Science and Marxism

Science, Marxism and the Big Bang: a Critical Review of Reason in Revolt

Contents and Preface to the 3rd Edition: In 2011, the newspapers broke a major story: Scientists operating the biggest machine on earth, the 27 kilometre Large Hadron Collider, had discovered evidence which disproved Einstein’s theory of relativity.

A contribution to a debate on Marxism and science

By Peter Mason


  1. Contents and Preface to the 3rd Edition
  2. Introduction
  3. Science and dialectics in Reason in Revolt
  4. Concepts of the universe – an historical survey
  5. What is infinity?
  6. The dialectic of ‘becoming’ in ancient Greece
  7. Aristotle on the ‘heavens’
  8. Galileo and the relativity of space
  9. Newton: belief and contradiction
  10. Kant’s cosmology and Engels’ commentary
  11. Hegel on the dialectics of infinity
  12. Engels on materialism, the infinite and cosmology
  13. The infinite in mathematics
  14. Einstein and the end of Newtonian absolute space and time
  15. The Big Bang and mysticism in science
  16. The dialectic of the unity and interpenetration of opposites in science
  17. End note and Bibliography
  18. Appendix: Quantum mechanics and dialectical materialism

This book was written in the hope that it will make a contribution to a lively debate on Marxism and science. Thanks to all those who read and commented on the manuscript, including Iain Dalton, Ken Douglas, John Edwards, Roy Farrar, Thomas House, Ruth Mason, Sofia Mason, Ronnie Sukdeho, Peter Taaffe and Manny Thain. Thanks especially to Lynn Walsh for his insightful comments and considerable patience. A special thanks also to Geoff Jones, whose comments on the manuscript, based on a life-long experience of teaching advanced physics, were invaluable.

Preface to the 3rd Edition

In 2011, the newspapers broke a major story: Scientists operating the biggest machine on earth, the 27 kilometre Large Hadron Collider, had discovered evidence which appeared to disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The Large Hadron Collider, deep underground below the French-Switzerland border near Geneva, powers subatomic particles to within a fraction of the speed of light. The apparent discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos, tiny subatomic particles produced at the site, would not only defy Einstein’s special relativity but would disobey the law of conservation of energy as well. (New Scientist, 7 January 2012)

Scientists eagerly awaited further experimental results. Well-known physicist and TV personality Brian Cox said that if the result was correct it opened the possibility of time travel, while another well-known TV scientist, Jim Al-Khalili, rejected the results, saying that if neutrinos have broken the speed of light, “I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV.” However, the team that produced the results found problems with their measuring methods. The team leader quietly resigned under a cloud and all bets are off. It seems that Al-Khalili’s boxer shorts are safe.

Twenty years ago, newspapers ran stories of scientific results which appeared to disprove the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe.

A number of books and articles argued the same thing. For example, “Big Bang’s Defenders Weigh Fudge Factor, A Blunder of Einstein’s, As Fix for New Crisis” in the New York Times, 1 November 1994. 

The Big Bang Never Happened, by Eric Lerner, published in 1991, was highly critical of the scientific establishment. In 1995, Science and the Retreat from Reason, by John Gillott and Manjit Kumar, expressed a deep unease about modern science. Rich in quotes from pseudo-Marxists of the Frankfurt school (on which one word later), the authors curiously make not one single mention of the Big Bang theory, the major science story of the time, and one under attack for being a ‘creation story’ by critics. This astonishing omission, in a book whose aim was to provide a Marxist critique of modern science, indicates some loss of nerve. Nevertheless, the authors falsely maintain that modern science has departed from ‘reason’. The most common scientific interpretation of quantum mechanics – the highly successful science of atoms and other microscopic particles – “was and remains a subjective one”, the authors assert, adding, “it often lapses into outright solipsism”.

The publicity suggested that science was suffering a deep crisis. The book under review in the following pages, Reason in Revolt, published in 1995, argued that major scientific discoveries of the current epoch, including Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the Big Bang theory, must be incorrect. Marxist philosophy, the book argued, shows that these scientific theories are a retreat into mysticism and creation mythology. Reason in Revolt leans heavily on Lerner’s The Big Bang Never Happened, and to some extent reflects the attacks found in Gillott and Kumar, referenced above.

By contrast, Science, Marxism and the Big Bang argues that Marxist philosophy does not provide a ready-made key for making judgements about scientific ideas. Today the Big Bang theory – the idea that our universe has an origin in time and is evolving – is entering popular consciousness while Reason in Revolt, whose misrepresentation of Marxist philosophy we set out to expose, is long forgotten. But the ideas discussed in the following pages, including a defence of Einstein’s theory and the Big Bang theory, have stood the test of time and remain of interest to Marxists today.

As materialists, Marxists accept the scientific theories that over time have been confirmed and integrated into the general scientific outlook of the period, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity and, more recently, the Big Bang theory. We understand that these ideas arose as part of an historical process of discovery which is materialist at root. But as we attempt to show in these pages, we also recognise that this historical process has not ended, reaching some kind of ultimate stage of absolute knowledge. The Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator, was powering up at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) facilities in Geneva as the first edition of this book went to print. We pointed out that many scientists expected results from the collider to provide “upsets and pose new challenges” – and they have. Many theories have failed as the particles they predicted have not emerged from the vast jungle of data. Meanwhile Einstein’s theory of relativity has survived and newspaper headlines were recently busy reporting glimpses of something lurking in the undergrowth which closely resembles the elusive Higgs Boson, thought to confer mass to particles. Many more experiments are needed to be sure of capturing this prey, and nothing is certain.

The philosophy of Marxism can help us understand the nature of scientific discovery, and this is another theme of this book, but it might be worth adding here a point not made explicit in the following pages: In common usage the word “theory” suggests an idea with a degree of speculation, while in scientific language even the most indisputable, well-established science may be termed a theory. In physics, scientific theories have to make definite predictions – not of a general kind, but of a quantifiable kind. To do so, scientists need to put numbers derived from experiments into mathematical equations. Newton used geometry as the basis of his epoch-making publication Principia Mathematica, in which the famous three laws of motion appear.

Using mathematics, a scientific theory in physics will tell you – to take one of Newton’s laws – that if you use a definite quantity of force on an object of a measured amount of mass, it will accelerate at a specific rate. With this kind of mathematical precision, we know that if experiments provided a different figure for the acceleration, the theory is wrong. According to Einstein’s theory, as an object’s speed approaches the speed of light, its mass increases also, and so proportionately more force is required to make it go faster. Particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider routinely demonstrate this fact as they accelerate atomic particles very close to the speed of light, requiring more and more force as the mass of the particle increases.

At the speed of light an accelerating object’s mass becomes infinite, and so an infinite amount of force would be needed to make the object go faster than light – and clearly this is impossible. But it is worth pointing out that if faster-than-light neutrinos were discovered and, hypothetically speaking, were always travelling faster than light (there is no suggestion that they were), then they would not pass through Einstein’s speed-of-light limit – which is not to say they wouldn’t cause any problems for physics.

In May 2011, the Earth-orbiting satellite Gravity Probe B confirmed two of Einstein’s space-time theories. One of NASA’s longest running experiments, the satellite proved the warping of space and time caused by gravitational fields. This warping of space and time is ridiculed as a “medieval” viewpoint in Reason in Revolt, reflecting a doctrinaire approach previously best exemplified by the treatment of science under Stalin. Adherents of Stalin in the field of science ridiculed as “subjective idealism” a fundamental pillar of Einstein’s theory of relativity – the principle that space is relative to the observer or specific frame of reference (a principle which becomes more astonishing the more it is considered). Yet the discovery of this principle predates Einstein by many centuries. In no sense should this principle be interpreted to mean that space and time are somehow subjective to the individual – it is an entirely objective phenomenon, as we attempt to show in the pages of this book.

Gravity Probe B also confirmed the amount by which the spinning earth actually pulls space and time with it as it rotates. “Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey,” said Francis Everitt, Gravity Probe-B principal investigator at Stanford University. “As the planet rotates, the honey around it would swirl, and it’s the same with space and time”. (Gravity Probe B Confirms Two of Einstein’s Space-Time Theories, Universe Today, 4 May 2011)

Does this result mean that Einstein’s theory is beyond further challenge? Not at all. Science, Marxism and the Big Bang tries to explain that historically, scientific laws such as those discovered by Newton or Einstein are not simply either true or false, as some would like to believe. Instead, a more flexible, “dialectical” outlook is required, a core view of which is that in the real world any particular thing, whether it is an atom or a particular scientific outlook, contains within it contradictory elements or opposites. The ancient Greeks argued that anything which lacked such internal contradictions could never change, and would exist for all eternity. They recognised the impermanence of all things outside the ‘Heavens’, the starry firmament where the gods were thought to reside. Only among the stars could the Greeks detect no sign of change. The Big Bang theory shows that even the starry heavens – the universe itself – are subject to coming in to being and passing away, the ancient dialectic of becoming.

Contradictions are part of science as it develops. We show how Newton was aware of serious contradictions in his own theory of gravity, which were only resolved by Einstein and the Big Bang theory centuries later. Einstein’s theory has limits to its application, particularly at the microscopic level, and scientists are always testing it – as they explicitly did during what was to have been a rather routine neutrino experiment at CERN. Yet, when Einstein’s theory is finally superseded by one which combines quantum mechanics and relativity in a single theoretical sweep (the loftiest aim of theoretical physicists), atom bombs unfortunately will still explode and space and time will still warp as observed by Gravity Probe B and predicted by Einstein a century ago. It is simply that our understanding of the mechanisms underlying these things will have advanced. Today, Marxists must base their materialist outlook on the conquests of science on which our technological age turns.

Books like Reason in Revolt prophesied the imminent collapse of the Big Bang theory, yet in the last decade in particular the theory has begun to enter into popular consciousness. There is even a sit-com named after it. It is quite reasonable to view the universe being born and developing over time, with its stars and galaxies also being born and dying as they consume the hydrogen created in the Big Bang, ultimately creating the stardust of which we humans are built. The old static Newtonian view promoted in Reason in Revolt, which holds that the universe has always been more or less as it is now – “Thus it has been. Thus it will ever be” as Woods intones – already perhaps seems inherently implausible, at least to a younger generation. The stars do not have an infinite amount of fuel to burn over an infinity of time. If they did, where would this fuel come from?

Author Alan Woods has not come to the defence of Reason in Revolt, a book he claimed outlined “the fundamentals of Marxism”, against our carefully explained observations of its many serious failings. It is certainly unusual for Woods to avoid confrontation.

In the academic world, the main objection to our approach to Marxist philosophy, as explained in Science, Marxism and the Big Bang, comes from a trend of Marxism (in reality pseudo-Marxism) which proselytises that Marxist dialectics can have nothing to do with nature. First to argue this point of view was George Lukács, a founder of the philosophical trend of so-called ‘Western Marxism’ of which the Frankfurt school of Marxism is part, in a footnote dismissively critical of Frederick Engels. George Novack correctly castigated the Frankfurt school, associated with philosophers like Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for regarding Engels, Marx’s co-thinker and life-long friend, as the “original adulterator and distorter of Marx’s thought”. (Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, p. 138)

The Frankfurt school falsely attempts to disassociate the philosophy of Marx, or at least those of his earliest writings, from the philosophy found in Engels’ writings, from which we often quote in the following pages. Science, Marxism and the Big Bang does not discuss these attacks on genuine Marxism directly. We merely point out here that we take an historical approach to understanding the philosophy of Marxist dialectics, showing under what material conditions our philosophy arose. This approach irrefutably shows that the tradition which the revolutionary Marxist dialectic embraces, sweeps up in its comprehension the whole of nature, including the coming into being of the universe and its passing away. Marxists should take an historical materialist approach towards the philosophy of Marxism itself – the method which Marx and Engels developed, and a method which the foremost adherents of the Frankfurt school fail sufficiently to adopt in this case.

Reason in Revolt tends to make the philosophy of Marxism primary, such that scientific discoveries, if they are thought by Woods to contradict this philosophy, are dismissed. This doctrinaire approach turns dialectics into a kind of spiritual guide raised above the material world, an approach best illustrated by Lukács. A ghost-like disembodied spirit of dialectics (but not a materialist dialectics) stalks through Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, providing theoretical hoops through which a similarly disembodied working class must jump. Since he intuited that this spirit could not make nature obey its mystical movements, Lukács originally declared that there was no dialectic of nature (although he later backtracked). But to quote Engels:

The mistake lies in the fact that these laws [of dialectics] are foisted on nature and history as laws of thought, and not deduced from them.

Dialectics of Nature

As Marxists, we must begin with nature and history as discovered over millennia by concrete, detailed and sometimes painstaking analysis, rather than beginning with philosophy. We thus reveal the genuine movement of nature and history – and in doing so we will inevitably find many surprises – but we will likely discover that this movement develops, as the ancient Greeks recognised, from the clash of opposites, of internal and external contradictions. As Leon Trotsky noted, this insight is valuable:

“The dialectic does not liberate the investigator from painstaking study of the facts, quite the contrary: it requires it. But in return it gives investigative thought elasticity, helps it cope with ossified prejudices, arms it with invaluable analogies, and educates it in a spirit of daring, grounded in circumspection.”

Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933-35, p. 92, Columbia University Press, 1986

Our commonplace characterization of the material world – what is material reality and what is imaginary – is ultimately determined by scientific discovery, or more precisely, the historical accumulation of scientific discoveries, as they enter common currency. In other words, in the final analysis, a materialist dialectics is only as good as the accumulated science on which it stands. Those, like Woods, who argue, for example, that time and space cannot be warped in the way that Gravity Probe B demonstrated, because time and space are not material things, are actually reflecting past scientific (or philosophical) ideas, which have been overtaken by the latest scientific research.

The battle for primacy between philosophy and science was fought by Galileo in 1632 in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the book which earned him a summons to the Inquisition. And it was Galileo, not Einstein, who showed in this book that space was relative to the observer. On this great insight into nature, Galileo founded his arguments that the earth is moving at great speed through space despite the fact that we do not feel any motion, as we discuss in the following pages.

Reason in Revolt condemns the concept of the relativity of space as “subjective idealism”. It was with these same terms that the Stalinists attacked scientists in Russia who dared to support Einstein’s relativity in the 1950s. (See Appendix: Marxism, Materialism and Quantum Mechanics). Yet, as stated above this was Galileo’s great insight and like many Russian scientists in the 1930s and 1950s, Galileo suffered persecution. In his Dialogue, Galileo places in the mouth of Simplico, his imaginary opponent, the defence of those who make philosophy primary:

I have known some very great Peripatetic philosophers, and heard them advise their pupils against the study of mathematics as something which makes the intellect sophistical and inept for true philosophising.

Galileo replies through the voice of Salviati:

I endorse the policy of these Peripatetics of yours in dissuading their disciples from the study of geometry, since there is no art better suited for the disclosure of their fallacies.

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, p. 460)

In this edition we have appended an article which first appeared on the Committee for a Workers’ International website, entitled ‘Quantum mechanics and dialectical materialism’. Science, Marxism and the Big Bang mainly deals with large scale events and their relationship to the Marxist philosophy of dialectics, while this appendix looks at the truly weird science of very small scale events and examines their relationship to the Marxist philosophy of materialism.

Next: Introduction