It’s a rum business, fish. I mean, one recognises that the broad masses must have their fish. But let’s say that your daily routine involves springing out of bed at 4am so you can hove down to Billingsgate Market and spend a pleasant several hours up to your knees in dead whitebait. After a certain amount of this, the entertainment value starts to pall and you begin to look on fish with a jaundiced eye. But still, you soldier on in the stoic recognition that it is necessary the proletariat have their fish. Sometimes I feel a bit like that when it comes to writing on the left, which is why I haven’t done it for a while. Nonetheless, I suppose it is this blog’s bread and butter, and I would have to come back to it at some point.
To start at a bit of a tangent, you will be aware that some universities, even in the age of academic downsizing, offer a subject called Philosophy of Science. This is not to be confused with actual science – scientists, on the rare occasions they come into contact with PoS, tend to think it a bit weird and not at all related to what they’re doing. Of course, the Philosophy part of the title is the operative bit. PoS, to cut a long story short, is the creation of Bertrand Russell types attempting to build up another bulwark against the perennial foe of philosophical scepticism, nowadays trading as postmodernism. Its connection to science per se is usually platonic.
You get something rather similar, in a low-rent kind of way, with Marxists who reckon that Marxism provides them with a golden key to understanding everything. A lot of this is the fault of Engels, an enthusiasic dabbler in science who liked to claim that scientific advances vindicated Marxism. As a result, lots of Marxists maintain an amateurish interest in science. This would be fine if it wasn’t for their assumption that they – or rather their gurus – understood science better than scientists. It’s worth noting at this point that few scientists join Marxist groups.
So, let’s take as an example the dialectic. On a philosophical level, and in the hands of an accomplished practitioner like Plekhanov, Deborin or Mao, the dialectic can be an elegant intellectual tool for understanding the world. In the wrong hands – and if you don’t believe me, read Studies in Dialectical Materialism by Gerry Healy – it can be a tool for mystification. But that’s not the point. Take the four so-called laws of the dialectic. According to the precepts of diamat, these are the laws of everything. Now try and pitch that to a practising scientist, and you will almost invariably find she stares at you as if you were an acolyte of L Ron Hubbard or Hare Krishna.
And rightly so. The various scientific disciplines work along their own tracks. They have trouble enough respecting each other’s laws, let alone philosophical schemata put forward by people, moreover, who have a track record of lapsing into the realms of mysticism. Furthermore, the scientific method, to the extent you can talk of a coherent method, is experimental, empricial and evidence-based. And that is why you’ll have trouble finding any scientists who will give house room to diamat.
(Parenthetically, there may be some exceptions among theoretical physicists. I continue to hold that Deborin’s attempt in 1929-31 to make diamat the basis of theoretical physics was no more than theoretical physicists deserve, because as a group they do have a tendency to go in for metaphysical speculation rather a lot. Biologists don’t do that. My own subject, as it happens, was chemistry, which is the most empirical of the lot. Add liquid A to liquid B and see if they go boom.)
This does not, of course, hold back our Marxists. Some readers may be familiar with the volume Reason in Revolt by Grant and Woods. In it, Ted and Alan pontificate on modern scientific controversies around things like time travel and chaos theory. It’s not as bad a book as it’s sometimes made out to be, and there is interesting stuff in it, but it doesn’t really convince as an attempt to marry Marxism to science. Although I would say that Ted and Alan’s insistence that scientific advances vindicate Marxism does, at least, place them squarely in the tradition of Engels.
Now, at the risk of winding Richard up, let’s consider for a moment scientific discourse in the Socialist Workers Party. This is an outfit with no programme, but with a multitude of informal “lines” on the most esoteric of subjects, including lots of subjects there is no conceivable justification for a left group having a “line” on. Many of these “lines” are based on nothing more than the subjective opinion of this or that CC member, most notably perhaps Renaissance Man Chris Harman, who has a ready-made opinion on everything under the sun.
Thus it is that you get the emergence of a party “line” on, say, genetics or evolutionary biology, and not only that, but a “line” that contradicts the existing scientific consensus. A lot of this can be traced back to the Cliff method of fighting an undesirable position by back-forming a theory that is supposed to preclude that position. The debate over the “gay gene” is a case in point. The possibility that there is a genetic component to homosexuality doesn’t necessarily, or even probably, lead to the Nazis’ pseudo-scientific theories of degeneracy, but it’s another thing to say that, in order to avoid these undesirable outcomes, we should reject scientific theories on ideological grounds.
Look, we all know about past and present abuses of science. But in the last analysis there is no “right” or “left” science, only good or bad science. To hear folks with degrees in politics or sociology give out about “bourgeois science” or “reactionary science”, which happens much more often than I’d like, is funny only because the left is small and impotent. If the far left, with its current culture, attitudes and prejudices, ever got a sniff of power… who said Lysenkoism was dead?