Wednesday, December 4, 2013


"Reason in Revolt – Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science,” by Alan Woods and Ted Grant, first published 1995

We actually are ‘recycled stardust,’ as Carl Sagan used to say.  With the emphasis on recycled.

This book ‘Reason in Revolt’ is a fitting extension of Engel’s works ‘The Dialectics of Nature’ and “The Transition from Ape to Man” - which is a significant achievement.  The authors are or were active Marxists in what is now the Workers International League.  What is amazing is that they had the time to read and understand extensively the science of our day, while still being activists.  The book is written in a clear, popular, somewhat repetitive style.  It covers modern developments in science since Engels and Hegel like thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and relativity; continental drift; brain science and developments in Darwinism.  They highlight various recent scientists that have broken from the orthodoxies, like Stephen J Gould.  As they and Engels point out, scientists who do not have a grasp of philosophy will be unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) dominated by the cultural and political environment they live in, even as scientists.  As a result their theories can reflect bourgeois ‘philosophy’ like a bad mirror, and end up wrong.  Philosophy begins where religion ends – and without a philosophy, you actually end up with bits of religion in disguise.

To counteract this, Woods and Grant take apart various dead ends in philosophy, cosmology, mathematics, biology, psychology and geology by using a materialist dialectic.  They attack many sacred cows in the process, and make a convincing case for a new, more accurate scientific attitude which also incorporates the findings of recent science, as well as chaos and complexity theories.  It sometimes reads like a science primer, but then engages critically with many erroneous theories.  Its greatest weakness is its avoidance of environmental science, which in 1995 might be forgivable, but might also stem from their political views. 

On the chopping block are philosophies like religion, idealism, logical positivism and empiricism.  Formal logic and only theoretical math and physics come in for a beating.  Euclid and Newton get relegated to their roles.  Reductionism gets reduced in status.  Gradualism is worn away with a hammer.  Biological determinism is determinably buried.  The second law of thermodynamics is not as lawful as it appears.  The Catholic Church has not really changed its stripes.  Big heroes like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, his selfish gene and Werner Heisenberg go down – even Einstein comes up a bit short.  (Heisenberg was a Nazi, by the way, which influenced some of his ideas.)  Brain size, soul, the mind-body dualism, intelligence, super-brains, meteor causation, time travel, grand unified theories and the Big Bang are all found extremely wanting. 

Take the “Big Bang,” the star theory of our time.  Though there have been at least 5 versions of this theory so far.  Nearly everyone believes it.  Red shift, right?  Nobel-prize winning scientists claim they know what happened within a micro-second of the ‘explosion’ that created the universe.  Which is somewhat amusing - after all, how do they know this in such certainty, billions of years ago?  Not through actual experiments or verification mind you, but through theoretical math.  The authors point out that the overwhelming majority of papers describing the cosmos – 95% or more – are now based on theoretical math or other methods, and not on actual evidence.  This is because every cosmologist fancies himself the second coming of Einstein, who deduced his ideas from theory first, only to be backed up by proof later.  Science is supposed to be about proof, not just beautiful mathematical formulas.  And mathematics without material proof becomes a form of idealism.  The other theory that opposed the ‘big bang’ – the ‘steady state’ theory – has been defeated in the minds of nearly all cosmologists by its internal inconsistencies. 

However, the authors propose another theory based on the work of young scientists like Eric Lerner, Hannes Alfven, Oskar Klein & Anthony Peratt – that the universe has no beginning or end, just the endless movement and transformation of matter.  The ‘red shift’ that has been tracked may only be related to the part of the universe that is viewable.  These scientists maintain that a nebular hypothesis accounts more accurately for the structure of the universe than a ‘bang.’  Woods and Grant insist this view reflects what we know of all matter at present, yet is almost not on the agenda of cosmology.  Why?  Even Stephen Hawking worried about the implications of the Catholic Church embracing the theory of the ‘big bang.’  And for good reason.  It seems to be nothing but a scientific version of the Biblical creation story, supported by little evidence except the conditioning of the minds of scientists, and ours as well. 

Woods and Grant, along with Engels, maintain that time has no beginning or end.  Matter has no beginning or end.  Energy is matter in motion.  Infinity is real.  Systems are complex, interrelated, self-acting, binary, fractal, yet consistent, though sometimes apparently chaotic.  Older scientific theories have limited applicability.  Woods and Grant show how these concepts – all based on dialectics, but also verified by experiment after experiment – run through the whole history of the cosmos, the earth, human beings, and even provide a material grounding for geometry, calculus and other mathematics.  They emphasize the scientific importance of quantity into quality, the interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation, sometimes graphed as 'thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis' or the movement of contradiction.  They rely on many authorities, including Hegel, Engels and J. Gleick’s ground-breaking classic, 1988’s ‘Chaos, Making of a New Science,’ to make these points.  Their work consistently intertwines philosophy with science.

Woods and Grant’s limitations never crowd out their points, but they are there.  They are optimists about technology and ‘progress’ even in the face of the material limits being discovered by environmental science.  Nuclear power has no dialectical anti-thesis in their mind.  The authors verge on a ‘productionist’ view of Marxism, though they deny that.  They repeatedly delight in describing how animals are qualitatively inferior to humans, which is true.  Tool-making made the human animal what it is today.  However, this delight might be tempered with a somber reflection on some of the destructive 'tools' created by those humans which could destroy humanity.  Meat eating might have helped nourish the brain of early humans, but it is now turning into its opposite.  And that is dialectics.  They track 5 mass die-offs of animal species in geological time in their argument against biological gradualism, while not mentioning the one presently occurring in this epoch, the Anthropocene.  Nor do they recognize any limits to population growth – attacking the straw man of Malthus in place of the findings of recent environmental science.  If global warming is based on dialectics, then 'quantity into quality' could result not in a gradual trend, but a sudden leap into overwhelming heat.  A massive release of methane from the arctic and Siberian regions is predicted to occur and bear this out. In a word, they are classically-educated Europeans whose views were formed soon after World War II, somewhat disdainful of popular culture, yet optimistic about the young.  These limitations do not dull the quality of this work. 

In this blog, I’ve covered books that have updated Marx to modern times.  Contrary to the light-minded and common American idea that Marxism is some bromide relegated to the late 1800s and early 1900s, these books show that Marxist methods are even more applicable today. As examples, books like “Monopoly Capital” by Baran & Sweezy cover the development of modern capitalist monopoly.  The Environmental Revolution” by John Bellamy Foster extended Marx’s concern with environmentalism into the present.  Samir Amin’s “The Law of Worldwide Value” showed how the conception of ‘ground rent,’ which Marx did not get to expand, could be applied to imperialism.  Rebel Cities” by David Harvey looked at the functioning of ground rent and geography in modern capitalist cities.  The recent growth of the bourgeois financial sector was covered in “The Great Financial Crisis,” co-authored by Harry Magdoff and JB Foster.  The Precariat,” while not Marxist, focused on the massive expansion of this section of the world working class. (All reviewed below.)

This book is proof that living Marxists are not just activists, but can also advance theory – just as Lenin, Luxembourg, Trotsky, Gramsci, Mao, Che and others have done.  Congrats to them.

(Prior books on science, complexity theory and survival– “Ten Assumptions of Science,’ ‘Deep Survival’ and ‘Ubiquity’ - are reviewed below.)

P.S. - Scientific American and the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics have just published articles on the "rainbow universe" and 'relative locality.'  The former theory was developed by an Egyptian researcher, Adel Awad, and the latter by Lee Smolin of Ontario. One suggests that gravity can affect colors, and the second that 'location' is relative.  Both theories, according to Scientific American, throw into question the red shift and the Big Bang, and suggest time has no beginning or end.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
December 4, 2013

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