Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science

By Joseph, Jonathan | Capital & Class, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science


Joseph, Jonathan, Capital & Class


Reason in Revolt: Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science

Wellred Publications, London, 1995. pp.440.

ISBN I 9000 07 00 2 (pbk) 9.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Joseph

Ted Grant and Alan Woods are well known as former leaders of the Militant group. In 1991 a crisis split the organization. Grant, the founding figure, and a number of his supporters were expelled. They went on to form Socialist Appeal. Unfortunately this organisation is stamped with the same kind of dogmatism and inertia that grips Militant. This book is a reflection of such an attitude.

Reason in Revolt is the first part of an ambitious project. Of course, all gurus are required to project themselves as representing the theoretical continuity of 'true' Marxism. Having said this, the book is more serious than most efforts and does contain some interesting material. For those interested in keeping a check on modern scientific developments and theories, it is certainly worth a read.

One of Woods and Grant's arguments is for a theory of the infinity of matter, and against notions like the `big bang'. They also reject reactionary theories, most recently expressed by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, that human behaviour is reducible to genetic make up. Whilst genetic science is important, it clearly should not be used to explain social phenomena. Unfortunately genetic views about homosexuality and criminality have become commonplace. From reactionary genetics it is only a short step to eugenics.

However, the stuff on science whilst well written does no more than take sides with some theories rather than others and has nothing particularly novel to say. It is the philosophical claims that the book makes that real!y need debating.

For the authors Engels is the be all and end all. His book The Dialectics of Nature, based on a careful study of the most advanced scientific knowledge of the day is said to have 'proved' that the workings of nature are dialectical. Woods and Grant go on to state that the most important discoveries of the 20th century provide a striking confirmation of Engels' thesis.

This is very blase and old fashioned. Whilst Engels' contribution is immense it is also flawed. That Engels' philosophy was influenced by the science of the day is precisely the problem. Scientific theories tempted Engels into making similar philosophical statements. As the science loses its credibility, so too do some of Engels' claims about nature.

Scientific knowledge often progresses by means of ruptures and revolutions which radically challenge previously held theories. Copernicus and Einstein immediately spring to mind. Once one rejects the idea that science has a linear development, it seems obvious that if the science of Engels' day is flawed, then we should take up a critical attitude to Engels' philosophy too. It is no surprise that when the book gets on to scientific theories, Engels and philosophy are hardly mentioned. For science really stands by its own merits.

At stake is what philosophy is really about. Woods and Grant, in keeping with Engels, suggest that philosophy has a universal, privileged status as a `Queen of the sciences'. This is inevitably a speculative illusion. Recent developments in Marxist philosophy have returned philosophy to a more humble status. It is no less important. Indeed, in the face of books like this, it is more important than ever. But its role, as Bhaskar says, is as an 'underlabourer' for the sciences. …

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