Science and Marxism


Reason in Revolt, Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science, written by Ted Grant and Alan Woods (hereafter abbreviated to Woods), attempts a Marxist critique of science.

Einstein was determined to re-write the laws of physics… From the standpoint of relativity, steady motion on a straight line is indistinguishable from being at rest.

Woods and Grant, Reason in Revolt, 1995

First Law of Motion: Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed thereon.

Isaac Newton, Principia, 1687

Reason in Revolt, Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science, written by Ted Grant and Alan Woods (hereafter abbreviated to Woods), attempts a Marxist critique of science.

A Marxist critique of science is a laudable project. But such a critique requires not only an understanding of Marxist theory, but also a thorough comprehension of scientific theories and their historical development. Marxism does not provide a ready-made key for making judgements about scientific ideas. It cannot substitute for a detailed knowledge of the appropriate scientific material. Unfortunately, Woods’ analysis, as we will shortly show, reveals a poor understanding of the science he seeks to elucidate.

The past century has seen a transformation of the world through scientific development, whether for good or bad. There has also been a transformation of science itself, many times over, since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began the development of what they termed ‘scientific socialism’, which came to be known as Marxism. Marx and Engels often exchanged correspondence about scientific matters and they were close friends with Carl Schorlemmer, a member of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, who advised them on the latest advances in chemistry.

Engels highlighted the role of scientists in human history. The “immortal work” of Nicolaus Copernicus showed that the earth revolved around the sun. Engels describes its publication as a “revolutionary act”. Copernicus “shows theology the door” at the dawn of the Enlightenment, but Isaac Newton closes the period with his “divine first impulse”. (Dialectics of Nature, Introduction) Engels endorses Immanuel Kant’s realisation, at that time unproven, that all “celestial bodies” originated from swirling clouds of gas. Engels calls this conception, “the greatest advance made by astronomy since Copernicus.” For the first time, Engels comments, “the conception that nature had no history in time began to be shaken. Until then the celestial bodies were believed to have been always, from the very beginning, in the same states.” (Anti-Dühring, p72)

Marx and Engels particularly admired Charles Darwin, a revolutionary, iconoclastic scientist in his own modest and hesitant way. Darwin showed how species developed and changed, discovering the secret of life’s evolution on our planet. Engels emphasises that “nature does not just exist, but comes into being and passes away.”

One of the cornerstones of scientific socialism is usually termed ‘dialectical materialism’, (see the next chapter) although Marx and Engels never used the term themselves. Marx and Engels took the dialectical method of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and used it as a tool to understand the historical development of human society, once they had placed his philosophical method on a materialist basis.

In the last century, Marxists debated the revolutionary work of Albert Einstein and latterly of the Big Bang theory of the universe, with its origins in the observations of Edwin Hubble. Einstein’s theory of relativity and the Big Bang theory combined to overturn almost every last remnant of the old Newtonian science, which was saturated with the belief in the “absolute immutability of nature”, as Engels emphasises. It is these two revolutionary theories, the theory of relativity and the Big Bang, with which the first half of Reason in Revolt (first published in 1995) is chiefly concerned.

For this reason our study of the relationship between Marxism and science will focus on the historical development of cosmology and in particular the contribution of Einstein and the Big Bang. We know that our universe exists, but did it come into being and will it pass away?

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“Einstein was determined to re-write the laws of physics,” writes Woods. “From the standpoint of relativity, steady motion on a straight line is indistinguishable from being at rest.” (p161)  This might sound a very odd claim. How can motion be indistinguishable from rest? But consider this. If it were not true, you would, this very minute, while sitting reading this page — be experiencing the sensation of the earth travelling around the sun! 

You feel at rest. The chair you are sitting on appears to be at rest. But yet you are in very rapid motion.

The earth travels at roughly 30km per second through space. If it was not, under any circumstance, the case that motion in a straight line is indistinguishable from being at rest, as Woods expresses it, we would experience that motion in some form. Yet we do not experience this. We are in fact justified in stating that, with respect to the earth, we are indeed completely at rest, despite the earth’s motion. (The sun’s orbit is so vast that we experience its motion as if the sun travels in a straight line.) 

Only when early scientists closely examined the movement of the planets and the stars – scientists like Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, whose views we will discuss in the following chapters – could scientists draw firm conclusions about the motion of the earth. But if our viewpoint, or frame of reference, is solely fixed to earthbound objects, we can and do disregard the motion of the earth. Our state of rest is entirely indistinguishable to us from the motion that we are observed to have from a different frame of reference, such as that from another planet. This is actually quite a remarkable insight – but it is not Einstein’s.

As we will examine in chapter eight, Galileo’s famous Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, contains a number of arguments to establish that although the earth moves, from our viewpoint or frame of reference on earth, we are at rest. These earth-shattering conclusions were incorporated into Newton’s first law of motion, otherwise known as the law of inertia, which recognised that rest and “steady” – taken to mean uniform or constant – motion in a straight line are indistinguishable in the manner explained. 

So Woods statement can be corrected as follows:-

Galileo was determined to rewrite the old Aristotelian laws of physics. From the standpoint of classical (Newtonian) physics, depending on the frame of reference, uniform motion on a straight line is indistinguishable from being at rest.”

Sadly, Woods does not side with Galileo on this question, and neither did the Inquisition. On the contrary, Woods declares that extreme velocity “can cause material damage to living organisms.” (p. 165) This was certainly the view of the opponents of Galileo, who argued that the earth could not possibly be in such “violent” motion.

And Einstein? Einstein uses the modern term “velocity” throughout his 1919 book Relativity, rather than constant, uniform or “steady motion on a straight line” as Woods poorly phrases it. Only once does Einstein use the term “uniform motion in a straight line” – when he is quoting Newton’s first law of motion. This is why the reader who has a little secondary school physics will readily recognise Newton’s law in Woods’ mangled reference, attributed to a “rewrite” of the laws of physics by Einstein. Ironically, this is the one classical law of mechanics which Einstein does not revise.

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After discussing dialectics, Woods moves on to Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Big Bang theory, the origin of life, of mind and matter, and other universal matters. Reason in Revolt attempts to discuss ‘life, the universe and everything’. The jacket cover asks whether this “encounter” between Marxist philosophy and science will “provide the basis for a new and exciting breakthrough in the methodology of science?”

Reason in Revolt claims: “Dialectical materialism conceives of the universe as infinite.” (p 189) We will attempt to refute this claim. Viewed historically, it was Newton who argued that god is infinite and that therefore space and time must be infinite. Newton was also concerned that his ‘universal gravitation’ should have caused all the stars in the universe to have attracted each other – they should have all fallen into “one great spherical mass”. Newton’s solution was to summon the hand of god to set an infinite universe in perfect balance.

Newton’s infinite universe, as embraced by Woods, is essentially a product of religious ideology. The physicist Brian Greene says: “Experimenters never measure an infinite amount of anything. Dials never spin round to infinity.” (The Fabric of the Cosmos, p335) Infinity is a key concept in the history of philosophy and science, and anyone serious about the subject must be clear on the issues involved. This is no quibble over terminology but a crucial discussion of ideas.

As explained in the following pages, in the fourth century BCE, (BCE – “Before the common Era”, a secular alternative term for BC, “Before Christ”) the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described what he called ‘potential infinity’. This is the recognition that, in a potentially infinite process, the largest number you can possibly think of can always be increased by adding more numbers, without ever reaching infinity. Aristotle distinguished this potential infinity with what he perhaps misleadingly called ‘actual infinity’. Aristotle pointed out that a potentially infinite
series of numbers never reaches actual infinity and, in fact, never leaves
the finite. The ‘actual’ infinite, Aristotle argued, does not exist. To put this another way, it is wrong to believe that there exists an actual, realisable infinity.

Despite his references to Aristotle, Woods makes no direct mention of this seminal and essentially materialist position. Of course, the study of the concept of infinity has developed over the millennia. But as the physicist Lee Smolin recently wrote, in nature, “we have yet to encounter anything measurable that has an infinite value”. Infinities which occur in scientific theories are not likely to be reflecting natural phenomena but errors or limits within the theory itself. Infinites in scientific theories are most likely to be “the way that nature punishes impudent theorists”. (Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, p5)

Woods takes the opposite view. The universe, he repeats, “as Nicolas of Cusa and others thought, is infinite” (p184) and, “The universe has existed for all time.” (p199) Woods claims support from Hegel and Engels but we will show that Woods has turned some of their central views upside down.

Einstein’s elegant general theory of relativity, published in 1916, solved the mysterious ‘action at a distance’ of gravity which so puzzled Newton. Einstein showed that gravity and motion are “intimately related to each other and to the geometry of space and time”. (Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, p4) In 1929, Hubble famously discovered that the universe was rapidly expanding. This strongly inferred that the universe had issued from a hot, dense origin and this expansion presented a real solution to Einstein’s equations.

In this way, twentieth century science removed from cosmology the paradoxes arising from Newtonian notions of infinite time and space. It removed the need for the “divine first impulse”. Far from leading to ‘creationism’, once very tangible evidence of the Big Bang arrived in the form of the discovery of cosmic background radiation, science soon began investigating what we here term the material ‘substratum’ from which the universe emerged in the Big Bang.

Of course, these new discoveries have not eliminated contradictions from science – there is always a dialectical interplay between theory and data. Our understanding of the universe will continue to advance and change. As we write, particle physicists are nervously awaiting the first results from the Large Hadron Collider, the latest and most powerful particle collider, now expected to be operational in early 2008. Many guess the findings will cause upsets and pose new challenges to the current attempts to unify quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity – one of the great unsolved problems of physics.

Yet Woods scorns Einstein’s general relativity. He describes it as producing a “regression to a mediaeval world outlook”. (p.383) Yet, to take one example, the pinpoint accuracy of GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation is achieved by continually recalculating the satellite data using Einstein’s equations. Without Einstein’s theory, GPS navigation would be less accurate by tens of metres. Woods desires to defend the “fundamental ideas” of Marxism by endorsing the basic outlook of the Newtonian universe – in the name of dialectical materialism, moreover. Woods says science has been set back “400 years”, yet he wishes to set the clock back to the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687 (with the exception of his first law).

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Woods neither properly represents nor understands the last century of discoveries that have so completely changed the scientific conception of the universe. He misunderstands both dialectical materialism and its approach to science. In his obituary to Ted Grant, Woods claims that Reason in Revolt defends “the fundamental ideas of the movement”. This review argues that, on the contrary, Reason in Revolt misrepresents the fundamental ideas of the movement. Grant, who died in July 2006, undoubtedly contributed much to Marxist thought, but he was not a scientist. With the appearance in the summer of 2007 of a second English edition of Reason in Revolt we felt it necessary to attempt to set things to rights. (Page references are to the first edition.) We wish, in the course of this discussion, to defend the genuine ideas of Marxism and suggest that Marxism takes quite a different approach to modern science.

In addition to our scientific survey of the last few centuries of revolutions in cosmology, we will argue that Engels was essentially antagonistic to the idea that our universe is infinite. Almost a hundred years before the Big Bang theory was accepted, Engels discussed both the birth and the death of our universe. We find no mention of this in Reason in Revolt. Woods confidently predicts that the infinite universe contains only “galaxies and more galaxies stretching out to infinity”. (Preface to the 2001 Spanish edition of Reason in Revolt). But Engels refers the reader to Hegel who says that such predictions are merely a “tedious” repetition of known phenomena (in this case galaxies), which never leaves the finite. Support for an infinite universe in this form is a failure of imagination, rather than its triumph.

For two-and-a-half millennia, many philosophers have supported Aristotle’s view that infinity is a concept which has no “actual” existence. Hegel arrived at a dialectical proposition which can be expressed like this: you can always imagine an unending series of galaxies following one after another, but in concrete reality, at a certain point, quantity turns into quality and a new phenomenon emerges. Whatever existed before is negated. From this point of view there may be many galaxies undiscovered, or many universes beyond our own – it is speculation – but at some point, some other property will arise that ends the tedious repetition, whether of galaxies or universes, the conception of which is beyond our current scientific horizons.

A comment on the preface to the second English edition of Reason in Revolt

In May 2007, the publication of a second English edition of Reason in Revolt was announced. In the Preface to the new edition, Woods tells us that when Ted Grant and he were writing Reason in Revolt in 1995:

… we were still unsure about the existence of black holes. (Preface to the second edition of Reason in Revolt)

Ted Grant was contemptuous of the science of black holes. While Reason in Revolt takes a more equivocal stance in part, Woods was certain, in 1995, that the modern physics of the black hole was quite wrong. Woods says:

Singularities, black holes where time stands still, multiverses…These senseless and arbitrary speculations are the best proof that the theoretical framework of modern physics is in need of a complete overhaul. (Reason in Revolt, p174)

Now Woods appears to unreservedly embrace the science of “black holes where time stands still”. In the 2007 preface to the second edition he states:

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! (Preface to the second English edition of Reason in Revolt)

There is a lot that is simply false here. In fact, at the time of writing, black holes are not proven. They “remain largely theoretical” and even problematic, as the New Scientist pointed out in its recent cover story, ‘The Truth About Black Holes’. (6 October 2007) Woods’ original scathing condemnation of the modern science of black holes has been replaced by a contrary position which just as surely misrepresents modern science. Black holes are not by any means known to be – or even generally regarded to be – at the centre of “every” galaxy. Black holes are thought to be at the centre of a certain type of galaxy (including our own), at least in most cases, according to a study which Woods came across and misreports in the preface to the 2001 Spanish edition of Reason in Revolt. They do not hold galaxies together.

Reason in Revolt reaches the pinnacle of its ridicule of modern science in its condemnation of the modern science of black holes and the Big Bang theory. Yet there is no direct mention of this in the 2007 preface. Instead, Woods comments on the correct method by which to apply dialectical materialism. Woods quotes Engels, who criticises the idealism of Hegel. Engels says:

The mistake lies in the fact that [the laws of dialectics] are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them. (Dialectics of Nature, Chapter 2)

Does not Woods make the same type of mistake? In Reason in Revolt we read, “Dialectical materialism conceives of the universe as infinite.” (p189) In our critique we ask – on what material basis is this assertion made? Does not Woods attempt to foist on cosmology what he believes are the laws of dialectical materialism? Reviewing, with complete incomprehension, the modern science of the Big Bang in relation to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Woods cries, “Here the study of philosophy becomes indispensable.” (p216)

Reason in Revolt tells us that science has regressed to:

…the world of the Creation Myth (the “Big bang”), complete with its inseparable companion, the Day of the final Judgement (the “big crunch”). (Reason in Revolt p183)

Yet only seven years later, in the 2002 USA edition of Reason in Revolt, Woods offers his support to a mainstream re-working of the old speculatively infinite cyclical Big Bang theory, complete with its infinite Big Bangs and Big Crunches.

If Woods had intended to present an honest reappraisal of his book, he should have clearly acknowledged the errors within it.

Next: Science and dialectics in Reason in Revolt

This introduction was revised for the 2022 WordPress edition.