THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
Here is a much-needed reply to contemporary prejudice
against science, writes Michael Fitzpatrick
Standing up for reason
At a recent social gathering of parents at my son's infant school in North
London, I met somebody who has recently qualified, if that is the right
word, as a druid. As I was brought up as a Catholic, I readily recognised
that affinity for ritual and costume, that combination of mystical claptrap,
reactionary prejudice and an air of condescension that seems common to clerics
of all faiths. What I found alarming was the fact that this New Age shaman
gained a generally sympathetic response from those present for his demeaning
attitude towards modern civilisation, progress and science, and at least
tacit approval for his retreat into a mythic cult of the pre-literate past.
- Re-enchanting Humanity: A Defence of the Human Spirit Against
Anti-Humanism, Misanthropy, Mysticism and Primitivism, Murray Bookchin,
Cassell, £40 hbk £13.99 pbk
- Science and
the Retreat from Reason, John Gillott and Manjit Kumar, Merlin,
£18.95 hbk £10.95 pbk
As we descend into a new Dark Age of irrationality, it is a pleasure and
an inspiration to turn to two newly published books which champion reason
and humanity against the prevailing climate of anti-humanism, which disparages
our capacity for creative intervention in nature and society.
Murray Bookchin, founder of the Institute for Social Ecology in the USA,
and a veteran radical activist and writer, challenges the 'deep-seated cultural
malaise' of modern society. His book is a spirited polemic against this
malaise, manifested in a wide range of intellectual and political trends,
from sociobiology and Gaia, through 'deep ecology' and cults of the primitive,
to postmodernism and technophobia. John Gillott and Manjit Kumar, well known
to readers of this magazine for their writings on a wide range of scientific
themes, offer a comprehensive critique of the degraded relationship between
science and modern society. They focus particularly on the interpretations
of advances in nuclear physics and the current vogue for theories of chaos
A few minutes conversation with a druid was enough to make me fully share
Bookchin's horror at the 'appalling regression by a sizeable part of the
public into supernatural and supranatural cults', into what he characterises
as 'a throwback to mediaevalism'. It is even more alarming to recognise
the pervasiveness of anti-humanistic and misanthropic trends today; as Bookchin
reminds us, even in the Dark Ages a belief in the human capacity for redemption
was kept alive, ironically by the Christian churches. What is most frightening
today is the casual disdain for reason expressed by feminists, ecologists
and postmodernist theorists, and the widespread nodding of heads such pronouncements
In his devastating attack on the deep ecologists behind the US conservationist
direct action group Earth First!, Bookchin denounces the elevation of privileged
claims of intuition over demands for logical consistency. As he rightly
insists, 'this is no trivial matter':
'It took thousands of years for humanity to begin to shake off the accumulated
"intuitions" of shamans, priests, chiefs, monarchs, warriors,
patriarchs, dictators and the like - all of whom claimed immense privileges
for themselves and inflicted terrible horrors on their inferiors on the
basis of their ''intuited wisdom". Once we remove the imperatives
of rational inquiry that might challenge their behaviour and the scientific
criteria of truth that might challenge their mystical claims to insight,
social elites are free to use all their wiles to subjugate, exploit and
kill enormous numbers of people on the basis of unsupported belief systems,
irrational conventions, and purely subjective views of society and the world.
Amen to that. Without respect for the rules of formal logic it is scarcely
possible to hold a conversation or conduct everyday life.
In his critique of the vacuous primitivism that has become so popular in
response to contemporary despair about the future, Bookchin provides a useful
outline of the evolution of the species Homo sapiens. By contrast with the
fashionable blurring of the distinctions between civilised and primitive
societies, and between man and apes, Bookchin emphasises the discontinuities,
elevating the influence of social over biological factors in determining
what it means to be human.
Above all it is our capacity for reason that makes us human: 'To be a human
animal, in effect, is to be a reasoning animal that can consciously act
upon its environment, alter it, and advance beyond the passive realm of
unthinking adaptation into the active realm of conscious innovation.' The
history of civilisation is that of rational and creative human intervention
in the natural and social world, purposefully improving the conditions of
The goal of the 'enlightened humanism' that emerged out of the economic,
social and intellectual transformations of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries was the creation of a rational society, in which we can become
truly human. As Bookchin observes, the problem we face at the close of the
twentieth century is that this goal remains unfulfilled. The defect of modern
society is not that it suffers from too much civilisation, but that it is
not civilised enough.
Rather than elevating the animal heritage of humanity, which can only result
in a 'stultifying conservatism', Bookchin argues for 're-enchanting humanity'.
By this he means promoting a secular view of the world in the face of mysticism
and emphasising the human potential for the creation of a rational society
against the ascendant irrationalism and despair.
Bookchin covers a wide range of richly-deserving targets with great polemical
verve. Yet he offers only partial answers to some key questions. Though
he points to the impact of hectic social changes, to popular disillusionment
at the impact of technological innovation, to the increasing mystification
of social reality, he falls short of a full explanation of why anti-human
trends have become so influential now. Nor does he satisfactorily explain
the particular forms assumed by contemporary anti-humanist prejudice, most
notably the prominent place of individuals and movements once considered
For insights into these and other matters we turn to Gillott and Kumar,
whose focus on science (the weakest chapter in Bookchin's book) opens up
an analysis which is deeper, more historical and more radical.
Science and the Retreat from Reason begins by setting the postwar
upturn in popular interest in science in the wider context of the twentieth-century
stagnation of capitalist society and its relationship with science. The
dramatic development of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, space exploration
and computer technology were all narrowly driven by the exigencies of the
Cold War. Though these programmes produced some useful spin-offs, they yielded
no systematic benefits to society and generated widespread fears of the
dangers of nuclear war or other catastrophe, and encouraged popular suspicion
towards science and scientists. The H-Bomb symbolised the divorce of science
from society and illustrated the paradox of scientific advance proceeding
in a narrow and restricted way, in tandem with anti-scientific prejudice.
Gillott and Kumar describe a 'vicious circle', tightening over the past
century, in which the loss of confidence in the forward momentum of society
leads to a loss of purpose and direction among scientists, which in turn
means that scientific developments are likely to encourage insecurities
and reinforce pessimism.
The authors clarify the position of science in modern society through a
finely drawn contrast with its role in the 'scientific revolution' of the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the great democratic revolutions
of the following century. Then economic, social and intellectual developments
conspired to put science at the cutting edge of social advance. The combination
of a faith in the capacity of humanity to intervene constructively in nature,
a belief in the distinctiveness and superiority of humanity over nature
and a confidence in the perfectibility of humanity through the improvement
of society provided a framework for an unprecedented upsurge of theoretical
reflection and practical experimentation.
During the course of the nineteenth century, however, the growing scale
of economic crises and social conflicts within the capitalist system created
an increasing resonance for the anti-Enlightenment prejudices of reactionaries.
The result was the gradual estrangement between science and society, culminating
in what has become known as the Victorian compromise. Society was removed
from the legitimate sphere of rational 'scientific' intervention, allowing
conservative influences, notably religion, renewed influence. Science was
allowed to continue in increasing isolation; not surprisingly mystical notions
now flourished in previously highly sceptical scientific circles.
The traumas of the early twentieth century inevitably intensified the divorce
of science from the project of social progress, and its adverse consequences
for both science and society. In this context Gillott and Kumar provide
a fascinating account of the impact of the development of modern quantum
The theory of quantum mechanics offered a dramatic theoretical resolution
of two decades of controversy surrounding the recognition of the dual character
of both light and matter as comprising both wave and particle forms. This
elegant mathematical theory radically subverted much of traditional physics.
The key argument that followed concerned, not so much the theory itself,
but its interpretation and wider significance.
The 'Copenhagen interpretation', formulated by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg
in 1927, has come to dominate the field. In his famous 'uncertainty principle',
Heisenberg asserted the impossibility of simultaneously specifying both
the momentum and the position of a subatomic particle to an arbitrary degree
of accuracy. At first this was understood as a subjective problem arising
from the limited techniques of measurement available. However, as the argument
continued, the problem of indeterminacy was identified as an objective feature
of reality itself. This position was codified at Copenhagen.
The consequences of this shift were enormous: it opened the way towards
a subjective view of nature in which reality is regarded as something constructed
by the observer. Furthermore, it meant that any attempt to discover causal
connections or regular patterns of interaction among phenomena was futile.
Heisenberg did not shrink from drawing wider conclusions: 'because all experiments
are subject to the laws of quantum mechanics, quantum mechanics definitely
shows the invalidity of causal laws.'
The indeterminism and acausality of the Copenhagen interpretation imply
a contradiction to Enlightenment theory and classical science at the most
fundamental level of matter. The inescapable conclusions are that it is
impossible to gain a knowledge of causes and effects in the natural world
in such a way as to guide human intervention. Indeed, drawn to its logical
conclusion, the Copenhagen position denies the separation of human subject
from nature as the object of intervention and makes all science futile.
Gillott and Kumar point out that Albert Einstein refused to endorse the
Copenhagen interpretation, accusing its authors of playing 'a risky game
with reality'. He insisted on the objective character of physical reality,
independent of the vagaries of perception and substantiation. He also insisted
on the existence of causality in the universe, independently of human consciousness.
In his view quantum mechanics was a useful, but incomplete theory, requiring
further elaboration, not a complete and coherent theory as promoted by Bohr
and Heisenberg. Yet, despite all Einstein's efforts and attempts at experimental
refutations, the Copenhagen position has remained dominant.
Why? Gillott and Kumar recognise the appeal of the mathematical formalism
of quantum theory as a means of resolving the crisis in physics. They also
acknowledge the thesis elaborated by Paul Forman, that the Copenhagen formula
was heavily influenced by the climate of anti-rational, anti-scientific
and anti-causality prejudices prevalent in Weimar Germany in the mid-1920s.
But neither of these factors can explain its wider and enduring popularity.
In their view, this can only be understood in the context of the overall
loss of faith in progress in modern times and the pessimistic emphasis on
the limits to human knowledge and control over nature. Thus one of the greatest
scientific advances of the twentieth century has contributed to the degradation
of science and the retreat from reason.
In explaining the forms assumed by the retreat from reason, Gillott and
Kumar trace the deepening exhaustion of both the major political and intellectual
traditions that trace their origins to the great division between right
and left that emerged in response to the French Revolution.
Conservatives have never objected to science as technique, merely to the
subversive consequences of applying reason to society. Such prejudices were
forcefully expressed by anti-democratic ideologues such as Gustav LeBon
in France and Oswald Spengler in Germany in the early years of this century.
Discredited by the Nazis, explicitly anti-scientific irrationalism receded
in the postwar period, to be replaced by a narrowly instrumental scientism.
A more dramatic shift has taken place on the radical/ liberal flank, which
was historically pro-science. The retreat from reason is here identified
by Gillott and Kumar in Max Weber, Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein
in response to the First World War and its aftermath. The most dramatic,
and ultimately most influential, abandonment of Enlightenment humanism can
be found in the writings of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the late
1940s, formerly Marxists of the Frankfurt School, disoriented by the catastrophic
defeats of the fascist era. The influence of these ideas can be traced through
the writings of Herbert Marcuse, to the New Left of the 1960s to the Greens.
The events of the past five years - the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
ending of the Cold War, the onset of the slump - have exposed the irrelevance
of the politics of the past and provoked a remarkable convergence of traditional
opponents. Gillott and Kumar provide an illuminating example in the ecological
writings of Elmar Altvater, a veteran German radical, and Garrett Hardin,
a veteran American reactionary, which share many common themes.
While Bookchin tends towards a rather ahistorical presentation of intellectual
influences, Gillott and Kumar provide a balanced and historically specific
account. For example, Bookchin exaggerates the importance of the reactionary
philosopher Martin Heidegger's later writings for today's ecologists. In
fact such anti-scientific prejudices could only gain widespread influence
when they were reformulated by left wingers like Adorno and Horkheimer,
or Heidegger's errant pupil Marcuse. For Bookchin, the radical disillusionment
with the promise of May '68 explains all. Gillott and Kumar situate the
demise of the left in the wider context of twentieth-century defeats and
trace the convergence of radical despair with conservative gloom.
Both books offer a wealth of information and inspiration for the ongoing
battle with the forces of darkness. Reenchanting Humanity takes a
bold and libertarian stand against all forms of Green and New Age reaction.
Science and the Retreat from Reason is the most substantial contribution
to the Marxist critique of the role of science in capitalist society for
at least half a century.
'Who would be so base as to pick on a wizened old lady, well stricken in
years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and destitute?'
Who indeed but our intrepid polemicist Christopher Hitchens, in a slender
volume that follows his Channel 4 documentary attacking Mother Teresa of
- The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in
Theory and Practice, Christopher Hitchens, Verso, £7.95 pbk
Hitchens' book is the same knockabout stuff as the documentary. Where he
really excels is when he attacks the wizened old lady for counselling the
acceptance of poverty and suffering. The saintly Teresa is fond of saying
things like 'I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot',
and, as Hitchen puts it, she promotes a cult based on suffering and subjection.
Once she wrote that 'there are many in the world who are dying for a piece
of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love'. Pass the sick
bag. Mother Teresa told the victims of the Union Carbide plant gas leak
in Bhopal that they should forgive the company that poisoned them and perhaps
smile a little more. 'A fortune cookie maxim of cretinous condescension',
As The Missionary Position delights in pointing out Mother Teresa
mixes with the obnoxious and powerful: Ron and Nancy Reagan, Papa Doc Duvalier,
Bob Maxwell, Margaret Thatcher and even ER, defender of the (Anglican) faith,
who looked on as her husband gave the nun a prize of £34 000 for 'the
promotion of faith in the world' (I guess any faith will do).
But perhaps Mother Teresa is too easy a target. Today's missionaries are
more likely to come bearing contraceptive pills than rosaries, or to give
lessons in 'appropriate technology' rather than counsel outright submission
to poverty. The underlying message is similar - curb your aspirations and
adopt a moral agenda set in the West - but the form is different. At a 'peace'
conference on the eve of the US invasion of Haiti, Hitchens declared his
support for the marines boasting 'I am a socialist imperialist'. Perhaps
his hostility to Mother Teresa's missionary zeal is more a difference over
style than content.
Douglas Coupland is a thirtysomething Canadian who made his name with the
heavily ironic Generation X (1992). His latest fiction eschews the
McJobs milieu (X-speak for fast-turnover, deeply unsatisfying employment)
for the life-world of West Coast software designers, where everyone is enslaved
to the consuming passion of work, work, work; hence microserfs.
- Microserfs, Douglas Coupland, Flamingo
Coupland's trademark is capturing the nuances of lifestyle, and his latest
crop of characters is backed up with plenty of closely observed detail,
to the point whereMicroserfs veers close to fictionalised journalism - a
docudrama set in a world where jargon is the essence of conversation. This
Nerdish argot is interspersed with commentary about the replacement of history
with memory and the 'stalematedness' of infotopia, all wrapped up in apparently
trivial exchanges. Some of Coupland's observations are trenchant and illuminating,
but he cops out by putting them in the mouths of characters who are clearly
flawed, never in the voice of the author.
Although Microserfs is ostensibly a description of a new sensibility,
its flat tone, and yearning for depth, is strongly reminiscent of the seminal
novel of postwar American youth, JD Salinger's Catcher in The Rye.
Holden Caulfield, Salinger's protagonist, first appeared 40 years ago, but
pomo Danny has a lot in common with him, including fond memories of a dear-departed
sibling whose absence represents a profound sense of loss together with
the loss of profundity in among the opaque superficialities of today.
Whereas Caulfield stays true to his uncertainties, Danny concludes by saying
that 'what's been missing for so long isn't missing anymore'. In the final
pages of the story, Danny and his peers find a state of grace by teaching
his stroke-stricken mother to communicate via a keyboard and computer monitor:
a spiritually uplifting ending which is so sickly it makes Love Story
seem like Dirty Harry.
In this defence of America's cultural unity, Michael Lind, a senior editor
at the right-wing magazine New Republic attacks multiculturalism
as a divisive and tokenistic gesture that only benefits the country's white
overclass. In reality, he argues, American culture is already national,
a new melting pot that now includes Hispanics and Asians on top of the well-stewed
mix of European ethnics. His hope is that there will be a new racial amalgamation.
- The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism
and the Fourth American Revolution, Michael Lind, Free Press, $25
Against the stream Lind insists that America is not in danger of 'Balkanisation',
breaking up into its different nationalities, but of 'Brazilianisation',
where an elite class lords it over a racially divided working class. Lind's
picture of the overclass, a handful of white families who run the country
from inside their fortress-like communities is perceptive. With an eye for
detail he explains their passion for diets and exercise; 'fear of fat is
fear of lower-middle-class vulgarity; of the animal grossness, the unselfconscious
corporeality associated with "rednecks" and "hardhats"
and "Bubbas" and "ethnics" and "white trash"'
(p148). Lind knows that this elite has benefited from the incorporation
of a black and Hispanic elite through quotas and political tokenism.
But Lind's concern for the working man is skin-deep. His phoney New Deal
rhetoric is just a convenient vantage point from which to attack the Clintonite
liberal yuppie elite. Despite the populist rhetoric, Lind is not against
elitism as such, just the kind of elitism that leaves right wingers like
him on the outside. If he is critical of the elite, it is the kind of criticism
that Julian Benda or Oswald Spengler made in the twenties when they railed
against the 'treason of the clerks'. Lind wants an overclass that unites
America against its economic competitors and against immigration.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 85, December 1995