The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Is Marxism a theism?

Jacques Monod won the 1965 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work in molecular biology. In Chance and Necessity (1970, translated 1971) he looks at the philosophical implications of molecular biology. They are, for Monod, rigorously atheistic. In nature, 'invariance precedes teleonomy'. This is his way of saying that purpose is a product of natural selection. Belief in God, gods and spirits is what Monod calls animism: the projection into nature of the purposive properties of the human central nervous system. Discarding animism is the first principle of science, which Monod calls the principle of objectivity.

'All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency'. One of the philosophies most strenuous in this effort is Marxism. Monod's argument here is straightforward.

Dialectical materialism is a contradiction in terms, because dialectic is a mental process, and the only way a mental process can be inherent in matter is if there is a mind inherent in matter. Hegel called it Spirit. But Hegel's Spirit is God. Without Spirit, there is absolutely no basis for a dialectic of nature or of history. Dialectic of nature -> Spirit in Nature -> animism.

Providence is thus smuggled back into a supposedly scientific view, with disastrous results, because if you think you are an atheist but are unconciously counting on Providence (the cunning of Reason, the logic of history, and other such avatars) to make it all come out right in the end, you are going to make catastrophic mistakes which you have no way to recognise, let alone correct. Historical messianism is the inevitable consequence of dialectical materialism. This is in addition to a long trail of intellectual embarrassments. (With some tact, Monod cites only those handed down to us by Engels and Lenin.)

There have been Marxists who rejected the dialectic, for much these reasons. But Marxism without the dialectic is just a set of economic, historical and sociological analyses, any of which you can take or leave. Without the deep conviction of having uncovered the laws of motion of nature, society and thought, it loses much of its zeal. Not a revision of Marxism, but a complete abandonment of it, is socialism's only hope.

With fact and value radically disjunct, and no destiny or duty written in nature, the only basis for reuniting our values with our knowledge is the recognition that the principle of objectivity is itself a free, and thus ethical, choice. A like recognition is, for Monod, the only basis for a scientific socialist humanism. We can choose to build a kingdom of knowledge and freedom, or we can choose the darkness.

[Added 14 July, with slight edits above to clarify]

But let Monod speak for himself:
'Perhaps more than the other animisms, historical materialism is based on a total confusion of the categories of value and knowledge. This very confusion permits it, in a travesty of authentic discourse, to proclaim that it has 'scientifically' established the laws of history, which man has no choice or duty but to obey if he does not wish to sink into oblivion.

This illusion, which is merely puerile when it is not fatal, must be given up once and for all. How can an authentic socialism ever be built on an essentially inauthentic ideology, a caricature of that very science whose support it claims (most sincerely, in the minds of its followers)? Socialism's one hope is not in a 'revision' of the ideology that has been dominating it for over a century, but in completely abandoning that ideology.

Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism? Only, we suggest, in the sources of science itself, in the ethic upon which knowledge is founded, and which by free choice makes knowledge the supreme value - the measure and guarantee of all other values. An ethic which bases moral responsibility upon the very freedom of that axiomatic choice. Accepted as the foundation for social and political institutions, and as the measure of their authenticity and their value, only the ethic of knowledge can lead to socialism. It prescribes institutions dedicated to the defence, the extension, the enrichment of the transcendent kingdom of ideas, of knowledge, and of creation - a kingdom which is within man, where progressively freed both from material constraints and from the misleading servitudes of animism, man could at last live authentically; where he would be protected by institutions which, seeing him as both the subject of the kingdom and its creator, would serve him in his unique and precious essence.

This is perhaps a utopia. But it is not an incoherent dream. It is an idea that owes its strength to its logical coherence alone. It is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.'


In a world where some self-proclaimed Christians preach hate of the weak and the accumulation of wealth, and have done for millenia, should we be surprised that 'scientific' socialism is the province of those who reject naturalism and the possibility of evidence's changing our ideas about the world?

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