Either Marx was a positivist and Engels smuggled in dialectics, or Marx was a Hegelian idealist and Engels smuggled in materialism. But Sheehan clearly shows these ideas are unfounded, pointing to numerous instances of Marx explicitly defending materialist and dialectical conceptions of science.
More recent writings by John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett, and Kohei Saito have revealed new dimensions of a dialectical approach to science in these writings. One can imagine that if it had been written today, Sheehan would have a lot more to say on the topic. As a worldview, Marxism was the product of clashes with other political trends on the left, from anarchism to utopian socialism to Blanquist putschism, and of ideological clashes with bourgeois economists and scientists.
This is in contrast to more undialectical ideologies, which try to derive their worldview from first principles.
This debate took on a philosophical component as the reformists also relied on a neo-Kantian revival in popular philosophy. Meanwhile, another wing of the movement, centering around Alexander Bogdanov in Russia and Anton Pannekoek in the Netherlands, defended revolutionary politics from a crude, ultra-left, voluntaristic perspective, and appealed to a new wave of positivist philosophy around the physicist Ernst Mach.
The neo-Kantian movement reflected an increasing distrust in science and especially the possibility of scientific progress. Machism was an attempt at defending science by clearing away the problems of previous schools of positivism. As with many undialectical approaches to science, it was able to point to legitimate problems with previous undialectical conceptions, only to replace them with new problems. In the year , two revolutionary events occurred.
At the same time, Albert Einstein began a revolution in physics with his discovery of the theories of special and general relativity. Sheehan goes over the various debates within the Second International and comes out with a critical view of many of the leaders of the International for their failure to adequately address the scientific questions. To varying degrees, most of the leading theoreticians of the International, from Karl Kautsky to Paul Lafargue to the Austro-Marxists, sought to reduce the scope of Marxism, either to just economics, or just history.
Questions of science and philosophy were treated as private matters.
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Not all of the thinkers of the Second International held that view. Joseph Dietzgen and Antonio Labriola took a more serious approach to philosophy. Most importantly, Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, took the philosophical questions very seriously, and he and the resulting Russian Marxist movement would make the most thorough-going critiques of these new philosophical trends. In their own ways, neo-Kantianism and Machism posed a challenge to materialism primarily on the plane of epistemology: the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge.
A materialist conception would hold that our knowledge of the outside world in some way reflects or corresponds to material reality. But the solutions posed by neo-Kantianism and Machism only added new problems. The neo-Kantians argued that there was a rigid separation between the phenomenon , the thing as it appears, and the noumenon , the thing in itself. The Machians took the opposite approach to the neo-Kantians. They saw perception and reality as identical and dismissed as metaphysics the very idea of any form of reality existing beyond the realm of perception.
But the more relativity and quantum physics were formalized and standardized, the less use Machism had, and this sort of subjective idealism has increasingly been associated with anti-scientific philosophies like postmodernism. Sheehan points out that Plekhanov, and many other leaders of the Russian Marxist movement, took thorough philosophical aim at these ideas.
The main exception to this was Lenin, in his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism argues that, in contrast to the claims of Mach, material reality does, in fact, exist outside of direct perception. Due to the nature of dialectics, material reality was in flux, and our ideas of reality were only partial reflections.
The revolution in physics was only in the process of being completed, and the book still references things like the luminiferous ether, which was thrown out by the development of relativity theory, but was still being included in the textbooks of the time. But it is has stood the test of time much more so than the neo-Kantian and Machist ideas he was challenged with. After Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union, many of the ideas Lenin put forward in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism would be distorted beyond recognition.
Lenin was fundamentally defending the new scientific ideas while challenging the bad philosophical views that had accompanied them. Stalin, on the other hand, conflated the scientific ideas with the philosophical ideas, and insisted that relativity and quantum physics themselves were bourgeois perversions. In contrast to the reputation set by Stalin, the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution saw a widening of discussion and debate on scientific and philosophical thought. The Bolsheviks made conscious efforts to win scientists to the revolution.
The Bolshevik government set up a number of scientific institutions and journals. And they consciously cultivated a wide freedom of discussion on scientific and philosophical matters. Many of the Machians who Lenin had harshly polemicized against were given prominent positions in the scientific institutions.
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And a wide variety of philosophical schools popped up, many at odds with Marxist views. Sheehan describes these schools, giving focus on the two most prominent: the mechanists and the Deborinites. The mechanist school developed a wide following among natural scientists attracted to the Russian Revolution. Diverging wildly from a traditional Marxist conception, they adopted a strong positivist approach that saw the development of science as a replacement for all philosophy, including dialectical materialism.
While among the most ultra-left figures in combating religious superstitions that remained in the Soviet Union, they tended to be more conservative when it came to the prejudices that existed within the scientific community itself.
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And in many ways, the mechanist school advocated the rigid fixed categories that Hegel and Marx had rebelled against. Rather they saw scientific development as going in a more dialectical direction to the point where new understandings of the disturbance and re-establishment of equilibrium could subsume notions of dialectical contradiction.
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The mechanistic philosopher I. The other major scientific school centered around the figure of Abram Deborin. Deborin was a Menshevik and a disciple of Plekhanov who broke with the Mensheviks to support the Russian Revolution. He was well-versed in Marxist philosophy and fully embraced a dialectical approach.
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But he drew more of his support from professional philosophers than natural scientists, and his school was often prone to less rigorous and more abstract arguments. The debate between the mechanists and Deborinites grew throughout the s. An important component of this debate concerned the relation of social and political transformation to science.
The mechanists, while seeing science as playing a role in the material development of society, saw science itself as a neutral and objective study, unshaped by social change. The Deborinites had a clearer view of the way that different social systems shape scientific discovery. In spite of, or because of, these debates, Soviet science was able to see serious advancements that culminated in the impact of the Soviet delegation at the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology held in London in The delegation, headed by Nikolai Bukharin, brought thinkers from all sides in the debates, and made the case for the Marxist contribution to science.
The conference had a profound effect on many radical British scientists in the s. But much of the progress represented at this conference would be squelched under the bureaucratic counter-revolution already in progress.
The isolation of the Soviet Union lead to the consolidation of an increasingly parasitic bureaucracy centered around the figure of Joseph Stalin. After consolidating a bureaucratic counter-revolutionary dictatorship, Stalin proceeded to carry out a counter-revolution in the sphere of science. The bureaucracy now enshrined specific scientific principles, often of dubious merit. Defenders of legitimate scientific discoveries were thrown into gulags or executed.
However, it was still possible to carry on debate about scientific and philosophical questions, provided they were sufficiently detached from the main political disputes. Those opposition groupings were then falsely charged with being fascist agents as part of an increasingly wild official conspiracy theory. Purges in the field of psychology put a premature halt to the pioneering work of Lev Vygotsky. In the field of physics, even though Lenin had explicitly defended the compatibility of relativity theory with dialectical materialism, the Stalinist bureaucracy insisted otherwise.
The very science of genetics was denounced as bourgeois ideology. Biologists who opposed Lyenkoism, such as Israel Agol and Max Levin were arrested and shot under charges of Trotskyism. The Stalinist bureaucracy, however, was prone to numerous zigzags, both political and philosophical. During World War II, the Soviet military relied on a serious approach to science, at least in certain fields. This forced the bureaucracy to eventually embrace the new physics, and most Soviet physicists were spared from the purges.