Leon Trotsky

Dialectical Materialism and Science

(17 September 1925)

Source: New International, Vol.6 No.1, February 1940, pp.24-31.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Creative Commons (Attribute & Share-alike) Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2006.

A Necessary Explanation: In 1925 Trotsky, as chairman Of the technical and scientific board of industry, was head of all scientific institutions, and in that capacity delivered the speech, published below, before the Mendeleyev Congress on September 17, 1925. On April 18, 1938, Trotsky wrote the following foreword to the English translation of his speech:

“This speech was delivered in 1925, at a time when the author still firmly hoped that Soviet democracy would overcome the tendencies towards bureaucratism, and create exceptionally favorable conditions for the development of scientific thought. Because of a combination of historical causes this hope has not yet materialized. On the contrary, the Soviet state in the intervening thirteen years has fallen victim to complete bureaucratic ossification and has assumed a totalitarian character equally baneful to the development of science and art. Through the cruel irony of history, genuine Marxism has now become the most proscribed of all doctrines in the Soviet Union. In the field of social science, shackled Soviet thought has not only failed to utter a single new word but, on the contrary, has sunk to the depths of pathetic scholasticism. The totalitarian regime likewise exercises a disastrous influence upon the development of the natural sciences. Nevertheless the views developed in this speech retain their validity, in the section too, which deals with the inter-relations between the social regime and scientific thought. However, they should be placed not against the background of the present Soviet state, a product of degeneration and disintegration, but rather taken in the light of that socialist state which will arise from the future victorious struggle of the international working class.”

The Continuity of Cultural Heritage

YOUR CONGRESS convenes amid the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Sciences. The connection between your Congress and the Academy is made all the firmer by the fact that Russian chemistry occupies by no means the last place in the achievements that have brought fame to the Academy. Here it is perhaps proper to pose the question: What is the inner historical significance of the elaborate academic celebrations? They have a significance far beyond mere visits to museums, theatres and banquets. How can we estimate this significance? Not merely by the fact that foreign scientists, kind enough to come here as our guests, have had the opportunity of ascertaining that the revolution far from destroying scientific institutions has on the contrary developed them. This evidence acquired by the foreign scientists possesses a meaning of its own. But the significance of the academic celebrations is far greater and deeper. I would formulate it as follows: The new state, a new society based on the laws of the October Revolution takes possession triumphantly – before the eyes of the whole world – of the cultural heritage of the past.

Since I have inadvertently referred to heritage, I must make clear the sense in which I use this term so as to avoid any possible misunderstandings. We would be guilty of disrespect to the future, dearer to all of us than the past, and we would be disrespectful of the past, which in many of its aspects merits profound respect – if we were to talk loosely about heritage. Not everything in the past is of value for the future. Furthermore, the development of human culture is not determined by simple concretion. There have been periods of organic growth as well as periods of rigorous criticism, sifting and selection. It would be difficult to say which of these periods has proved more fruitful for the general development of culture. At all events, we are living in an epoch of sifting and selection.

Roman jurisprudence had, from the time of Justinian, established the law of inventorial inheritance. In contrast to pre-Justinian legislation which established the right of an heir to accept inheritance provided only he likewise assumed responsibility for all obligations and debts, inventorial inheritance gave the inheritor a certain degree of choice. The revolutionary state, representing a new class, is a kind of inventorial inheritor in relation to the accumulated store of culture. Let me state frankly that not all of the 15,000 volumes published by the Academy during its two centuries of existence will enter into the inventory of Socialism! There are two aspects of by no means equal merit to the scientific contributions of the past which are now ours and upon which we pride ourselves. Science as a whole has been directed toward acquiring knowledge of reality, research into the laws of evolution, and discovery of the properties and qualities of matter, in order to gain greater mastery over it. But knowledge did not develop within the four walls of a laboratory or a lecture hall. No, it remained a function of human society and reflected the structure of human society. For its needs, society requires knowledge of nature. But at the same time, society demands an affirmation of its right to be what it is; a justification of its particular institutions; first and foremost, the institutions of class domination, just as in the past it demanded the justification of serfdom, class privileges, monarchical prerogatives, national exceptionalism, etc. Socialist society accepts with utmost gratitude the heritage of the positive sciences, discarding, as is the right of inventorial choice, everything which is useless in acquiring knowledge of nature but only useful in justifying class inequality and all other kinds of historical untruth.

Every new social order appropriates the cultural heritage of the past not in its totality but only in accordance with its own structure. Thus, medieval society embodied in Christianity many elements of ancient philosophy, subordinating them, however, to the needs of the feudal regime and transforming them into scholasticism, the “handmaiden of theology.” Similarly, bourgeois society inherited among other things from the Middle Ages, Christianity, but subjected it either to the Reformation, that is, revolt in the shape of Protestantism, or pacification in the shape of adaptation of Catholicism to the new regime. In any case, Christianity of the bourgeois epoch was brushed aside to the degree that the road had to be cleared for scientific research, at least, within those limits which were required for the development of the productive forces.

Socialist society in its relation to scientific and cultural inheritance in general holds to a far lesser degree an attitude of indifference, or passive acceptance. It can be said: The greater the trust of socialism in sciences devoted to direct study of nature, all the greater is its critical distrust in approaching those sciences and pseudo-sciences which are linked closely to the structure of human society, its economic institutions, its state, laws, ethics, etc. Of course these two spheres are not separated by an impenetrable wall. But at the same time, it is an indisputable fact that the heritage embodied in those sciences which deal not with human society but with “matter” – in natural sciences in the broad sense of the term, and consequently of course in chemistry – is of incomparably greater weight.

The need to know nature is imposed upon men by their need to subordinate nature to themselves. Any digressions in this sphere from objective relationships, which are determined by the properties of matter itself, are corrected by practical experience. This alone seriously guarantees natural sciences, chemical research, in particular, from intentional, unintentional, semi-deliberate distortions, misinterpretations and falsifications. Social research primarily devoted its efforts toward justifying historically-arisen society, so as to preserve it against the attacks of “destructive theories,” etc. Herein is rooted the apologetic role of the official social sciences of bourgeois society; and this is the reason why their accomplishments are of little value.

So long as science as a whole remained a “handmaiden of theology,” it could produce valuable results only surreptitiously. This was the case in the Middle Ages. It was during the bourgeois regime, as already pointed out, that the natural sciences gained the possibility of wide development. But social science remained the servant of capitalism. This is also true, to a large extent, of psychology which links the social and natural sciences; and philosophy which systematizes the generalized conclusions of all sciences.

I said that official social science has produced little of value. This is best revealed by the inability of bourgeois science to foresee tomorrow. We have observed this in relation to the first imperialist World War and its consequences. We have seen it again in relation to the October revolution. We now see it in the complete helplessness of official social science in the evaluation of the European situation, the inter-relations with America and with the Soviet Union; in its inability to draw any conclusions regarding tomorrow. Yet the significance of science lies precisely in this: To know in order to foresee.

Natural science – and chemistry occupies a most important place in that field – indisputably constitutes the most valuable portion of our inheritance. Your Congress stands under the banner of Mendeleyev who was and remains the pride of Russian science.

To Know So That We May Foresee and Act

There is a difference in the degree of foresight and precision achieved in the various sciences. But it is through foresight – passive, in some instances as in astronomy, active as in chemistry and chemical engineering – that science is able to verify itself and justify its social purpose. An individual scientist may not at all be concerned with the practical application of his research. The wider his scope, the bolder his flight, the greater his freedom from practical daily necessity in his mental operations, all the better. But science is not a function of individual scientists; it is a public function. The social evaluation of science, its historical evaluation is determined by its capacity to increase man’s power and arm him with the power to foresee and master nature. Science is knowledge that endows us with power. When Leverrier on the basis of the “eccentricities” in the orbit of Uranus concluded that there must exist an unknown celestial body “disturbing” the movement of Uranus; when Leverrier on the basis of his purely mathematical calculations requested the German astronomer Galle to locate a body wandering without a passport in the skies at such and such an address; when Galle focussed his telescope in that direction and discovered the planet called Neptune – at that moment the celestial mechanics of Newton celebrated a great victory.

This occurred in the autumn of 1846. In the year 1848 revolution swept like a whirlwind through Europe, demonstrating its “disturbing” influence on the movement of peoples and states. In the intervening period, between the discovery of Neptune and the revolution of 1848, two young scholars, Marx and Engels, wrote The Communist Manifesto, in which they not only predicted the inevitability of revolutionary events in the near future, but also analyzed in advance their component forces, the logic of their movement – up to the inevitable victory of the proletariat and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It would not at all be superfluous to juxtapose this prognosis with the prophecies of the official social science of the Hohenzollerns, the Romanovs, Louis Philippe and others in 1848.

In 1869, Mendeleyev on the basis of his researches and reflection upon atomic weight established his Periodic Law of the Elements. To the atomic weight, as a more stable criterion, Mendeleyev linked a series of other properties and traits, arranged the elements in a definite order and then through this order revealed the existence of a certain disorder, namely, the absence of certain elements. These unknown elements or chemical units, as Menedeleyev once called them, should in accordance with the logic of this “Law” occupy specific vacant places in that order. Here, with the authoritative gesture of a research worker confident in himself, Mendeleyev knocked at one of nature’s hitherto closed doors, and from within a voice answered: “Present!” Actually, three voices responded simultaneously, for in the places indicated by Mendeleyev there were discovered three new elements, later called gallium, scandium, and germanium.

A marvellous triumph for thought, analytical and synthesizing! In his Principles of Chemistry Mendeleyev vividly characterizes scientific creative effort, comparing it with the projection of a bridge across a ravine: For this it is unnecessary to descend into the ravine and to fix supports at the bottom; it is only necessary to erect a foundation on one side and then project an accurately designed arc which will then find support on the opposite side. Similarly with scientific thought. It can base itself only on the granite foundation of experience but its generalizations like the arc of a bridge can rise above the world of facts in order later, at another point calculated in advance, to meet the latter. At that moment of scientific thought when a generalization turns into prediction – and prediction is triumphantly verified through experience – at that moment, human thought is invariably supplied with its proudest and most justified satisfaction! Thus it was in chemistry with the discovery of new elements on the basis of the Periodic Law.

Mendeleyev’s prediction, which later produced a profound impression upon Frederick Engels, was made in the year 1871, the year, that is, of the great tragedy of the Paris Commune in France. The attitude of our great chemist to this event can be gathered from his general hostility towards “Latinism,” its violence and revolutions. Like all official thinkers of the ruling classes not only in Russia and in Europe but throughout the world, Mendeleyev did not ask himself: What is the real driving force behind the Paris Commune? He did not see that the new class growing from the womb of old society was here exercising in its movement as “disturbing” an influence upon the orbit of old society as the unknown planet did upon the orbit of Uranus. But a German exile, Karl Marx, did at that time analyze the causes and inner mechanics of the Paris Commune and the rays of his scientific torch penetrated to the events of our own October and shed light upon them.

We have long found it unnecessary to resort to a more mysterious substance, called phlogiston, to explain chemical reactions. As a matter of fact, phlogiston served merely as a generalization for the ignorance of alchemists. In the sphere of physiology, the time has long since passed when a need was felt for a special mystical substance, called the vital force and which was the phlogiston of living matter. In principle we now possess sufficient knowledge of physics and chemistry to explain physiological phenomena. In the sphere of the phenomena of consciousness we are no longer in need of a substance labelled the soul which in reactionary philosophy performs the role of the phlogiston of psycho-physical phenomena. Psychology is for us in the final analysis reducible to physiology, and the latter – to chemistry, mechanics and physics. This is far more viable than the theory of phlogiston in the sphere of social science where this phlogiston appears in different costumes; now disguised as “historical mission,” now disguised as changeless “national character,” now as the disembodied idea of “progress,” now as the so-called “critical thought,” and so on ad infinitum. In all these cases, an attempt has been made to discover some super-social substance to explain social phenomena. It is hardly necessary to repeat that these ideal substances are only ingenious disguises for sociological ignorance. Marxism rejected super-historical essences, just as physiology has renounced the vital force, or chemistry – phlogiston.

The essence of Marxism consists in this, that it approaches society concretely, as a subject for objective research, and analyzes human history as one would a colossal laboratory record. Marxism appraises ideology as a subordinate integral element of the material social structure. Marxism examines the class structure of society as a historically conditioned form of the development of the productive forces; Marxism deduces from the productive forces of society the inter-relations between human society and surrounding nature, and these, in turn are determined at each historical stage by man’s technology, his instruments and weapons, his capacities and methods for struggle with nature. Precisely this objective approach arms Marxism with the insuperable power of historical foresight.

Consider the history of Marxism even if only on the national scale of Russia, and follow it not from the standpoint of your own political sympathies or antipathies but from the standpoint of Mendeleyev’s definition of science:

To know so that we may foresee and act. The initial period of the history of Marxism on Russian soil is the history of a struggle for correct socio-historical prognosis (foresight) as against the official governmental, and official opposi-tional viewpoints. In the early Eighties, that is, at a time when official ideology existed as the trinity of absolutism, orthodoxy and nationalism; liberalism day-dreamed about a Zemstvo Assembly, i. e., a semi-constitutional monarchy, while the Narodniki combined feeble socialistic fantasies with economic reaction. At that time Marxist thought predicted not only the inevitable and progressive work of capitalism but also the appearance of the proletariat in an independent historical role – the proletariat taking hegemony in the struggle of the popular masses; the proletarian dictatorship leading the peasantry behind it.

There is no less a difference between the Marxist method of social analysis and the theories against which it fought than there is between Mendeleyev’s Periodic Law with all its latest modifications on the one side and the mumbo-jumbo of the alchemists on the other.

Natural Science and Marxism

“The cause of chemical reaction lies in the physical and mechanical properties of compounds.” This formula of Mendeleyev is completely materialist in character. Chemistry instead of resorting to some new super-mechanical and super-physical force to explain its phenomena, reduces chemical processes to the mechanical and physical properties of its compounds.

Biology and physiology stand in a similar relationship to chemistry. Scientific, that is, materialist physiology does not require a special super-chemical vital force (as is the claim of Vitalists and neo-Vitalists) to explain phenomena in its field. Physiological processes are reducible in the last analysis to chemical ones, just as the latter – to mechanics and physics.

Psychology is similarly related to physiology. It is not for nothing that physiology is called the applied chemistry of living organisms. Just as there exists no special physiological force, so it is equally true that scientific, i.e., materialist psychology has no need of a mystic force – soul – to explain phenomena in its field, but finds them reducible in the final analysis to physiological phenomena. This is the school of the academician Pavlov; it views the so-called soul as a complex system of conditioned reflexes, completely rooted in the elementary physiological reflexes which in their turn find, through the potent stratum of chemistry, their root in the subsoil of mechanics and physics.

The same can be said of sociology also. To explain social phenomena it is not necessary to adduce some kind of eternal source, or to search for origin in another world. Society is a product of the development of primary matter, like the earth’s crust or the amoeba. In this manner, scientific thought with its methods cuts like a diamond drill through the complex phenomena of social ideology to the bed-rock of matter, its component elements, its atoms with their physical and mechanical properties.

Naturally, this does not mean to say that every phenomenon of chemistry can be reduced directly to mechanics; and even less so, that every social phenomenon is directly reducible to physiology and then – to laws of chemistry and mechanics. It may be said that this is the uppermost aim of science. But the method of gradual and continuous approach toward this aim is entirely different. Chemistry has its special approach to matter; its own methods of research, its own laws. If without the knowledge that chemical reactions are reducible in the final analysis to mechanical properties of elementary particles of matter, there is not and cannot be a finished philosophy linking all phenomena into a single system, so, on the other hand, the mere knowledge that chemical phenomena are themselves rooted in mechanics and physics does not provide in itself the key to even one chemical reaction. Chemistry has its own keys. One can choose among them only from experience and generalization, through the chemical laboratory, chemical hypothesis and chemical theory.

This applies to all sciences. Chemistry is a powerful pillar of physiology with which it is directly connected through the channels of organic and physiological chemistry. But chemistry is no substitute for physiology. Each science rests on the laws of other sciences only in the so-called final instance. But at the same time, the separation of the sciences from one another is determined precisely by the fact that each science covers a particular field of phenomena, i.e. a field of such complex combinations of elementary phenomena and laws as require a special approach, special research technique, special hypotheses and methods.

This idea seems so indisputable in relation to the sciences of mathematics and natural history that to harp on it would be like forcing an open door. It is otherwise with social science. Outstanding trained naturalists who in the field, say, of physiology would not proceed a step without taking into account rigidly tested experiments, verification, hypothetical generalization, latest verification and so forth; approach social phenomena far more boldly, with the boldness of ignorance, as if tacitly acknowledging that in this extremely complex sphere of phenomena it is sufficient merely to have vague propensities, day-to-day observations, family traditions, and even a stock of current social prejudices.

Human society has not developed in accordance with a pre-arranged plan or system, but empirically, in the course of a long, complicated and contradictory struggle of the human species for existence, and, later, for greater and greater mastery over nature itself. The ideology of human society took shape as a reflection of and an instrument in this process – belated, desultory, piecemeal, in the form, so to speak, of conditioned social reflexes which are in the final analysis reducible to the necessities of the struggle of collective man against nature. To arrive at judgments upon laws governing the development of human society on the basis of their ideological reflection, on the basis of so-called public opinion etc. is almost equivalent to forming a judgment upon the anatomical and physiological structure of a lizard on the basis of its sensations as it lies basking in the sun or crawls out of a damp crevice. True enough, there is a very direct bond between the sensations of a lizard and the latter’s organic structure. But this bond is a subject for research by means of objective methods. There is, however, a tendency to become most subjective in judging the structure and laws that govern the development of human society in terms of the so-called consciousness of society, that is, its contradictory, disjointed, conservative, unverified ideology. Of course, one can became insulted and raise the objection that social ideology is, after all, at a higher elevation than the sensation of a lizard. It all depends on one’s approach to the question. In my opinion there is nothing paradoxical in the statement that from the sensations of a lizard one could, if it were possible to bring them into proper focus, draw much more direct conclusions concerning the structure and function of its organs than concerning the structure of society and its dynamics from such ideological reflections as, for example, religious creeds which once occupied and still continue to occupy so prominent a place in the life of human society; or from the contradictory and hypocritical codexes of official morality; or, finally, the idealistic philosophic conceptions which in order to explain complex organic processes occurring in man, seek to place responsibility upon a nebulous, subtle essence called the soul and endowed with the qualities of impenetrability and eternity.

Mendeleyev’s reaction to problems of social reorganization was one of hostility and even scorn. He maintained that from time immemorial nothing had yet come from the attempt. Mendeleyev instead expected a happier future to arise through the positive sciences and above all chemistry which would reveal all of nature’s secrets.

It is of interest to juxtapose this point of view to that of our remarkable physiologist Pavlov who is of the opinion that wars and revolutions are something accidental, arising from people’s ignorance; and who conjectures that only a profound knowledge of “human nature” will eliminate both wars and revolutions.

Darwin can be placed in the same category. This highly gifted biologist demonstrated how an accumulation of small quantitative variations produces an entirely new biologic “quality” and by that token he explained the origin of species. Without being aware of it, he thus applied the method of dialectic materialism to the sphere of organic life. Darwin although unenlightened in philosophy, brilliantly applied Hegel’s law of transition from quantity into quality. At the same time we very often discover in this same Darwin, not to mention the Darwinians, utterly naive and unscientific attempts at applying the conclusions of biology to society. To interpret competition as a “variety” of the biological struggle for existence is like seeing only mechanics in the physiology of mating.

In each of these cases we observe one and the same fundamental mistake: the methods and achievements of chemistry or physiology, in violation of all scientific boundaries, are transplanted into human society. A naturalist would hardly carry over without modification the laws governing the movement of atoms into the movement of molecules which are governed by other laws. But many naturalists have an entirely different attitude upon the question of sociology. The historically conditioned structure of society is very often disregarded by them in favor of the anatomical structure of things, the physiological structure of reflexes, the biological struggle for existence. Of course, the life of human society, interlaced with material conditions, surrounded on all sides by chemical processes, itself represents in the final analysis a combination of chemical processes. On the other hand, society is constituted of human beings whose psychological mechanism is resolvable into a system of reflexes. But public life is neither a chemical nor a physiological process but a social process which is shaped according to its own laws, and these in turn are subject to an objective sociological analysis whose aims should be: To acquire the ability to foresee and to master the fate of society.

Mendeleyev’s Philosophy

In his commentaries to the Principles of Chemistry, Mendeleyev states:

“There are two basic or positive aims to the scientific study of objects: that of forecast and that of utility ... The triumph of scientific forecasts would be of very little significance, if they did not in the end lead to direct and general usefulness. Scientific foresight, based on knowledge, endows human mastery with concepts by means of which it is possible to direct the substance of things into a desired channel.”

And further Mendeleyev adds cautiously:

“Religious and philosophical ideas have thrived and developed for many thousands of years, but those ideas which govern the exact sciences capable of forecasting have been regenerated for only a few centuries and have thus far encompassed only a limited sphere. Scarcely two hundred years have passed since chemistry became part of these sciences. Truly, there lies ahead of us a great deal both in respect to prediction and usefulness to be derived from these sciences.”

These cautions, “insinuating” words are very noteworthy on the lips of Mendeleyev. Their half-concealed meaning is clearly directed against religion and speculative philosophy. Mendeleyev contrasts them to science. Religious ideas – he says in effect – have ruled for thousands of years and the benefits derived from these ideas are not very many; but you can see for yourselves what science has contributed in a short period of time and from this you can judge what its future benefits will be. This is the unquestionable meaning of the foregoing passage included by Mendeleyev in one of his commentaries and printed in the finest type on page 405 of his Principles of Chemistry. Dimitry Ivanovich was a very cautious man and did not intend to quarrel with official public opinion!

Chemistry is a school of revolutionary thought not because of the existence of a chemistry of explosives. Explosives are far from always being revolutionary. But because chemistry is, above all, the science of the transmutation of elements; it is hostile to every kind of absolute or conservative thinking cast in immobile categories.

It is very instructive that Mendeleyev, obviously under the pressure of conservative public opinion, defended the principle of stability and immutability in the great processes of chemical transformation. This great scientist insisted with remarkable stubborness on the immutability of chemical elements and their non-transmutation into one another. He felt the need for firm pillars of support. He said:

“I am Dimitry Ivanovich, and you are Ivan Petrovich. Each of us possesses his own individuality even as the elements.”

Mendeleyev more than once scornfully denounced dialectics. By this he understood not the dialectic of Hegel or Marx but the superficial art of toying with ideas, half sophistry, half scholasticism. Scientific dialectic embraces general methods of thought which reflect the laws of development. One of these laws is the change of quantity into quality. Chemistry is thoroughly permeated with this law. Mendeleyev’s whole Periodic Law is built entirely on it, deducing qualitative difference in the elements from quantitative differences in atomic weights. Engels evaluated the discovery of new elements by Mendeleyev precisely from this viewpoint. In his sketch, The General Character of Dialectics as a Science, Engels wrote:

“Mendeleyev showed that in a series of related elements arranged according to their atomic weights there are several gaps which indicated the existence of other hitherto undiscovered elements. He described in advance the general chemical properties of each of these unknown elements and foretold approximately their relative and atomic weights, and their atomic place. Mendeleyev, unconsciously applying Hegel’s law of change of quantity into quality, accomplished a scientific feat which in its audaciousness can be placed alongside Leverrier’s discovery of the yet unknown planet Neptune by computing its orbit.”

The logic of the Periodic Law, although later modified, proved stronger than the conservative limits which its creator tried to place upon it. The kinship of elements and their mutual metamorphoses can be considered as proved empirically from the hour when with the help of radioactive elements it became possible to resolve the atom into its components. In Mendeleyev’s Periodic Law, in the chemistry of radioactive elements, the dialectic celebrates its own most outstanding victory!

Mendeleyev did not have a finished philosophical system. Perhaps he lacked even a desire for one, because it would have brought him into inevitable conflict with his own conservative habits and sympathies.

A dualism upon basic questions of knowledge is to be observed in Mendeleyev. Thus it would seem that he tended toward agnosticism, declaring that the “essence” of matter must forever remain beyond our cognition because it is “alien to our knowledge and spirit” (!). But almost immediately he offers us a remarkable formula for knowledge which at a single stroke brushes agnosticism aside. In the very same note, Mendeleyev says:

“By accumulating gradually their knowledge of matter, men gain mastery over it, and to the degree in which they do so they make ever more precise predictions, verifiable factually and there is no way of seeing how there can be a limit to man’s knowledge and mastery of matter.”

It is self-evident that if there are no limits to knowledge and mastery of matter, then there is no unknowable “essence.” Knowledge which arms us with the ability to forecast all possible changes in matter, and endows us with the necessary power of producing these changes – such knowledge does in fact exhaust the essence of matter. The so-called unknowable “essence” is only a generalization of our inadequate knowledge about matter. It is a pseudonym for our ignorance. Dualistic demarcation of unknown matter from its known properties reminds me of the jocular definition of a gold ring as a hole surrounded by precious metal. It is obvious that if we gain knowledge of the precious metal of phenomena and are able to shape it, then we can remain completely indifferent to the “hole” of the substance; and we gladly make a present of it to the archaic philosophers and theologians.

Major Miscalculations

Despite his verbal concessions to agnosticism (“unknowable essence”) Mendeleyev is unconsciously a dialectic materialist in his methods and his higher achievements in the sphere of natural science, especially, chemistry. But his materialism appears as though encased in a conservative shell, shielding its scientific thought from too sharp conflicts with official ideology. This does not imply that Mendeleyev artificially created a conservative covering for his methods; he was himself sufficiently bound to the official ideology, and therefore undoubtedly felt an inner compulsion to blunt the razor edge of dialectical materialism.

It is otherwise in the sphere of sociological relationships: The warp of Mendeleyev’s social philosophy was conservative, but from time to time remarkable surmises, materialist in their essence and revolutionary in their tendency, are woven into this warp. But alongside of these surmises there are miscalculations and what miscalculations!

I shall confine myself to only two. Rejecting all plans for social reorganization as Utopian and “Latinist,” Mendeleyev envisaged a better future only in connection with the development of scientific technology. But he had his own Utopia. According to Mendeleyev, better days would come when the governments of the major powers of the world realized the need of being strong and arrived at sufficient unanimity among themselves about the need of eliminating all wars, revolutions, and the Utopian principles of all Anarchists, Communists, and other “mailed fists,” incapable of understanding the progressive evolution occurring in all mankind. The dawn of this universal concord was already to be perceived in the Hague, Portsmouth, and Morocco Conferences. These instances represent major miscalculations on the part of a great man. History subjected Mendeleyev’s social Utopia to a rigorous test. From the Hague and Portsmouth Conferences blossomed the Russo-Japanese war, the war in the Balkans, the great imperialist slaughter of nations, and a sharp decline in European economy; while from the Moroccan Conference, in particular, there arose the revolting carnage in Morocco which is now being completed under the flag of defense of European civilization. Mendeleyev did not see the inner logic of social phenomena, or, more precisely, the inner dialectic of social processes and was therefore unable to foresee the consequences of the Hague Conference. But, as we know, the significance of science lies, first and foremost, in foresight. If you turn to what the Marxists wrote about the Hague Conference in the days when it was arranged and convoked, then you will easily convince yourselves that the Marxists correctly foresaw the consequences. That is why in the most critical moment of history they proved to be armed with the “mailed fist.” And there is really nothing lamentable in the fact that the historically-rising class, armed with a correct theory of social knowledge and foresight, finally proved to be likewise armed with a fist sufficientily mailed to open a new epoch of human development.

Permit me to cite another miscalculation. Not long before his death, Mendeleyev wrote:

“I especially fear for the quality of science and of all enlightenment, and general ethics under ‘State Socialism’.”

Were his fears well-founded? Even today, the more far-sighted students of Mendeleyev have begun to see clearly the vast possibilities for the development of scientific and technico-scientific thought thanks to the fact that this thought is, so to speak, nationalized, emancipated from the internecine wars of private property, no longer required to lend itself to bribery of individual proprietors but intended to serve the economic development of the nation as a whole. The network of technico-scientific institutes now being established by the State is only a tiny and so-to-speak material symptom of the limitless possibilities that have been disclosed.

I do not cite these miscalculations in order to cast a slur on the great renown of Dimitry Ivanovich. History has passed its verdict on the main controversial issues, and there is no basis for resuming the dispute. But permit me to state that the major miscalculations of this great man contain an important lesson for students. From the field of chemistry itself there are no direct and immediate outlets to social perspectives. The objective method of social science is necessary. Marxism is such a method.

Whenever any Marxist attempted to transmute the theory of Marx into a universal master-key and ignore all other spheres of learning, Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin) would rebuke him with the expressive phrase: “Komchvanstvo” (“Communist swagger”). This would mean in this particular case – Communism is not a substitute for chemistry. But the converse theorem is also true. An attempt to dismiss Marxism with the supposition that chemistry (or the natural sciences in general) is able to decide all questions is a peculiar “Chemist swagger” (Khimchvanstvo) which in point of theory is no less erroneous and in point of fact no less pretentious than Communist swagger.

Great Surmises

Mendeleyev did not apply a scientific method to the study of society and its development. A very careful investigator who repeatedly checked himself before permitting his creative imagination to make a great leap forward in the sphere of generalization, Mendeleyev remained an empiricist in socio-political problems, combining conjectures with an outlook inherited from the past. I need only say that the surmise was truly Mendeleyevian especially where it touched directly upon the scientific industrial interests of the great scientist.

The very gist of Mendeleyev’s philosophy might be defined as technico-scientific optimism. This optimism, coinciding with the line of development of capitalism, Mendeleyev directed against the Narodniks, liberals and radicals, against the followers of Tolstoy and, in general, against every kind of economic retrogression. Mendeleyev believed in the victory of man over all of nature’s forces. From this arises his hatred of Malthusianism. This is a remarkable trait in Mendeleyev. It passes through all his writings, purely scientific, socio-publicistic, as well as his writings on questions of applied chemistry. Mendeleyev greeted with pleasure the fact that the annual increase in Russia’s population (1½%) was higher than the average growth in the whole world. Computing that the population of the world would in 150-200 years reach 10 billion, Mendeleyev saw no cause for any alarm. He wrote:

“Not only 10 billion but a population many times that size will find nourishment in this world not only through the application of labor but also through the persistent inventiveness which governs knowledge. It is in my opinion sheer nonsense to fear lack of nourishment, provided the peaceful and active communion of the masses of the people is guaranteed.”

Our great chemist and industrial optimist would have hardly listened with sympathy to the recent advice of Professor Keynes of England who told us during the academic celebrations that we must busy ourselves with limiting the increase in population. Dimitry Ivanovich would have only repeated his old remark: “Or do the new Malthuses wish to arrest this growth? In my opinion, the more, the merrier.” Mendeleyev’s sententious shrewdness very often expressed itself in such deliberately over-simplified formulas.

From the same viewpoint – industrial optimism – Mendeleyev approached the great fetish of conservative idealism, the so-called national character. He wrote:

“Where-ever agriculture in its primitive forms predominates, a nation is incapable of permanent regular and continuous labor but is able to work only fitfully and in a harvest-time manner. This reflects itself clearly in the customs in the sense that there is a lack of equanimity, calmness and thriftiness; fidgetiness is to be observed in everything, a happy-go-lucky attitude prevails, along with it extravagance – there is either miserliness or squandering ... Wherever side by side with agriculture, factory industry has developed on a large scale, where one can see before one’s eyes, in addition to sporadic agriculture, the regulated, continuous, uninterrupted labor in the factories, there obtains a correct appraisal of labor, and so on.”

Of especial value in these lines is the outlook on national character not as some primordial fixed element created for all time, but as a product of historical conditions and, more precisely, social forms of production. This is an indubitable, even if only a partial approach to the historical philosophy of Marxism.

In the development of industry Mendeleyev sees the instrumentalities of national re-education, the elaboration of a new, more balanced, more disciplined and self-controlled national character. If we actually contrast the character of the peasant revolutionary movements with the movement of the proletariat and especially the role of the proletariat in October and today, then the materialist prediction of Mendeleyev will be illumined with sufficient clarity.

Our industrial optimist expressed himself with remarkable lucidity on the elimination of the contradictions between city and country, and every Communist will accept his formulation on this subject. Mendeleyev wrote:

“Russian people have begun to migrate to cities in large numbers ... My view is that it is sheer nonsense to fight against this development; this process will terminate only when the city, on the one side, will spread out to include more parks, gardens, etc., i.e. the aim in the cities will be not only to render life as healthy as possible for all but also to provide sufficient open spaces not only for childrens’ playgrounds and for sport but for every form of recreation; and, on the other hand, in the villages and farms, etc., the non-urban population will so multiply as to require the building of many-storied houses; and there will arise the need for water-works, street lighting and other city comforts. In the course of time all this will lead to the whole countryside (sufficiently densely populated), becoming inhabited, with dwellings being separated by the so-to-speak kitchen gardens and orchards necessary for the production of foodstuffs and with factories and plants for manufacturing and altering these products.” (D.I. Mendeleyev, Towards an Understanding of Russia, 1906).

Here Mendeleyev testifies convincingly in favor of the old thesis of Socialism: the elimination of the contradiction between city and country, Mendeleyev, however, does not here pose the question of changes in social forms of economy. He believes that capitalism will automatically lead to the levelling out of urban and rural conditions through the introduction of higher, more hygienic and cultural forms of human habitation. Herein lies Mendeleyev’s mistake. It appears most clearly in the case of England to which Mendeleyev referred with such hope. Long before England could eliminate the contradictions between city and country, her economic development had already landed in a blind alley. Unemployment corrodes her economy. The leaders of English industry see the salvation of society in emigration, in forcing out the surplus population. Even the more “progressive” economist, Mr. Keynes told us only the other day that the salvaging of English economy lies in Malthusianism! ... For England, too, the road of overcoming the contradictions between city and country leads through Socialism.

There is another surmise made by our industrial optimist. In his last book, Mendeleyev wrote:

“After the industrial epoch, there will probably follow in the future a most complex epoch, which, according to my view, would denote a facilitation, or an extreme simplification of the methods of obtaining food, clothing and shelter. Established science should am at this extreme simplification towards which it has already been partly directed in recent decades.” (idem).

These are remarkable words. Although Dimitry Ivanovich elsewhere makes reservations – against the realization, god forbid, of the Utopia of Socialists and Communists – in these words he nevertheless outlines the technico-scientific perspectives of Communism. A development of the productive forces that would lead us to attain extreme simplification of the methods of obtaining food, clothing and shelter would also clearly lead us to reduce to a minimum the element of coercion in the social structure. With the elimination of the completely useless greediness from social relations, the forms of labor and distribution will assume a Communist character. In the transition from Socialism to Communism no revolution will be necessary since the transition wholly depends upon the technical progress of society.

Utilitarian and “Pure” Science

Mendeleyev’s industrial optimism constantly directed his thought towards practical industrial questions and problems. In his purely theoretical works, we find his thought directed through the same channels to the problems of economy. There is a dissertation by Mendeleyev devoted to the question of diluting alcohol with water, a question. which is of economic significance even today. (An ironic reference to the resumption of the State-sale of vodka. – Ed.) Mendeleyev invented a smokeless powder for the needs of state defense. He occupied himself with a careful study of petroleum, and that in two directions – one, purely theoretical, the origin of petroleum; and the. other, technico-industrial uses. Here we should always bear in mind Mendeleyev’s protest against using petroleum simply as a fuel: “Heating can be done with banknotes!” exclaimed our chemist. A confirmed protectionist, Mendeleyev took leading part in elaborating tariff policies and wrote his Sensible Tariff Policy from which not a few valuable directives can be quoted even from the standpoint of socialist protectionism.

Problems of northern sea routes stirred his interest shortly before his death. He recommended to young investigators and navigators that they solve the problem of opening up the North Pole. He held that commercial routes must necessarily follow.

“Near that ice there is not a little gold and other minerals, our own America. I should be happy to die at the Pole, for there at least no one ‘putrefies’.”

These words have a very modern ring. When the old chemist reflected upon death, he thought about it from the standpoint of putrefaction and dreamt incidentally of dying in an atmosphere of eternal cold.

Mendeleyev never tired of repeating that the goal of knowledge was “usefulness.” In other words, he approached science from the standpoint of utilitarianism. At the same time, as we know, he insisted on the creative role of disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Why should anyone in particular seek for commercial routes by round-about ways to reach the North Pole? Because reaching the Pole is a problem of disinterested research capable of arousing scientific research-sport passions. Is there not a contradiction between this and the affirmation that science’s goal is usefulness? Not at all. Science is a function of society and not of an individual. From the socio-historic standpoint, science is utilitarian. But this does not at all mean that each scientist approaches problems of research from a utilitarian point of view. No! Most often scholars are motivated by their passion for knowledge and the more significant a man’s discovery the less is he able as a general rule to foresee in advance its possible practical applications. Thus the disinterested passion of a research worker does not contradict the utilitarian meaning of each science any more than the personal self-sacrifice of a revolutionary fighter contradicts the utilitarian aim of those class needs which he serves.

Mendeleyev was able to combine perfectly his passion for knowledge for its own sake with incessant preoccupation about raising the technical power of mankind. That is why the two wings of this Congress – the representatives of theoretical and of applied branches of chemistry – stand with equal right under the banner of Mendeleyev. We must educate the new generation of scientists in the spirit of this harmonious coordination of pure scientific research with industrial tasks. Mendeleyev’s faith in the unlimited possibilities for knowledge, prediction and mastery of matter must become the scientific credo for the chemists of the socialist fatherland. The German physiologist, Du Bois Reymond once envisaged philosophic thought as departing from the scene of the class struggle and crying out: “Ignorabimus!” That is, we shall never know, we shall never understand! And scientific thought, linking its fate with the fate of the rising class, replies,

“You lie! The impenetrable does not exist for conscious thought! We will reach everything! We will master everything! We will rebuild everything!”

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Last updated on: 20.1.2007