Categories
Science and Marxism

 Introduction

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 its motion can be approximated to 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 he 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.

In the fourth century BCE,[1] the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle drew a distinction between ‘potential’ infinity, where any number, no matter how big, can always be increased by adding more numbers, and what he called “actual infinity”. He 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.

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 “mediaeval”. 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


[1] BCE – “Before the Christian Era”, a slightly more secular alternative term for BC, “Before Christ”


This introduction was revised for the 2022 WordPress Marxist.net edition.

Categories
Science and Marxism

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


A contribution to a debate on Marxism and science

By Peter Mason


Contents:

  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

Acknowledgements
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 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 long 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 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. Previously, in 1991, The Big Bang Never Happened, by Eric Lerner, on which Reason in Revolt leans heavily, was highly critical of the scientific establishment. Published in the same year as Reason in Revolt, Science and the Retreat from Reason, rich in quotes from Marxists of the Frankfurt school (on which more shortly), expressed a deep unease about modern science, although in this case the authors make not one single mention of the Big Bang theory, the major science story of the time, possibly because they could not agree a ‘Marxist’ position on it! John Gillott and Manjit Kumar argued that the most common scientific interpretation of quantum mechanics – the highly successful science of atoms and other microscopic particles – “was and remains a subjective one. Indeed, it often lapses into outright solipsism”, the authors added.

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. These ideas arose as part of an historical process of discovery which is materialist at root, as we attempt to show in these pages. But 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. 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, that the universe has always been more or less as it is now – “Thus it has been. Thus it will ever be” – 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 attempts to disassociate the ideas 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, and scientific discoveries, if they are thought 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 spirit of dialectics stalks through Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, providing theoretical hoops through which a 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)

We 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 philosophy is only as good as the accumulated science on which it stands. Those 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 when Newton, in his famous First Law of Motion, makes no distinction between a state of rest and one of uniform motion (objects equally preserve their state of rest or motion unless acted on by a force), he was formulating Galileo’s great insight of the relativity of space into a law of physics. Like many Russian scientists in the 1930s and 1950s, Galileo faced death, although he was spared. 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