[Book] Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science

Author's Preface to the Second English Edition

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways: the point, however, is to change it.” (Marx)

More than a decade has passed since Reason in Revolt was first published in English. The response to it has surpassed our greatest expectations. Sadly, Ted Grant, my old friend, comrade and teacher will not see the publication of the second edition. After a lifetime of tireless service to the cause of Marxism and the working class, he passed away last year at the ripe old age of 93.

Ted always had a passionate interest in Marxist theory, and philosophy in particular. He also followed all the developments of modern science very closely. In addition to the Financial Times and The Economist, he subscribed to The New Scientist, which he used to devour from cover to cover. He would often be infuriated by the mystical and idealist slant that some scientists gave to the discoveries of modern science. He would look up from the pages of his journal and shake his head in disbelief: “These people confuse science with science fiction,” he would exclaim indignantly.

There was one remark that struck me as particularly profound. He said that in the human mind, “matter has finally become conscious of itself”. A more beautiful way of expressing philosophical materialism would be difficult to imagine.

It is a matter of great satisfaction to me that in the last years of his life Ted could see the tremendous interest in our ideas that has been expressed in many countries. So far Reason in Revolt has been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, Greek, Urdu, Bahasa Indonesia and Turkish, and new translations are being prepared in French and Dutch. In addition, it has appeared in an “American” translation in the USA, and has also been published in separate editions in Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba and India.

Many of the discoveries made by science over the last decade have confirmed the positions of dialectical materialism defended in Reason in Revolt. In particular, the Human Genome Project has completely undermined the position of the reactionaries who sought to use genetics to justify racism, homophobia and creationism. This is a colossal advance for science and for socialism.

Other discoveries have made us reconsider some of our original opinions. In the first edition we were still unsure about the existence of black holes—those mysterious objects in which the compression of matter has reached such an extremity, that not even light can be emitted. These black giants suck in all surrounding matter, so that nothing can approach them without being crushed and devoured. Until recently there was little hard evidence for it. But the observations made possible by the Hubble telescope have shown that black holes play a fundamental role in the formation of galaxies.

They are present at the centre of every galaxy and serve to hold galaxies together, giving them the cohesion without which life, and ourselves, would be impossible. Thus, what appeared to be the most destructive force in the universe turns out to have colossal creative powers. The dialectical conception of the unity of opposites thus received powerful confirmation from a most unexpected source!

Role of dialectics

The recognition of the pioneering role of dialectical materialism is long overdue. The theory of chaos, and its derivatives complexity and ubiquity, has provided a striking confirmation of many of the main tenets of dialectical materialism, but this debt has never been acknowledged. This is unfortunate, since knowledge of the dialectical method would have helped avoid a number of pitfalls into which science has occasionally strayed as a result of incorrect assumptions. This fact was acknowledged by the late Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote that if scientists had paid attention to Engels' The Role of Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man, they could have avoided a hundred years of errors.

The great advantage of dialectics is that it deals with things in their motion and development, and moreover shows how all development takes place through contradictions. The dialectical method explains how quite small changes can, at a critical point, produce enormous transformations: the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. The importance of this law has only recently been recognised by science through chaos theory. Engels deals at length with the three fundamental laws of dialectics, which he specifies as:

The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
The law of the negation of the negation.

This does not mean, of course, that philosophy—any philosophy—must dictate to science, as did the Church in the Middle Ages, or as the bureaucracy in Stalinist Russia. Science has its own methods of investigation, observation and experiment, and must follow these and these alone. Engels writes in The Dialectics of Nature:

“All three are developed by Hegel in his idealist fashion as mere laws of thought: the first, in the first part of his Logic, in the Doctrine of Being; the second fills the whole of the second and by far the most important part of his Logic, the Doctrine of Essence; finally the third figures as the fundamental law for the construction of the whole system. The mistake lies in the fact that these laws are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them. This is the source of the whole forced and often outrageous treatment; the universe, willy-nilly, is made out to be arranged in accordance with a system of thought which itself is only the product of a definite stage of evolution of human thought. If we turn the thing round, then everything becomes simple, and the dialectical laws that look so extremely mysterious in idealist philosophy at once become simple and clear as noonday.” (My emphasis, AW.)

Scientists necessarily approach their subject matter with certain assumptions, of which they are usually unaware. These assumptions invariably have a philosophical character. Behind every hypothesis there are always many assumptions, not all of them derived from science itself. For example, what led geneticists to conclude that humans possessed far more genes than is, in fact, the case? It is the method of reductionism, which flows from the mechanical assumption that nature knows only purely quantitative relations. Biological determinism considers humans as a collection of genes, and not as complex organisms, processes, the product of a dialectical interrelation between genes and the environment.

In reality, in nature changes in quantity eventually end in a qualitative leap. Very small modifications can produce huge changes. Tiny genetic mutations can give rise to huge differences. This is what explains the apparent contradiction between the size and complexity of humans and the relatively small number of genes involved. In Reason in Revolt, this was our criticism of the method of Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Later, Dawkins himself retreated from his earlier position, shocked by the way in which it had been used by right-wing reactionaries.

The genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is less than two per cent and most of the genetic material present in modern humans is very old. Organic matter has evolved from inorganic matter, and higher life forms have evolved from lower ones. We share most of our genes, not just with monkeys and dogs, but with fishes and roundworms. This is quite sufficient to demolish all the arguments of the Creationists and “intelligent design” merchants.

"Intelligent design"

The decay of capitalism is an expression of its inability to develop the productive forces as it did in the past. This inevitably has serious intellectual consequences. Dialectics teaches us that human consciousness in general is not revolutionary but profoundly conservative. It tends to lag behind the development of the productive forces. Men and women initially react to change by clinging to the old, familiar ideas, habits, traditions and routine. It requires great historic events to shake them out of this routine and impel them on the road to revolution. This process is neither simple nor painless.

As incredible as it may seem, in the first decade of the twenty first century, religion is experiencing a revival, not only in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, but also of Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalism. The President of the United States firmly believes that God created the world in six days, that man was created from dust and that the first woman was made out of one of his ribs, and so on. The Founding Fathers of the United States were rationalists and products of the French Enlightenment. Many of them were agnostics or even atheists. But if we were able to open the brain of George W. Bush and peer inside, we would see all the accumulated rubbish of the last 2,000 years.

At a time when the discoveries of science—particularly in the United States—are unlocking all the secrets of nature and establishing the material conditions for a new stage in human civilization, we are witnessing on all sides a monstrous regression of culture. It is as if capitalism in its phase of senile decay is returning to its childhood. And there can be few spectacles as nauseating as a decrepit old man who has lost his powers of reason and has become mentally childish.

“Intelligent design” is merely the resurrection under a more plausible name of the Creationist movement, which in the USA involves millions of people and is backed by some scientists. The ideas of Darwin are being challenged in the USA by supporters of the so-called intelligent design theory. They demand that American schoolchildren be made to read the First Book of Genesis as an alternative “theory” to Darwinism. If this movement were to succeed, we would be back in the Dark Ages when men and women prostrated themselves before graven idols and burnt witches at the stake.

The revelations of the Human Genome Project have cut the ground from under the feet of the reactionaries. It has decisively settled the old “nature” versus “nurture” controversy. It shows that the number of genes in humans is not more than 23,000. This has shattered the case for biological-genetic determinism at a single stroke. The relatively small number of genes rules out the possibility of individual genes controlling and shaping behaviour patterns such as criminality and sexual preference.

We share our genes with other species going far back into the mists of time. Evolution is very economical. It constantly fashions new genes from old parts. Thus, the idea of the supporters of “intelligent design” theory that humans are a special creation of God is exploded. Human beings have only about 3,000 more genes than the humble roundworm, a creature with a body of 959 cells, of which 302 are neurons in what passes for its brain. By contrast, humans have 100 trillion cells in their body, including 100 billion brain cells.

Thus, the human genome holds important philosophical and political implications. The biological determinists insisted that in some way genes are responsible for things, like homosexuality and criminality. They attempted to reduce all social problems to the level of genetics. We criticised these false theories in Reason in Revolt, but at that time we had no means of knowing that in a few years their unscientific character would be so clearly demonstrated. As I wrote in the preface to the second Spanish edition in 2001:

“The latest discoveries have finally exploded the nonsense of Creationism. It has comprehensively demolished the notion that every species was created separately, and that Man, with his eternal soul, was especially created to sing the praises of the Lord. It is now clearly proved that humans are not at all unique creations. The results of the Human Genome Project show conclusively that we share our genes with other species—that ancient genes helped to make us who we are. In fact, a small part of this common genetic inheritance can be traced back to primitive organisms such as bacteria.”

Marxism and optimism

Ted Grant was an incorrigible optimist all his life. Marxists are optimistic by their very nature because of two things: the philosophy of dialectical materialism, and our faith in the working class and the socialist future of humanity. Most people look only at the surface of the events that shape their lives and determine their destiny. Dialectics teaches one to look beyond the immediate, to penetrate beyond the appearance of stability and calm, and to see the seething contradictions and ceaseless movement that lies beneath the surface. The idea of constant change, in which sooner or later everything changes into its opposite enables a Marxist to rise above the immediate situation and to see the broader picture.

In the 15 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have witnessed an unprecedented ideological offensive against the ideas of Marxism. Ted and I wrote Reason in Revolt to answer the critics of Marxism. And history has not taken long to prove us right. In the space of little more than a decade not one stone upon another is left of the absurd delusions of the bourgeoisie. On a world scale the capitalist system is in crisis. War follows war. Terrorism spreads like an uncontrollable epidemic. Millions of people live in poverty on the edge of starvation. In one country after another elements of barbarism are appearing. The very future of the planet is threatened by global ecological degradation.

In the period of the decline of the Roman Empire people believed that the end of the world was approaching. This idea had its clearest expression in the Christian religion and the Book of Revelations. In the period of the decline of feudalism the same idea was revived by the Flagellants and other millenarian sects who confidently awaited the Day of Judgement when the earth and all its inhabitants would be consumed with fire. But in reality what was approaching was not the end of the world but only the end of a particular socio-economic system that had exhausted its potential for progress.

In the first decade of the twenty first century the capitalist system, together with its values, morality, politics and philosophy, finds itself in a blind alley. The ingrained pessimism of the bourgeoisie and its ideologues in this period is manifested in the poverty of its thought, the triviality of its art and the emptiness of its spiritual values. It is expressed in the wretched philosophy of post-modernism, which imagines itself to be superior to all previous philosophy, when in reality it is vastly inferior.

In its youth the bourgeoisie was capable of producing great thinkers: Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Hegel, Adam Smith and Ricardo. In the period of its decline, it is only capable of producing what Marx describes as flea-crackers. They talk of the end of ideology and the end of history in the same breath. They do not believe in progress because the bourgeoisie has long since ceased to be progressive. When they talk of the end of history it is because they have ended in an historical dead-end and can see no way out. When they talk of the end of ideology it is because they are no longer capable of producing one.

Capitalism is not something eternal, as its defenders would like us to believe. It is a very recent phenomenon with a turbulent past, a shaky present, and no future at all. The comforting illusions of the past, the notion that the free market economy held the key that could unlock all doors barring the way to progress and universal happiness, have all been shattered. In a vague way, the ideologues of the bourgeoisie sense that the system they defend is reaching its end. Naturally, they cannot accept this. A man on the edge of a precipice is not capable of rational thought. The spread of irrational tendencies, mysticism and religious fanaticism reflect the same thing.

It did not take long for all the contradictions to come to the surface. On a world scale the situation is characterised by extreme turbulence and volatility. This is expressed in the turbulence on world stock markets. The present slowdown shows that the boom is running out of steam, and this is preparing the way for a global recession, as Greenspan was recently compelled to admit. At bottom, what this expresses is the revolt of the productive forces against the straitjackets of private ownership and the national state. The system is being shaken by one shock after another. The earlier confidence has evaporated. The articles in the bourgeois press are full of foreboding.

The crisis of capitalism has produced an opposite reaction. There is now a growing interest in Marxist ideas. The so-called anti-globalization movement and the wave of “anti-capitalist” demonstrations show the existence of a ferment among the petit-bourgeois youth. The student and middle-class youth reflect the contradictions that are maturing in the bowels of society. Even before the crisis has properly matured, there is a general questioning of the kind of society that could generate such horrors.

In the next period ideas that now are listened to by small groups will be eagerly sought by hundreds of thousands and millions. The proof of this can be seen by what is happening in Venezuela, where socialist and Marxist ideas are being enthusiastically debated in every factory and village. It is no accident that Reason in Revolt is a best-seller in Venezuela, and has been warmly recommended by Hugo Chávez. What has happened in Venezuela today will happen tomorrow in Britain, in Russia, in China and the USA itself.

The main contradiction is that the big battalions of the proletariat in the industrialised capitalist countries have still not moved. The crisis of humanity can be reduced to the crisis of leadership of the proletariat. The right-wing leaders of the workers’ parties and trade unions—the product of decades of reformist degeneration—are holding the movement back. But that will change. In the next period these organizations will be shaken from top to bottom. At a certain stage mass left-wing tendencies will emerge, which will move in the direction of Marxism.

The discussion of socialism of the 21st century in Venezuela is an important development, which has led to an enormous interest in the ideas of Marxism. It is true that the revisionists of the Heinz Dieterich type are moving heaven and earth to erect a barrier between the masses and Marxism, alleging that Marxism is out of date and that we need to create a new and entirely novel system of ideas that will, they assure us, be the authentic “socialism of the 21st century”. But on closer inspection we see that this brand of ideas is neither new nor socialist, but only a rehash of the utopian attempts of the reformists to create “capitalism with a human face”.

We do not need to reinvent socialism, just as we do not need to reinvent the wheel. The most modern analysis of the world of the 21st century is the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels over 150 years ago. For in the pages of the Manifesto we have a precise description of the world, not as it was in 1848, but as it is today. This fact, in and of itself, is a striking proof of the superiority of the scientific method of Marxism, which is rooted in the method of dialectical materialism.

Does this mean that Marxism admits of no modification and change? Of course, not! Marxism must take into account all the changes in the objective situation, or else it would not be a scientific method but a lifeless dogma. But what is really remarkable is how few adjustments we have to make to the ideas that were worked out by Marx and Engels in the 19th century and developed and enriched by Lenin and Trotsky in the 20th century. We may make this or that change, but in all the fundamentals the basic ideas retain all their vigour and actuality.

In writing Reason in Revolt, I was deeply impressed by the fact that the discoveries of modern science furnish us with many more examples of the truth of dialectics than the examples that were available to Engels in the 19th century. The method of Marxism provides one with all the basic tools needed to analyse and understand living reality. Dialectical materialism allows us to study reality, not as a series of dry, unconnected, senseless events or “facts”, but as a dynamic process, driven by its internal contradictions, ever changing and with an infinitely rich content. Marxism is much more than a political doctrine, or a theory of economics. It is the philosophy of the future.

London, March 15, 2007

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