JD Bernal 1937

Dialectical Materialism and Modern Science

Published: Science and Society, Volume II, No. 1, Winter 1937;
Transcribed: for marxists.org in May, 2002.

ONE of the questions on which clarity of thinking is now most necessary is that of the relation between the methods of science and of Marxist philosophy. Although much has already been written on the subject, yet there is still an enormous amount of confusion and contradictory statement. It is widely felt outside Marxist circles that, whatever the economic and political value of Marxist teaching, its incursion into the field of science is unwarranted. This is most strongly felt in relation to natural science, but it extends also to the social sciences in so far as these tend to imitate in their techniques the methods of natural science. Marxism is taken to be just another philosophic intrusion, adding nothing of importance and essentially superfluous in a region where the existing development of scientific method gives all the analysis which is necessary for the understanding of nature. Such an attitude, which has indeed been held by many who call themselves Marxists, implies at best a superficial view of Marxism and a lack of appreciation of its comprehensive nature. Much of this misunderstanding arises, particularly among those who have been trained in the English empirical tradition, from the fact that Marxist philosophy arose in part from Hegel and still retains a Hegelian terminology. The new direction which Marx gave to Hegelian philosophy and the solid material basis which he established for it are neither understood nor appreciated by those who are frightened by the phrases of "the transformation of quantity into quality" or "the negation of the negation." Those writers, on the other hand, who have attempted to remove from dialectic materialism its particular terminology generally also succeeded in removing the specific contributions which it has made to the understanding of the process of the universe and reduce it to a merely generalized application of normal scientific method. Now Marxism is not scientific method, nor is it in any sense an alternative method; it is at the same time more comprehensive and more advanced. Both the method of science as hitherto understood and the content of scientific discovery can be incorporated in the Marxist scheme. They need, however, to be criticized and extended. Marxism is no substitute for science, but because of its wider scope it can see the limitations of exiting methods and indicate where in the past these have been used in fields in which they have no competence. Further, it serves to complete the picture given by science by introducing into it a number of concepts and methods of working which have been, for historical and technical reasons, up till now foreign to it--and lastly to show science that its social function is not only contemplative but active. This is not to be taken to mean that Marxism is not science or that it is something which could be added on to science; or to set up an antithesis between Marxism and science. Marxism transforms science and gives it greater scope and significance, but we are not concerned here so much with this transformed Marxist science as with science as it is today.

One of the special features of Marx's work, which at first sight would seem to be an indication of the impossibility of the claims here advanced, was that he derived his analysis of the universe from the study of the development of human society. Human society is intrinsically more complex than any other part of nature, not only because it contains in itself all its complexities and more, but because its changes are more rapid and less regular. It is no accident that the sciences purporting to deal with it were the last to develop and are still the most unformed. Now science has proceeded almost axiomatically on the ground that the complicated is to be understood in terms of the simple and not vice versa. In doing so, however, especially in establishing those regularities which we know as scientific laws, it has necessarily deprived itself of the possibility of examining the type of phenomena that are not regular, particularly the appearance of novel elements in the universe. Now the rate of appearance of novelty is itself the function of the complexity of the phenomena. We have no reason to believe that the vibrations of electrons in an atom of hydrogen have been for the last 1010 years different from what they are observed to be now. The progress of science, beginning with physics and working upwards to biology, did rest on the tacit assumption which was that of Aristotle and Averroes, that everything in the universe had proceeded and did proceed by unvarying and eternal rules. Anything therefore which did not depend on such rules was ipso facto excluded from the realm of science. Human history, for instance, was considered, except by aberrant intellects like Vico, to be an art and not a science. Even the cosmic evolution of Laplace did not seriously shake this position, because in his scheme it took place only as the result of the rigid application of the eternal Newtonian laws of motion. It was this attitude in fact which prevented for many hundreds of years the acceptance of the intrinsically obvious theory of organic evolution. But the evolution of new forms in the living world still remained as it remains largely today, a matter of inference and not of direct observation. The bulk of biological work on evolution has been rather to establish its reality and map out its line of advance than to inquire as to why it occurs at all. It is in fact only in the phenomena of our own society that we are able to see the development of radically new things occurring under our eyes, and if we are to understand how new things are produced in the universe it can only be, in the first place through such a study.

The way in which thinkers have approached the problem of history has gone through very curious and significant changes. In early times history was considered first as a storehouse of nobility and tribal self-glorification, and then for its value in moral edification. The first theories of history were justifications of the ways of God with men. It gradually appeared to the rationalists of the eighteenth century that this was not good enough, that making Providence responsible for everything in fact explained nothing. But they were not able to put anything very satisfactory in its place. The degradation of mankind through the appearance of wealth, kings, and priests was only a repetition on another plane of the story of the Fall. The scientific historians of the nineteenth century preferred to have no theory of history at all, and it degenerated into a chronicling of events which ceased to have any justification except giving employment to its professors. This was not entirely mental laziness; it betrayed a half-conscious apprehension that if people inquired too closely into the forces of human development they might find things inimical to the existing order.

Being from the outset free from this fear, Marx was able to see more in history than a meaningless sequence of events or vague tendencies towards progress. It was clear to him that he was not dealing with a unitary movement towards some foredestined end, but with conflicts which were resulting in the creation of new forms. The initial difficulty however remained, that before anything adequate could be discovered about the laws of these movements the phenomena themselves had to be ordered and grouped. It was for this purpose that he used the philosophy of his youth, though in doing so he transformed the most essential parts of the Hegelian world concepts. Hegel had introduced a most valuable and convenient classification. He saw the world in a hierarchical order. In other words, he was aware that the progress from simplicity to complexity is not an undifferentiated increase but can be divided naturally into successive stages, each stage having a general mode of behavior of its own. Each element in the hierarchy includes all those below it and is included in all those above. But the Hegelian hierarchy, because it was one of pure thought, could have no true development in time. The different stages were eternal and instantaneous. Marx, by making his hierarchy material, made it at the same time dynamic and historical. Each higher stage had actually grown out of the lower stage, and the new qualities it possessed were a product of those of the lower stages and of their mode of coming together. Thus the classes of human society are not just stock assemblages of people occupying a certain level in a social ladder but are the product of a tribal organization destroyed and reformed by the development of economic relations which had arisen from the development of the tribal economy itself. The categories with which Marx dealt differ from those used in science in that they are incapable of complete isolation. They must always be considered in relation to their origin and to their future development.

Now as science itself has proceeded almost entirely by the method of isolation and precise definition of categories independent of time, the Marxist method of thinking has appeared loose and unscientific, or as most scientists would put it, metaphysical. Isolation in science however can only be achieved by a rigorous control of the circumstances of the experiment or application. Only when all the factors are known is scientific prediction, in the full sense, possible. Now it is quite clear that were new things are coming into the universe all the factors cannot be known, and therefore that the method of scientific isolation fails to deal with these new things. But from the human point of view it is as necessary to be able to deal with new things as with the regular order of nature. It is perfectly right to restrict the use of the scientific method as it exists to the latter, but it is wrong to imply that outside this regular order the human mind is helpless, that if something cannot be dealt with "scientifically" it cannot be dealt with rationally. The great contribution of Marxism is to extend the possibility of the understanding and control of phenomena to include those in which radically new things are happening. This can only be done, however, subject to certain necessary limitations. In the first place, the degree of prediction where new things are concerned can never be of the same order of exactitude as in the regular and isolated operations of science. Exact knowledge which has been looked on as an ideal is however not the only alternative to no knowledge at all. There are, of course, very large regions inside science itself where exact knowledge is impossible. The whole trend of modern physics has shown that it is hopeless to expect it in atomic phenomena. But there the difficulty is circumvented by relying on the exactness of the statistical knowledge of a large number of events, and abandoning any claim to prediction of particular events. The exact dates and locality of the critical changes, the wars and revolutions that affect human society, are also unpredictable, and as there is only one human society even statistical methods are not strictly applicable. Nevertheless, the instability of certain economic and political systems call be shown to be due to intrinsic factors, and their breakdown becomes, within a wide limit of years, inevitable.

There can be no question, even to those completely unaware of the methods by which these predictions are reached, that the Marxists have some way of analyzing the development of affairs that enables them to judge far in advance of "scientific" thinkers what the trend of social and economic development is to be. The uncritical acceptance of this, however, leads many into believing that Marxism is simply another Providential theology, that Marx had mapped the necessary lines of social and economic development which men willy nilly must follow. This is a complete misunderstanding: Marxist predictions are not the result of working out such a scheme of development. On the contrary, they emphasize the impossibility of doing this. What can be seen at any given moment is the composition of the economic and political forces of the time, their necessary struggle and the new conditions which will arise as a result of it. But beyond that we can only foresee a process which has not ended and will necessarily take on new and strictly unpredictable forms. Marxism is valuable as a method and a guide to action, not as a creed and a cosmogony.

The relevance of Marxism in the development of science is both theoretical and practical. It removes science from its imagined position of complete detachment and shows it as part, a critically important part, of economic and social development. The complete revolution of the history of science as the result of Marxist analysis, so brilliantly summarized in Professor Hogben's article in SCIENCE & SOCIETY,[1] is one of the first results of this new attitude. But for Marxism understanding is inseparable from action, and the appreciation of the social position of science leads at once in a socialist country, such as the U.S.S.R., to the organic connection of scientific research with the development of socialized industry and human culture. The organization of science in capitalist countries has gradually molded itself in the service of big business, but because the process is not understood or appreciated its service is poor and incredibly wasteful. In any case production for profit can never develop the full potentialities of science except for destructive purposes. The Marxist understanding of science puts it in practice at the service of the community and at the same time makes science itself part of the cultural heritage of the whole people and not of an artificially selected minority.

The direct application of Marxism to scientific research is still very ill understood. It is clear that the scientific method as explicitly taught, while valid in establishing connections between phenomena, offers in itself no way of arriving at those connections. This fact is conveniently slurred over in scientific literature. In every scientific paper the data are given, the arguments from the data to the conclusions, and the conclusions themselves. What is not given, in general, is how the investigator chose the problem and how he thought of deriving the conclusions, and when reasons are given they are very rarely those actually used in the research but rather the formalized version of what the procedure of an ideal rational man would be in the circumstances. The whole drive of scientific inquiry is left implicitly to be explained by the operations of genius or intuition. The scientist actually does think of the new things, and it is no one's business to inquire why he does. This is where dialectical materialism comes in. Its value is not merely critical, as is classical scientific method, but indicative. It points the way in which it may be useful to look for new solutions. It is able to do this because of its way of linking up different aspects of nature under its general categories. It is extremely difficult to give examples because of the complexity of all the processes of scientific discovery, but from my own experience I have found Marxist methods invaluable for arriving at new conceptions. In the theory of liquids, for instance, we have to deal with phenomena that are not resolvable into the reaction of a particle with a certain environing force field but are strictly collective phenomena in which we have to consider at the same time the behavior of every particle and their mutual relations. It will be possible, when some systematic mind has been able to work on the subject, to develop out of the Marxist analysis a number of common scientific modes with some indication of which should be invoked in different circumstances. Collective behavior will obviously be one of these, another will be what might be called nuclear phenomena where the beginning of anything from the crystal to a revolution depends on a local assemblage of peculiarly favorable circumstances which alone enable it to get through the critical stages before which it is too small to grow.

Marxism has still another connection with science, that of criticizing its philosophic bases and the implications which seem to arise from the internal development of science itself. Marx, Engels and Lenin were all deeply concerned with this question, and for Marxist scientists of our time, though they have been distracted by the immediate needs of the economic situation in the Soviet Union or by the political situation outside it, it still remains a task of the greatest importance. On the fringe of science, and to the layman indistinguishable from it, are the pronouncements which the scientist makes on questions which are felt to be of vital human interest--those of the origin and fate of the universe, the nature of life, the character and behavior of the human mind and of society. In nearly every case the exact analysis of the statements reveals them as having little factual content, and in most cases they represent the dressing up of old traditional metaphysical ideas in the language, though not in the sense, of modern discovery. Such conceptions can be ruthlessly exposed and criticized from the Marxist point of view, because they represent entirely illegitimate use of science. One particular method of argument which is extremely common nowadays is that which establishes the existence of the supernatural from our ignorance of the natural. It is just in those spheres of science where the least exact knowledge exists that the strongest attempts are made to use science to bolster up ancient superstitions. Fortunately, it is just in such places that Marxist methods of attack are most valid, because they are all places where new things are being produced and where isolation so common in scientific research most palpably breaks down. These were all questions to which Marx and Engels devoted particular attention, and the way in which they were able to anticipate the trends of discovery in these fields is a striking indication of the value of the dialectical method. The modern Marxists have before them far vaster and more complex problems than had the pioneers. It seems probable that in the face of them modern science may well reach an impasse comparable with that which overcame the science of classical times. It is for the Marxists to find new methods of thought, of scientific organization and material technique which will prevent this happening.

The four critical points of the modern world view of science are the basic concepts of physics, which are now indissolubly bound up with the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of human society and the fate of human civilization. In the first field it is more than ever clear that physics and astronomy are at present in an impasse. The contradictions between theory and observation in the field of cosmic rays, the expanding universe and the relation between fundamental physical units can no longer be obscured. Such contradictions are of course of enormous value to science, because out of the struggle to solve them will emerge some new and further-reaching generalizations, but until this happens no inferences can logically be made as to such ultimate questions; and even when it does, it can only be raising further and hitherto unglimpsed problems. Nevertheless, it is just this ignorance which is being used by the mystical physicists and astronomers to build a new creation myth. Just because the physicist cannot say, because the laws are not sufficiently well known, how the universe developed into its present state, they infer that it must have been created, as if this explanation did not raise enormously greater difficulties. From the Marxist point of view the problem of the origin of the universe in any ultimate sense is a pointless one. At any given stage the necessity of development of certain forms--stars, galaxies--may be derivable from the internal contradictions of some previous state, but there is no necessity to postulate either the eternal existence of a universe essentially like ours or a single ultimately primitive state. Indefinite regression of opposition and synthesis remains before us to explore.

The result of the progress of science in the last few centuries has been to progressively reduce the amount of work which the gods or God have had to do, but even yet the logical conclusion is not drawn. Evolution removed the necessity for special creation, but it is still considered that the Creator must have intervened to start the process off. Life appears as so qualitatively different from dead matter as to require some special act in its production. This problem again seems unreal to the Marxist, not that he denies the qualitative difference but that he sees in its origin just another example of that transformation of quantity to quality that is the characteristic of the appearance of new things. Life is sharply marked off from non-life, largely because its own operations effectively destroy the possibility of its continual recreation. In the primitive, lifeless world chemical substances were accumulated of the kind that cannot accumulate now because they would be consumed by the very life which their coming together in special circumstances brought into being. The practical scientists of today are learning to manipulate life as a whole and in parts very much as their predecessors of a hundred years ago were manipulating chemical substances. Life has ceased to be a mystery and has become a utility.

There yet remain the problems of man. The nineteenth century evolutionists certainly went too far in their demonstration that man was but a modified ape. The theologians were right in feeling that in this explanation something had been left out, but the soul which they postulated was again one of these mystical explanations which explain nothing. What Marx and Engels saw was the real qualitative difference between man and the animals was not the mere possession of a larger brain but the organization of human society; that human society was a category definitely different and higher than the animal species; that man in society represented a qualitatively new thing in the universe. The whole of modern anthropological and psychological research reinforces this conclusion: man is man-made, individually in the family, and socially through tradition and history, molded by his economic necessities and the means he has found to satisfy them.


[1] "Our Social Heritage" by Lancelot Hogben. Science & Society, i, no. 2, 137-51.