The follwing is an exerpt from
my book Marxism
and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History by Helena
Sheehan. It comes just after a section on JD
Bernal in a chapter on the intellectual debates of the Comintern
which also includes a section on Caudwell.
A previous chapter is devoted to Soviet debates of the same period,
a section on Lysenko and Lysenkoism.
In 1928, another of Britain's eminent scientists, John Burton Sanderson Haldane, had also gone to the Soviet Union. There he encountered Marxist philosophy of science for the first time, although it would be several years yet before he would come to embrace it as his own. As he put it himself, "it was hardly love at first sight."
In his earliest excursions into the realm of the philosophy of science, Haldane had held that Kantian idealism was the most appropriate philosophy for the science of the Einsteinian era, just as materialism had been for the Newtonian era. In his books written before 1928, that is, in Daedalus, or Science and the Future and Possible Worlds and Other Essays, he set out the view that the world of physics was reducible to a manifold of transcendental events. Its laws were merely the forms of human perception. The data of modern science was more easily reconcilable with Kant's thought than with any other philosophy. This situation, he predicted, would continue for several centuries. Possibly after another two centuries or so of scientific research, the data of science would support one rather than another of several post-Kantian systems. But Kant had indeed written the prolegomena to any future metaphysics
Not two centuries were to pass nor even one decade before Haldane would believe this view had been already superseded. Within a few short years, he was himself emphatically post-Kantian and he was no longer playing by the rules set out in Kant's prolegomena. Indeed in every way, the evolution of his thinking through the 1930s was to take him a very long way from the world from which he had come. Exceedingly "well-born" he came in time to give himself over to the cause of the proletariat, though only after going through a number of stages along the way. He was, as Werskey put it, "obliged to conduct class war with himself."
Born in Scotland into Britain's intellectual aristocracy and educated at Eton and Oxford, Haldane had every possible advantage. Nevertheless, his mind was open and alert and he set upon the course that was to lead him to Marxist philosophy and to the Communist Party. His commitment was to "reality as such, whether it be bright or dark, mysterious or intelligible." An eminent biologist, fellow of the Royal Society and philosopher of science, he was also the son of an eminent biologist, fellow of the Royal Society and philosopher of science. His father, John Scott Haldane, devoted himself increasingly to philosophical speculation on the natural sciences. Proceeding on somewhat Hegelian lines, he sought to undermine materialism as a philosophy of science."' His son, in taking the further step from Hegel to Marx, saw his work as a continuation of his father's, but there was no getting away from the fact that he was accepting and carrying forward the very philosophy his father had sought to combat. But if he could see some strand of continuity with his father who was a scientist, a philosopher and a liberal, this was impossible with his mother who was an ardent tory who had enlisted him as a child in her activities on behalf of such organisations as Children of the Empire.
Haldane was an extravagant, adventurous, and somewhat larger-than-life character, who was prepared to address himself to almost any subject under the sun to almost any audience. His colourful and futuristic popularisations of science won him a huge following among those open to "advanced views." Peter Medawar, in his preface to Ronald Clark's biography of Haldane, observed that the lives of most academics, considered as lives, almost always made for dull reading, but that this was far from the case with Haldane. His life was fascinating from beginning to end and, unless one was already in the know, there was no way of foretelling what would come next."'
His mockery of the social conventions of his milieu was notorious, whether it was simply discoursing loudly at table on all sorts of unmentionable subjects or his famous battle against Cambridge's Sex Viri (renamed the " Sex Weary") after his dismissal for "gross immorality" stemming from his involvement in a divorce case. Maynard Smith tells how Haldane was regarded by the masters of Eton in Smith's day "as a figure of immense wickedness." So great was his notoriety that even novelists found him a rich source of inspiration. It is said that both the physiologist Shearwater in Aldous Huxley's Antic Hay and the corrupter of youth, Mr. Codling, in Ronald Fraser's The Flying Draper were modeled on Haldane. He was also well known for fearlessly experimenting on himself.
But, despite his wilder exploits, Haldane was a very serious man. As a scientist, his work was outstanding and broke new ground. He undertook to re-found Darwinism upon the concepts of Mendelian genetics and thus to eliminate the seeming contradictions between heredity and evolution. He was the first to estimate the mutation rate in man. In 1929, his investigations into the origin of life had produced a theory giving a materialist explanation for the emergence of living organisms from the inorganic world. His work proceeded parallel to, but independent of, the work of the Soviet biochemist, A.I. Oparin. The connection between the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis and Marxist philosophy has been the subject of controversy among historians of science. It was set off by C.H. Waddington who remarked in the course of a book review:
In the late twenties and early thirties the basic thinking was done which led to the view that saw life as a natural and perhaps inevitable development from the nonliving physical world. Future students of the history of ideas are likely to note that this new view, which amounts to nothing less than a great revolution in man's philosophical outlook on his own position in the natural world, was first developed by communists.
Disputing this, David Joravsky has maintained that chemical hypotheses concerning the origin of life were in no way the product of Marxist philosophy, as neither Haldane nor Oparin were Marxists at the time of their discoveries. Loren Graham has responded quite differently. He argues that both were already under the influence of Marxist philosophy at the time and underwent an intellectual development in which Marxism played its part. Both subsequently became dialectical materialists and explicitly declared that Marxism was an important influence on their biological thought. Graham maintains that the acknowledgement of some form of connection between Marxism and research into the origin of life is a healthy corrective to the tendency to think of the history of the connection between Marxism and biology only in terms of Lysenko. Wishing to set things in perspective, he claims:
In delivering the Haldane Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck College, London in 1938, Haldane himself shed light on his own intellectual development in the sphere of philosophy of science. Until going to the Soviet Union, he said, he had been unaware of the existence of Marxism as a philosophy of science, but it had made a deep impression on him, both in virtue of its prevalence and of its connection to concrete scientific research, especially to biological research. Until then, he had no idea that an astronomer, chemist, or biologist might find Marxist principles to be an aid to research. Thereupon, he read Engels's Anti-Duhring and Ludwig Feuerbach and thought Engels far ahead of his time:
He thus had begun to accept Marxism "as the best available philosophy" and had come to discover that, when a person came to accept Marxism as part of his daily thought, the world became enormously richer in content and fuller of pattern. Not until he began to apply dialectical materialism to concrete problems, however, did he realise its power, he claimed, and then explicitly declared: "I have found Marxism of great value in the planning of biological research."
Haldane further elaborated on this thought process in his 1940 essay "Why I am a materialist." Here he said that fifteen years before, that is, in 1925, he had been a materialist in practice but not in theory. Although he had been a strict materialist in the laboratory, he had been a vague sort of idealist outside it. He could not at that time see how knowledge or thought were possible on a materialist basis. He had therefore been compelled to fall back on some kind of idealist explanation, according to which mind, or something like mind, was really prior to matter, and what was called matter was really of the nature of mind, or at least of sensation. He had been, however, too painfully conscious of the weakness in every existing idealist philosophy to fully embrace any of them. His difficulties had been resolved, he claimed, both by reading Engels and Lenin and by the actual progress of science over the previous fifteen years.
As to the relation of Haldane's philosophical evolution to the formulation of his hypothesis regarding the origin of life, that cannot be pinned down precisely. However, certain points are clear. It is true that he said in his 1929 essay, "The Origin of Life," setting forth his discovery, that the hypothesis was compatible not only with materialism but with other philosophical tenets, even with the view that preexistent mind or spirit could associate itself with certain kinds of matter, but it was clear that he did not share this view. Knowing that his hypothesis would cause a stir, as it did, he only wished to circumvent such critics as would consider it sufficient refutation of his position to say that it was rnaterialist. It is also true that in his January 1938 Muirhead Lecture in Birmingham, published in his book The MarxistPhilosophy and the Sciences, the best known philosophical text of Haldane, he said that he had only been a Marxist for about one year. At the same time, the other texts cited do make it possible to pinpoint the time at which he came under the influence of Marxism, that is, his trip to the Soviet Union in 1928, and testify to the fact that he had been reflecting seriously on Marxist philosophy in relation to the natural sciences, and especially to biology, from 1928 on. Moreover, his statement that he had been a materialist in practice from 1925 and that materialist assumptions circumscribed his thinking in his laboratory is also extremely significant.
At all events, by 1938 Haldane was a committed Marxist, proclaiming forthrightly to all the world, "I think that Marxism is true." He thought it true in every sense. His political evolution had converged with his philosophical evolution and he had become a committed Marxist in his politics as well as in his philosophy of science. His successive transformations had taken him from his mother's toryism through to his father's liberalism, through the Labour Party, then to Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War and finally to the Communist Party. No longer believing that England had to beware of the danger of communism from the east and Americanism from the west, he now called on his countrymen to look to the east. He joined the CPGB in 1942 and was soon a member of its executive committee.
Haldane, like Bernal, had a highly integrated mind and was intrigued by the interrelations between politics and philosophy, science and politics, philosophy and science. These interrelations he pursued both in his academic work and in his outside political activities. He was not one to confine himself to academic circles, especially during such times of upheaval. As German scientists began to seek exile in England as a result of the rise of fascism, Haldane commented "I began to realize that, even if the professors leave politics alone, politics won't leave the professors alone." Equally critical of scientists and philosophers who looked on the realm of politics with disdain and political activists who regarded science and philosophy as unimportant, he was disturbed, and even baffled, by the existence of Marxists who were indifferent to philosophy of science.
To him, philosophy of science was absolutely vital and it was central to his commitment to Marxism. His Muirhead Lectures show him in the grip of an enormous enthusiasm for what Marxism meant as a philosophy of science. Reviewing the book in which the lectures were published, Andrew Rothstein gave a marvelous characterisation of Haldane's mood:
The problem with Haldane's approach to Marxist philosophy was that he became somewhat overwhelmed by it and was not able to view it critically. Indeed, like Bernal, he accepted wholly the current Soviet interpretation of it, and within a year he was himself praising the section on philosophy in the Short Course and calling another Marxist scientist to task for not measuring up to it. This did not necessarily mean that his approach or that of Bemal was a dogmatic or unthinking one. Far from it. Both had undergone a genuine philosophical development and had come to dialectical materialism freely and intelligently. It simply satisfied their minds, especially in the first flush of enthusiasm for it, and they were unable at this time to feel the lack of anything within it or the force of any alternative to it. While they were unable to transcend its framework, they were nevertheless highly creative within it. It was a way of thinking they had genuinely made their own and they brought it to bear on new problems, analysing new scientific discoveries in light of it, using arguments that were always intelligent and plausible, and modes of expression that were often rich, novel, and colourful,and in Haldane's case, sometimes quite humourous as well.
Actually, Medawar's evaluation of Haldane is extremely astute, at least in relation to Haldane's measure as a philosopher at this time. Describing Haldane as the cleverest man he ever knew, especially in his power to connect things in unexpected ways, Medawar judges that he was still not a profoundly original thinker. "His genius was to enrich the soil, not bring new land to cultivation." Clever he surely was and enrich the soil he surely did.
Dialectical materialism, for Haldane, was an all-encompassing Weltanschauung. It was "not merely a philosophy of history, but a philosophy which illuminates all events whatever, from the falling of a stone to a poet's imaginings." Its pivotal insight was in seeing reality as processes and not things, and in putting particular emphasis on the interconnection of all processes and the artificial character of the distinctions men have drawn. Great was its value for science, Haldane never tired of saying, for it helped to achieve both concreteness and elasticity of thought. It encouraged a scientific approach to all problems without in any serious way limiting the kinds of explanation open to the scientist.
He did not, however, want to give a false impression nor to arouse exaggerated expectations. He warned that, in discerning the relation of Marxism to science, it was important to proceed with the greatest caution. At best, Marxism would only tell a scientist what to look for. It would rarely, if ever, tell him what he was going to find. Marxism, in his opinion, had a twofold bearing on science: it was relevant in illuminating the social relations of science as well as in handling problems of "pure" science. It shed light on the history of science by studying science as a human activity, and on the philosophy of science by analysing the most general patterns of development permeating nature, society, and human thought. Marxism proved of the greatest value to science in highlighting the process of the development of science and the relationship of the different sciences to one another.
Haldane laid great stress on dialectics, which he elaborated, in the manner of Engels, as the "science of the most general laws of change" in society, in consciousness and in the external world, and he made much of the three principles of dialectics that had by this time become formalised in textbooks of dialectical materialism. The principle of the unity of opposites meant that matter was something much richer and more complicated than mechanistic materialists ever dreamed. It was exemplified in quantum mechanics in which the electron displayed properties both of waves and of particles, in metabolism in which living substance was a unity of anabolism and catabolism, in pulsating stars as the result of a conflict between nuclear and gravitational forces. Progress occurred through conflict. Such internal contradictions did not mean that nature was irrational, but did mean that it was unstable. The more man studied nature, the more was it found that what was apparently stable turned out to be a battlefield of opposing tendencies. Haldane insisted that union of opposites was a hard physical fact. There were contradictions in matter. The principle of the passage of quantity into quality meant that transformation was not simply a matter of continuous variation and that there were properties of a system as a whole that could not be located in any particular aspect of it. It was exemplified not only in the classic example of boiling or freezing water, but in such newer discoveries as the thresholds of nerve cells. The principle of the negation of negation meant the sudden emergence of novelty, exemplified in geology in the formation of mountain ranges, in biology in the dependence of evolution on variation and selection, in psychology in the need to pass through guilt, the negation of innocence, in order to aspire to virtue.
With regard to the debate over dialectics of nature, although he did not refer to Lukacs and the controversy surrounding his views, indeed may not have known about it, Haldane nevertheless had a very definite position on the question: nature was dialectical. Looking back on the history of philosophy, he argued that it had long been realised that matter as a whole behaved intelligibly, conforming to the laws of logic and arithmetic. The question that arose was whether reason mirrored the behaviour of matter or whether matter mirrored the behaviour of mind. Kant's view was something intermediate. Hegel's was that logical categories existed eternally. Feuerbach, Marx and Engels, however, held that these categories were exemplified in nature before they governed thought. Engels treated the Hegelian dialectic as expressing primarily the properties of matter and only secondarily the laws of thought. He held that the principles Hegel had worked out in the realm of thought also applied to material events, not only in the social field, but in such fields as astronomy, physics, and biology. Haldane argued on the side of Engels and, on the basis of such an approach, put forward his own argument for the existence of contradictions in matter: mind was intimately connected with matter and mirrored its behaviour; therefore, if there were contradictions in the mind there must be contradictions in matter. Superficially plausible, perhaps, but a woeful muddle on a number of counts: in deriving ontology from logic rather than vice versa; in assuming that mind mirrors matter only in a straightforward and uncomplicated way, thus failing to take the possibility of distortion into account; in taking contradiction rather than noncontradiction as a principle of logic with ontological implications; in confusing contradictions with opposing forces; and in failing to consider that in a philosophy of ascending levels there can be specific terms inappropriate to lower levels. It was thus by no means clear that the connection of mind to matter and the priority of matter to mind was dependent on the assertion of contradictions in nature.
Be that as it may, it was not Haldane at his best. Far more worthwhile were his discussions of other related issues and his polemics against alternative views in the philosophy of science. In his discussion of the concept of laws of nature, for example, he set himself against both of the two contradictory views then in vogue: the extreme positivist view enunciated by Vaihinger, that it was only possible to say that phenomena occurred as if certain laws held, and the older view that natural law was absolute, even if inaccurately formulated.
His epistemology, as it came through in this context, was neither relativist nor instrumentalist nor naive realist. He saw no reason for saying there were no regularities in nature to which statements about laws of nature corresponded. At the same time, influenced by Milne's principle of cosmological relativity, he believed there was no favoured point or centre in the universe. He also realised that a situation was altered by human knowledge of it. Moreover, he added, the laws of nature were not the same for all time: the laws of nature were changing. But there was nothing arbitrary or haphazard about such change. So far from being laid down by the arbitrary word of a creator, they might prove to be a system as intimately and rationally knit together as the propositions of geometry and yet changing and evolving with time like the forms of plants and animals.
Haldane was an atheist and wished to do his part to clear the many layers of confusion that occasioned human recourse to a God, from the common belief that materialism implied the belief that "a good dinner is better than a good deed" to the new philosophies of science being put forward by Jeans and Eddington. One technique he used was to historicise religious beliefs, sometimes employing ironic metaphor to do so. If Aurelian had reigned as many years as Constantine, he hypothesised, Britain would now be having numerous discussions of "Mithraism and Its Critics." His views on religious liberty were unfolded in the form of a parable about the Republic of Krassnia in which the official doctrine of the state was dialectical materialism, its president was formally anointed as the Chief Materialist and its national anthem was "There s no God in Krassnia."
As to the new philosophies of science, Haldane insisted that both relativity theory and quantum mechanics were comprehensible in materialist terms, indeed more so than in idealist terms. Quantum mechanics, he argued, raised more difficulties for Jeans and Eddington in their defense of theism than it solved. Quantum mechanics had furnished a great deal of new knowledge not possible before. What it took with one hand, it gave back with the other. It was vital to understand the principle of uncertainty properly. Although it was impossible to predict with certainty the future movement of a given electron, it was possible to predict the distribution of a number of electrons with an accuracy that was very great indeed. Relativity theory, in Haldane's view, became intelligible from a dialectical and materialist point of view once the world was regarded as consisting, not of things, but of processes or events. The classical theory of space and time had to be rejected as postulating something beyond matter, namely an abstract space and time that had properties apart from those of events going on in them. Relativistic space-time therefore reinforced materialism as far as he was concerned.
Haldane's interpretations of contemporary biology, from a Marxist point of view, focused for the most part on a dialectical account of evolution, brought him into conflict with A.P.Lemer of the London School of Economics. Lerner took exception to an article Haldane published on this subject in Science and Society, written incidentally from behind the lines in Madrid in 1937. Haldane was trying to pin the dialectic onto biology from outside it, Lemer asserted, but it was "purely gratuitous." Replying, Haldane insisted that the dialectic was indeed an aid both to the understanding of known biological facts and to the discovery of new ones. He did not go so far as to claim that the results of his research could not have been achieved without a study of Engels and the philosophy of dialectical materialism, but nevertheless thought it significant that they were not achieved without such a study.
But Lerner was the least of his problems in defending the relevance of Marxism to biology. British scientists and philosophers of science, such as Baker, Hill, and Polanyi, were pressing Haldane and Bemal to say what they thought about Lysenko and what was happening to genetics in the Soviet Union. Haldane, a professor of genetics at the University of London, was unwavering in his commitment to the science of genetics, but at the same time hesitant to believe the worst of the situation in the Soviet Union. He took a dim view of geneticists being violently attacked and labelled as anti-Darwinist, and of genetics being denounced as incompatible with dialectical materialism, with the rise of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union. He was also distressed by the cancellation of the World Genetics Congress, which was to have been held in 1937 in Moscow and the failure of a Soviet delegation to attend the congress when finally held in 1939 in Edinburgh.
In public, he bent over backwards to put a brave face on it. To charges of fellow scientists that Soviet science was overladen by fraud and propaganda and that Soviet genetics was being destroyed by the attempt to apply dialectical materialism to science, Haldane tried to shift the focus by throwing back at them the situation at home. Conditions for research in genetics were better in the Soviet Union than in the British Empire, where scientific research was dependent on patronage from wealthy individuals, he argued, and pointed out that the only department of genetics in the University of London was about to fold. In any case, he went on, "hard words break no bones" (!) and remarked that the attacks on genetics had not led to the curtailment of Vavilov's work. He expressed confidence that, as a scientific question, it would be resolved in a scientific fashion. Going even further, he expressed the view that, so long as it did not lead to the suppression of research, such controversies were a sign of healthy scientific thought.
For 1938, it was entirely too sanguine. In 1939, Haldane wrote to Vavilov, a long time friend and the source of his invitation to the Soviet Union in 1928, asking him to write an article for Modern Quarterly. Vavilov agreed. However, in 1940 Vavilov was arrested. Yet in 1941, the year of Vavilov's trial, Haldane wrote:
The controversy among Soviet geneticists has been largely one between the academic scientist, represented by Vavilov and interested primarily in the collection of facts, and the man who wants results, represented by Lysenko. It has been conducted not with venom, but in a friendly spirit. Lysenko said (in the October discussions of 1939): "The important thing is not to dispute; let us work in a friendly manner on a plan elaborated scientifically. Let us take up definite problems, receive assignments from the People's Commissariat of Agriculture of the USSR and fulfil them scientifically. "Soviet genetics, as a whole, is a successful attempt at synthesis of these two contrasted points of view."'
It makes rather shocking reading and it makes one wonder what sort of psychic mechanism was at work, what bizarre forces played themselves out in the minds of men such as Haldane and Bernal, as in the minds of so many of the intellectuals of the Comintern.* But one factor surely must have been the severe polarisation of the times and the atmosphere of all-or-nothing commitment demanded of all who adhered to the communist movement in such times.
Back to (some
of my websites with converging
Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History
The Fate of Marxism Caudwell Bernal Lysenko
Unity of Science
Grand Narratives: Then and NowHas the red flag fallen ?
Red Flag: the man, the song, the monument
Songs of Irish Labour
Bread and Roses Productions
Science Technology & Society