Duncan Hallas

Natural laws rule, OK

(September 1978)

From POBox82, Socialist Review, No.5, September 1978, p.17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I would like to make a short comment on Glyn Ford’s Even the Truth is Relative (Socialist Review, July-August).

I have no quarrel with the author’s conclusion about the dangers of nuclear power under capitalism. Indeed he could have strengthened his case by reference to the fact that since 6 August 1945, when the US Air Force obliterated Hiroshima, we have all lived under the shadow of the nuclear bomb and that ‘peaceful’ nuclear power production and nuclear weapon production are closely connected technologies.

But some of Glyn Ford’s argumentation is, in my view, very dubious to say the least. And, since similar views seem to be fairly widespread on the left (including even sections of the SWP), they need to be challenged.

What is at issue is whether there is or is not a real distinction between science (objective, operational) and ideology (more or less systematic mystification and false consciousness). Glyn Ford seems to cast doubt on the matter, if I have understand him correctly.

Marx and Engels took it for granted that there was such a distinction. In fact Marx’s criticism of the post-Ricardo ‘vulgar economists’ is meaningless otherwise.

Putting it very crudely; there is bourgeois economics and there is marxian economics but there is no bourgeois physics and no marxian physics. There is only physics, which is operational and even ‘value free’ (although there are serious objections to this term) in the sense that, say, the laws of thermodynamics are the same for a marxist, a liberal, a conservative or whatever. They represent real (i.e. operative and objective) knowledge, or an approximation there to, not ideology.

That is to say science, scientific knowledge properly so-called, is part of our heritage and is an indispensable prerequisite for the construction of socialism. What is called social science in bourgeois institutions is, on the other hand, largely ideology. There can be no objective social science in a class society except in so far as it is revolutionary.

Naturally this does not mean that science and technology are somehow produced independently of society. That would be an absurd proposition, an idealist mystification. Very obviously technology develops in accordance with the requirements of the rulers of society. And not just technology. The same is true, at one or more removes, of the purest of ‘pure’ science.

Many years ago the Russian phsicist Hessen wrote a paper for an international congress on the history of science entitled The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia. In it Hessen showed, as he put it, that the formation of ideas has to be explained by reference to material practice’ and specifically demonstrated in detail that Newtonian mechanics was a synthesis made possible by the actual development of technology (socially conditioned) in the fields of transport, mining, gunnery and so on.

To put it very crudely again, even the austere mathematical logic of the Principia is not unconnected with the class struggle, though the connection is fairly remote. But, and it is a very big but, Newtonian mechanics is nevertheless objective, operative knowledge, is science, whereas Hobbes’s Leviathan or Locke’s two Treatises on Government, both products of the same epoch, are ideology.

The fact that Newton’s mechanics does not represent some ‘absolute truth’, that it was profoundly modified by the twentieth century ‘revolution in physics’ (relativity and the quantum theory) in no way alters its scientific character.

Does it matter? I think it matters a good deal. At a time when, as your editor points out in another connection, various ‘left-wing’ authors are mounting ‘a thorough going attack on the theoretical foundations of classical marxism’ (I do not mean, of course, to suggest that this is Glyn Ford’s purpose) Socialist Review has the duty to defend them.

Not only because classical marxism is true (and I agree with Glyn Ford that even the truth is relative) but because truth, to a marxist, is operational, because there is an indissoluble connection between theory and practice, because marxism, unlike every trend in bourgeois social thought, is also scientific as Engels rightly claimed.

Duncan Hallas


Last updated on 31.12.2004