finn

You’ve argued that Christopher Caudwell, who wasn’t a professional scientist, made a strikingly original contribution to the philosophy of science in his book The Crisis in Physics. What were some of the key points that Caudwell put across?

Helena Sheehan

Caudwell was an autodidact. Not only was he not a professional scientist; he also wasn’t an academic, and he didn’t even attend university. He was a loner for most of his short life, but he read voluminously, and was relentlessly searching for a coherent and comprehensive worldview, which he, too, ultimately found in Marxism. He didn’t simply take it off the shelf: he made it his own in a fresh and original way across many areas, encompassing not only science but also philosophy and culture.

He also joined the Communist Party and threw himself into party work. He went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, where he died. It was a terrible loss to Marxism that this brilliant figure died so young. I feel very mournful every time I think about him, which is quite often.

Caudwell wrote with great clarity, passion, and profundity, and with the same sort of integrality as Bernal and Haldane. He addressed the theoretical fragmentation that he found in all disciplines and argued that it was rooted in a crisis in bourgeois culture. He said that at the root of that culture’s most basic thought patterns was the subject-object dichotomy, which had its basis in the social division of labor — in the separation of the class that generated the dominant ideology from the class that actively engaged with nature.

Caudwell thought that this distorted art, science, psychology, philosophy, economics, and indeed all social relations. He argued that while there had been great empirical advances in genetics, evolution, quantum mechanics, and other fields, at the same time, however, there was an inability to synthesize the meaning of these discoveries.

He analyzed the crisis in physics in terms of the metaphysics of physics. Caudwell displayed an acute grasp of theoretical physics — in particular the tensions between relativity and quantum theory. He argued that physics was advancing along the empirical front and generating a growing body of knowledge that could not be fitted into the existing theoretical frameworks and was rent by the same dualisms as all other intellectual disciplines.

He also analyzed the crisis in biology and the tensions between genetics and evolution, between heredity and development, equally brilliantly. He really was an extraordinary figure.

Daniel Finn

What impact did the purges under Stalin have on the Soviet scientific community, including some of those who had gone to London in 1931?

Helena Sheehan

It was tragic for Soviet science and for Soviet society. Soviet society became engulfed in a terrible spiral where truth-seeking seriousness was caught up with compulsion, paranoia, ignorance, slander, revenge, deceit, and indeed a brutal struggle for political power. Several of those who so fervently stood up for Marxism at the 1931 congress — Bukharin, Boris Hessen, Nikolai Vavilov — were portrayed as conspiring against the revolution, and perished in the purges.

The purges are often put down to Stalin becoming a megalomaniac, which I don’t deny. But I don’t think that this is a sufficient explanation. I think it is necessary to understand the complex forces in motion, the monumental nature of what the Soviet Union was trying to achieve, particularly in the period of the first five-year plan, the massive obstacles in their path, and the frenzy that resulted from this cauldron.

Daniel Finn

What was the nature of what became the infamous Lysenko controversy in Soviet biology?

Helena Sheehan

It was part of that monumental struggle and the resulting frenzy. The Lysenko controversy is often portrayed as a cautionary tale against ideological interference in science, but I don’t see it that way. The relation of ideology to science is complex: eliminating ideology to get pure science is not possible or even desirable, in my opinion.

The controversy has to be understood in terms of what forces were in motion at the time. First of all, there were the tensions in mainstream international science between genetics and evolution. The contemporary synthesis between genetics and evolution, which we take for granted now, was not in place then. As well as the particular tensions and problems in the international science of 1920s and ’30s, there was a wider, more long-term tension between heredity and environment. This was the question of how much of what we are is due to heredity and how much of it is determined by our environment — nature versus nurture — which is still an ongoing debate.

There was also a whole history, which played into this particular set of debates, of ideological positioning, associating the Right with one pole and the Left with the other. This played out in a very forceful way in the Soviet Union. On top of these international intellectual tensions, there were specific tensions in Soviet intellectual life. There was a need to create a new Soviet intelligentsia, the problem of how to deal with bourgeois expertise, the challenges of meeting the very ambitious targets of the first five-year plan — especially the question of how to raise the productivity of Soviet agriculture.

Trofim Lysenko walked into these swirling tensions. He was a Ukrainian agronomist who came to prominence with an agricultural technique called “vernalization” that allowed winter crops to be generated from summer planting. He pushed forward from this to articulate a whole theory of biology, which was basically a theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics and a denunciation of genetics. In terms of international science, it was essentially a Lamarckist position versus a Mendelian one.

This coincided with the frenzy of the purges, and the Soviet authorities proclaimed the Lysenkoist position to be the correct Marxist position in biology, with tragic consequences for science and scientists, and particularly for genetics and geneticists. Vavilov, who I previously mentioned, was an internationally renowned geneticist and one of those who came to the 1931 congress in London. He perished in the purges.

Daniel Finn

What do you think are the most important legacies from this historical period for the way that we think about science and about politics today?

Helena Sheehan

I think what has weathered every storm are the core concepts of Marxism in its approach to science. There have been many debates about Marxism vis-à-vis other approaches, but as I see it, having studied all these debates, both the ones before I came onto the scene and those that have unfolded during my own lifetime, I believe that nothing makes so much sense of science as Marxism. Indeed, nothing makes so much sense of everything as Marxism.

I want to say clearly just what is distinctive about Marxism as a philosophy of science. It is materialist in the sense of explaining the natural world in terms of natural forces and not supernatural powers. It is dialectical in the sense of being evolutionary, processive, and developmental. It is radically contextual and relational in seeing everything that exists within an interacting web of forces in which it is embedded. It is empiricist without being positivist or reductionist. It is rationalist without being idealist. It is coherent and comprehensive while being empirically grounded.

It is an integral philosophy. It is a way of seeing the world in terms of a complex pattern of intersecting processes, where others see it only as disconnected and static particulars. It is a way of revealing how all forces in motion are products of a pattern of historical development shaped by a mode of production. It sees science as socially constructed, but at the same time as an empirically grounded revelation of the natural world.

Throughout the whole period of its history, Marxism rises and falls in its status and in its influence. The period now is not a particularly high point. However, I think that there is a revival of Marxist philosophy of science in response to the exigencies of ecological crisis and also in response to the current pandemic, which is still playing out. By the way, although there’s an atmosphere of the pandemic being over, this particular one isn’t. One point that is being reinforced by anyone who has dealt seriously with this pandemic, most of whom were Marxists, is that the conditions are still there for future pandemics.

I think that Marxism is as relevant and as important today as it ever was — perhaps even more so. I think that Marxism needs to be constantly updated and developed to move forward. I always thought that there were areas where it was weak, such as psychology, although the foundations were there to make it superior to any other contending positions in psychology. But even in areas where it was most developed, such as political economy, the world is constantly changing — indeed it is doing so at an ever-accelerating rate.

There’s always much to do. I think that Marxism has showed itself to have that kind of dynamic capacity, and it is still developing further. I think that in its basic concepts, it is still the most coherent, comprehensive, and well-grounded philosophy on the horizon. Whether or not it is popular, it is right, and I still see it as the unsurpassed philosophy of our time.