Against Scientistic Credulity: A Marxist Philosophy of Science, on the Basis of an Ideal Balance of Aristotle’s Three Rhetorical Appeals, upon which, Science was Historically Rooted
By Thomas Smith
Science is supposed by many people to be a realm that hangs from the clouds, a realm of pure truth, unencumbered by backward, medieval prejudices, vested interests, tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists, or touchy feely spiritualism. Those who dissent, are automatically branded, as a few of the latter.
Dissenters, however, point out that often as not, what was yesterday’s technique, “proven” by science to safe, effective, and beyond reproach—is a source today for tens of thousands of fatalities. The faith in science promoted by voices from the Left to the non-loony Conservative Right, would seem to have some problems.
An article as recently as late 2015, in the liberal Atlantic Monthly by Paul Bloom was titled “Scientific Faith Is Different From Religious Faith: Not all beliefs are equal.” There is little to object to in this article. I agree completely with Bloom that the scientific method is vastly superior in its capacity for the discovery of the truth, than is the Bible, or the Koran. But then we get onto shakier ground. Bloom comes to the difficulty that non-scientists do not have the time to check out the results of this method for themselves. That is when Bloom slips from a rational discourse, into a conformist, authoritarian one: “I believe that … vaccines do not cause autism, but this is not because I have studied these issues myself.” What is his reply? “It is because I trust the scientists.”
The question he begs is, which scientists. He means, of course, the scientists connected to the (pharmaceutical industrial profit driven) Scientific Establishment, even though a careful survey of the literature actually reveals that these affirmations of the safety and effectivity of vaccines, have not been “based upon a gold standard of clinical research: long-term, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies.” He obviously does not mean the dissident scientists, who have actually conducted the scientific method dispassionately, producing hundreds of studies to show that there is such a probable link.
This begged question points to the essential problem with “Science” today. The public certainly should trust in the scientific method. But it is by no means clear the Establishment, on the issue of vaccines, or many others, is carrying out the scientific method, or permitting dissident scientists who have done the research, to fairly pronounce their views before the Establishment pronounces various industrial products “safe” and “effective.” Blithely, maddeningly, but all too typically, Bloom paints a rose-tinted view, obscuring all these pesky little doubts. Somehow, in a way Bloom neither explores nor explainst, “Science” has become all that the founder of American pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, envisioned it to be when he labeled it, in Transcendentalist fashion, “The Beloved Community”:
Science establishes conditions where rational argument is able to flourish, where ideas can be tested against the world, and where individuals can work together to surpass their individual limitations. Science is not just one “faith community” among many. It has earned its epistemological stripes. And when the stakes are high, as they are with climate change and vaccines, we should appreciate its special status.
I am reminded of Colonel Cathcart’s instruction to Yossarian in Catch-22: “Like us.” To which might be added, “Trust us!”
Notice that the only “limitations,” the possible obstacles, to a studious adherence to the scientific process, here are purely the potential “individualism” of the individual scientists. This and this alone, Bloom implies, could block the process; but thankfully, the “collectivity” of the process can take care of that. If he is actually aware of the potential sources for such corruption in the profit-seeking, corporate capitalist system in which this “collectivity” is bound up, he keeps such awareness close to the chest.
It is not difficult to understand why a member of the liberal, bourgeois Establishment should counsel such (blind) faith. It is harder for me to understand why my Marxist friends especially should uphold this touching faith in the contemporary cult of “science,” even though science, like anything else, is involved in (capitalist, profit-seeking) social relationships. Might not therefore the results of science be skewed, the tests rigged, or just not conducted, so that the corporations manufacturing the product in question can continue to make profits without consumer awareness encouraged as to its toxicity?
Bloom tells us to have faith in Science. But that is an oxymoron. The contemporary cult of science is not balanced properly. Truth seeking is a rhetorical process, involving, most fundamentally, the three appeals defined by Aristotle: logos, pathos, and ethos. It is my view that, just like a three legged stool, truth comes out of a balance of these three appeals. Because, among lay people it promotes faith, way too much, and logic and experience, way too little, instead of a seeker and finder of truth, science has become almost purely a religion. Logic and experience are reserved for the scientific elite, a priesthood. There is no need to share this logic or experience with the demos. That is none of their business. They are deemed incapable of understanding these aspects of science. Thus, if they are presented at all, they serve for the most part merely as a fig leaf for the promotion of faith in techniques that serves vested corporate interests and profits instead of the public.
We need to go back to the origins of science—in the ancient world. Ancient Greek Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, was comprised of three “appeals.” Presented in this way, they are only ways to persuade others of a truth one has already discovered—or not discovered. One might use such an appeal to divert attention, in Sophist fashion, from the Truth. But in addition, however, Aristotle presented these appeals as “artistic proofs.” Thus they approach simultaneously, for Aristotle, the status of means of verification.
Let’s define them now.
Logos is better known as logic.
Pathos involves the sharing of emotions, and the sharing of experience;
Ethos, involves faith in authority.
As a Marxist, I do not believe we have yet attained a truly democratic society. That is my political goal—to create a state in which ordinary people, the working class, has the power. What relationship should the people have to science, and how should science be constituted, in such an ideal, “workers’ state”? What should the role of each of these three appeals be within such a democratic, scientifically minded society?
Let us first examine the worth, and the pitfalls, of emphasizing each. The enemy of democracy is autocracy, the manipulation of science, which has been with us ever since the birth of class society, by vested interests. Rather than see our opponent as some reified bogeyman, such as “ignorance,” or “superstition,” we need to see it in terms of class hegemony. How can science be so manipulated by an exploitative ruling class, and how can it be freed from such manipulation, as a part of what Gramsci called counterhegemonic praxis?
Logic is both a process of science, and it is the goal: to discover the laws by which we can understand the processes of natural and social reality better, and develop technique which makes our lives easier, and even longer. In an authoritarian society, such as a civilization bound by the Asian mode of production, it is only the priesthood that understand the logic of nature. But this is the way the Asiatic priests not only comprehend the science of irrigation. It is also the basis for the religion that keeps them in power. Under feudalism, Scholastic logic was divorced from the experience of ordinary people. It was there to mystify them, keep them in awe of the clergy, the nobility, and the absolute monarchs.
Greek philosophy grows out of the class struggles within the later, Ancient mode of production. Faith in the old Asian religion dogma, or doxa, supported the hegemony of the old aristocratic class. Against this, the rising merchant class of Athens fought for democracy. Instead of basing their conceptions on the old religious dogma, the free citizens of Athens were now to make their own decisions, based upon their own reason and their experience.
Democratic politicians, often the lesser sons of the upper class aristocracy who sought to make up for their relative lack of inheritance possibilities, appealed to the experience and emotions of the free citizenry. They employed sophistry, techniques of persuasion, which relied primarily upon pathos, to promote that class’s expansionist, imperialist agenda. For a time, the leader of the democratic movement, Pericles, promoted a simple form of logos, as the wisdom derived from experience, what he called “mind,” for the sake of creating an ethos of collective self-control. Thus he secured support for wise policies that reined in the merchants’ adventurism, and for a time, ensured Athens’ survival. But his death effectively unleashed the ambitious, precipitating a crisis—the war with Sparta—which led to the fall of Athens as an empire.
Philosophy arose from theorists of the aristocratic party: Socrates and his student, Plato. They developed brilliantly the science of dialectical logic, as an alternative to the democratic cult of demagoguery and pathos. But with their logic, they naturally sought to uphold their own hierarchical rule, positing a realm of pure Being, transcendent of earthly passions and motion. The utopian, aristocratic Republic he wished to create, a dystopia for the vast majority, not so strangely resembled the Persian and Egyptian Asian-bureaucratic civilizations Plato so admired. The difference was only that in the Republic he envisioned, his Guardian class, and its philosopher king, as opposed to the old Asian priestly castes and their God King, would be ruled by, and rule through, dialectical logic.
Aristotle was Plato’s student, and the great conqueror, Alexander the Great, was Aristotle’s. Aristotle’s background was of the merchant class, reflected in his philosophy, which critiqued Plato’s realm of pure Being. Instead, he saw the dialectic operating as a telos, or final cause, or each element within a hierarchical world of Becoming, where each level served the purposes of those higher. Alexander’s empire reflected this—it was certainly not a democracy, it was a hierarchy, but one which furthered the fortunes of the Greek merchant class. This was, in effect, a class compromise between the merchant Democracy and Aristocracy, brokered by Alexander’s imperialist State, which gave to that compromise all the semi-divine aura of military glory and statist authority. It sets an historical precedent for similar ruling class compromises we will discuss shortly: the German feudal state’s support by the bourgeoisie, championed by Hegel, and then American Progressivism, around which, a similar semi-diving aura shines, fooling even my hard Left friends, unbeknownst even to themselves, into thinking we should all place our faith in what is called “Science”—but is really, often as not, not.
Centuries later, Aristotle’s telos became Hegel’s idealist, and then Marx’s materialist, objective dialectics. In the meantime, his enlisting of both logic, and a primitive form of empiricism, made him the greatest scientist of the Ancient era.
Pathos can be seen as emotion, but also, a way of persuading people of something based upon their subjective experience. Among these three appeals, therefore, pathos was the doorway to modern empiricism: the idea that all tenets must be proven through the objective evidence present to the senses, whose powers were tremendously refined by the invention of scientific instruments such as the telescope, the microscope, etc.
Each of these three appeals are employed by characters in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. Cassius uses ethos–patriarchal authority–to lure his fellow aristocrat and Senator, Marcus Brutus, into the Conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. He attempts to shame Brutus for his inaction about Caesar’s rise to power, threatening to destroy the Republic, when Brutus’ ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, was the man who established it by overthrowing the Tarquins. Cassius implies that Brutus dishonors his ancestor thereby:
O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brookt
Th’eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king
After the assassination attempt is successful, Brutus temporarily succeeds in swaying the Roman crowd to support the Conspiracy, through a carefully measured, poetic (and thus, a sign of his aristocratic bearing), logical appeal. Stating that he loved Caesar, Brutus accuses him of ambition, and thus justifies his murder.
Unfortunately for Brutus, however, he makes the mistake of giving the floor to Marc Antony, who uses far more successfully, and at first underhandedly, the appeal of pathos, in plebian, experiential, empirical prose: the language they can understand. With it, he draws them out of the support they had just lent to the Conspiracy, and against it. He does so by reminding them of Caesar’s humility and service to Rome, by reading Caesar’s will, appealing to their self-interest, relating via the gifts Caesar wanted to give them. Then he shows the corpse, with the bloody wounds that Caesar received at the Conspiracy’s hands. He appeals to their emotions, not directly, but instead, through experience.
Empiricism was used by the rising bourgeoisie during the 17th and 18th centuries as a weapon, of what Max Weber called “disenchantment,” against the metaphysical dogmatism of the ancien regime. As Marx and Engels write in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, in order to replace a web of feudal obligation and privilege with the “cash nexus,” the new empirical science, along with the expansion of the World Market, drowns “the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” Shakespeare’s character Glendower, in Henry IV Part I, insists that he can “call spirits from the vasty deep,” but Hotspur replies, “well, so can I; or so can any man. But will they come when you call?”
Such skepticism was a weapon to be employed by the bourgeoisie against the old feudal “spooks that go bump in the night” Scholastic dogma, as much as this class’s newfound emphasis on empiricism. Skepticism could also be employed against two other classes. First, against the bourgeoisie itself; or rather, its personal propensity for luxury, and compassion for others, both of which militated against the intensification of capitalist exploitation. Skepticism served this ascetic psychological goal in tandem with, or as a replacement for, Protestantism, as Max Weber discusses in his landmark work. Second, against the cries and wails of its newly created potential gravedigger, that Frankensteinian monster, the proletariat. If nothing could be known for certain, then the sense-certainty of the lower classes that they were being unfairly oppressed, could certainly be discounted.
To this day, in the form of analytic philosophy, as Herbert Marcuse wrote in One Dimensional Man, skepticism is used by bourgeois philosophers to strip ordinary language of its rebellious, “metaphysical” elements—the better to avert the consciousness of the working class away from contradictions of capitalism and its historical task of socialist revolution. So, too, the contemporary “sceptic” movement, so selflessly and disinterestedly furthering the profit-seeking agenda of the medical-industrial complex, marginalizes the cries of working and middle class parents, for example, after a mercury- and aluminum-laden megadose of vaccine robs their infants of their health, and even their lives. How ironic is it, then, not to mention alienating, when ‘Marxists’ jump on this bourgeois skepticist bandwagon, joining in this insensitive, profit-driven browbeating of ordinary working people who have been the victims of the medical-industrial complex!
So both skepticism and empiricism have been valuable, throughout the bourgeois era, to the bourgeoisie. However, there naturally arose a potential contradiction between the two perspectives. For if nothing could be known for certain, then what good was empiricism? How could the bourgeoisie grow to mastery over natural, social, and political reality, if nothing really could be known?
Thus the great bourgeois philosopher of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, attempted to challenge the skepticism of Berkeley and Hume, with his theories, in the Critique of Pure Reason, of transcendental apperception, of God given capacities of human beings to understand categories of time and space, transcendent of immediate sense perceptions, and his morality of the categorical imperative in his Critique of Practical Reason. Nevertheless, Kant still placed severe, sceptical limits on the ultimate perspicacity of empirical knowledge. This knowledge could never grasp the noumena—the essence—of reality, only its phenomenal aspect: what a given thing was for us, how it could serve our (i.e., the capitalist class’s exploitative, profit-seeking) purposes. Kant’s skepticism was in the spirit of the rising bourgeoisie, which saw all reality only as a means to its own instrumental ends of exploitation and profit seeking. While he promotes the Enlightenment ideal that each man should learn to think for himself, and that each should be treated as an “end in themselves.” But the categorical imperative, and the practical morality, he developed to ensure such treatment, was based upon a Platonic abstraction, and an alienation, from all self-interest, conceived of as leading inevitably to selfishness and exploitation. Only through art, Kant argues in his Third Critique, on Judgment, is there any possibility of transcending this split between passion and disembodied reason. But this, for Kant, is simply a world of illusion.
A little later came the Classicist movement, of Schiller and Goethe, which was akin to the Romantics in England—Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth–and the Transcendentalists—Emerson, Thoreau–in the United States. They took more seriously than did Kant himself, the possibility that art could transcend the ontological divisions Kant posited.
The thinkers from all three countries were motivated to this aesthetic question, by their critique of alienation. As the intellectual representatives of the bourgeoisie, and as supporters, at least initially, of the Great French Revolution of 1789, they opposed the unfreedoms of the feudal absolutist ancien regime. But their plebian background, like their great mentor, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also led to their deep concerns over the rise of industrialism and its intense repression and exploitation of the rising working class, which they saw as the result of the selfishness and brutality of the modern era. Hegel, Holderlin, and Schelling (who later became an irrationalist reactionary) were followers of the Classicists, which took for its alternative model the Classical Golden Age of ancient Athenian democracy, the vertu—or the placing of the good of the community and the State over oneself–of Sparta: and of the French Jacobins.
The young Hegel found that the Christian, feudal world of Germany that he inhabited, was fundamentally alienated. He harked back to what he considered the unalienated community, what he called the schone demokratie, of ancient Athens.
In idealist fashion, Hegel thus sought to burst the skeptical—alienating–limits placed upon knowledge and morality by Kant, by seeing the entire world of Becoming as engulfed in an objective dialectic, sponsored by the Absolute Spirit, which unfolded through contradiction, so that Absolute Spirit could attain its, and humanity’s freedom. Each thing within the objective world, could be understood now its dialectical tension and contradiction with all other things, including ourselves. The noumena of each thing, we could now understand as existing for itself—and for us, for our purposes. Within the realm of morality, Hegel promoted an ideal which smacked of the Athenian democracy of which he was fond: each citizen promoted his own interests, yet simultaneously, the good of his fellows, the good of the community. Thus Hegel, just as he transcends Kant’s skepticism and ascetic view of morality, also transcends Aristotle’s teleological philosophy.
But later in his life, Hegel became reconciled to the modern Prussian absolute State: and actually became its Court Philosopher. This was representative of the class in German society which he represented: the bourgeoisie. In its march toward both economic as well as political power, this class in the Middle Ages, in the words of the Manifesto, had served “either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general,” until, as in England in the 1640s, and in France in the 1790s, they could sweep those monarchies aside and assume power themselves in the “modern representative state.” But in hopelessly backward Germany, the bourgeoisie, fearing the rise of the proletariat, grew to permanently support, alongside the Junker aristocracy, the absolutist State, from which it drew purely economic concessions. They agreed, under Bismark in the 1870s, to a class compromise for what Gramsci called a “passive” revolution from above, which resulted ultimately in the rise of the Nazis to power in the 1930s, itself leading to the final destruction of the Prussian landowning class by the Soviets during World War II.
So, too, in his philosophy, Hegel idealized this State, with its King and its bureaucracy as the realization of both morality and freedom. Absolute Spirit guaranteed the goodness of its policies. This idealism about the State, faith in its expertise, its goodness, and its honesty, would later be promoted by the founder of sociology, the French, post-revolutionary status quo, pro-industrial capitalist conservative, August Comte, and his followers among the American Progressives (see below). It was rejected by Marx and Engels. But has such faith been smuggled into the Marxist movement through the backdoor, via the Progressive movement?
Karl Marx was a student of Bruno Bauer, who himself was a student of Old Man Hegel. Marx had been a Hegelian at University. Since Bauer was an atheist, his student could not get a full time professorship after he got his doctorate, and so, he became a reporter. The story he wrote for the newspaper about the enclosure of the land once shared by peasants and aristocrats, so that the peasants were kicked off the land, in the province of Mozel, gave him the epiphany that led ultimately to the Marxist materialist dialectic. As a good Hegelian, he expected the Prussian state to intervene on the side of good—the side of the peasants. Instead, it supported that of the gentry, and their enclosure of the land. For Marx, then, the State was no longer the embodiment of all that is goodness and light. It was, like everything else in society, controlled by vested, exploitative interests.
My hard Left friends accept the later Progressive, neo-Hegelian faith in the State as the guarantor of “Science’s” honesty. But this view certainly would not have been shared by the founders of Marxism, and runs completely counter to Marx’s initial, materialist insight. The genuinely Marxian view on Science, the view that stems from the Masters themselves, is that it is both capable of finding the truth, and corruptible by capitalist material interests, gives us the best basis for understanding and employing science. But to understand this, we must differentiate it from, and throw it in sharp relief against, Statist Progressive idealism.
The Marxist Masters thought on science was never completely worked out, systematized, freed of all contradictions. A faith in the honesty of natural scientists coexists uneasily with an awareness that this honesty can be compromised by the interest in domination of the ruling class. Take for example, Kautsky’s notions about natural science, in his 1903 article, “The Intellectuals and the Workers.” Kautsky acknowledges the fallacy of Lassale, for whom “science, like the state, stands above the class struggle.” He accepts that “Today we know this to be false. For the state is the instrument of the ruling class.” Yet he provides a loophole for such “classless” status, for natural science: “Moreover, science itself rises above the classes only insofar as it does not deal with classes, that is, only insofar as it is a natural and not a social science.” So for Kautsky, natural science avoids capitalist class distortions, merely because it doesn’t deal explicitly with classes?! That is not very convincing. It in fact represents a backward step from Engels’ warning that natural science, under the profit-seeking regime of capitalism, misses the truth because it examines phenomena in Kantian, isolated fashion, without connecting these phenomena dialectically.
Leon Trotsky provides a somewhat more convincing rationale to Marxists who want to provide a blank check of credulity to the natural sciences: if not immediately, then by and by, as “practical experience” provides a check. Ultimately, however, his rationale falls just as flat.He seems in fact to hark back to the C.S. Peirce’s pragmatic-idealist “Beloved Community” vision of Establishment Science, to which the liberal Atlantic Monthly writer Paul Bloom also subscribes. In Trotsky’s discussion of Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev. he writes that
Science as a whole has been directed toward acquiring knowledge of reality, research into the laws of evolution, and discovery of the properties and qualities of matter, in order to gain greater mastery over it. But knowledge did not develop within the four walls of a laboratory or a lecture hall. No, it remained a function of human society and reflected the structure of human society. For its needs, society requires knowledge of nature. But at the same time, society demands an affirmation of its right to be what it is; a justification of its particular institutions; first and foremost, the institutions of class domination, just as in the past it demanded the justification of serfdom, class privileges, monarchical prerogatives, national exceptionalism, etc.
Trotsky argues that the check upon this distortion of science by this demand for affirmation of the present exploitative class structure, is ultimately checked by “practical experience,” especially in the realm of the natural sciences:
The need to know nature is imposed upon men by their need to subordinate nature to themselves. Any digressions in this sphere from objective relationships, which are determined by the properties of matter itself, are corrected by practical experience. This alone seriously guarantees natural sciences, chemical research, in particular, from intentional, unintentional, semi-deliberate distortions, misinterpretations and falsifications.
Yet this opens the question of whether the ruling class, even in the natural sciences, will permit an adequate response to the “practical” results experienced by ordinary citizens as well as scientists, from techniques developed on the basis of those natural sciences: distorted by the profit motive. Will they encourage, or rather actively and militantly discourage, on pain of dismissal, corrections and critiques, by these very same scientists who work for corporations, or government agencies controlled by the bourgeoisie?
When it comes to their power, and their pocketbooks, the ruling capitalist class, like previous ruling classes, are noteworthy, even during the crises created by the modes of production they control, only for their gift for denial, and for willful blindness. Trotsky’s assertion that practical experience, all by itself, is an adequate check upon such corruption and blindness, is of very dubious comfort.
Trotsky writes somewhat vaguely about the process of “practical experience” by which these distortions will be checked. Just who exactly will conclude from this “practical experience” that there needs to be a correction, and who exactly is powerful enough, within the capitalist system, to make these corrections? He seems to assume this agency is either the capitalist class-as-a-whole, and/or the natural scientists themselves. But both hypotheses are naive, at best, and fail to consider the actual class motives and relationships surrounding each group. Can we really rely, as Trotsky implies here, upon:
- The capitalist class, which must by the nature of its rule, understand accurately how to master nature? But this is in defiance of the common sense most of us, I think by now, share, due to our own “practical experience.” Trotsky imparts to this class, a rationality they simply do not enjoy,either collectively by the class-as-a-whole, or as individuals.
While the motive for accurate science is operative among the ruling class, in general, what Trotsky fails to consider here is what Marx, following Hegel, described as the system of [creating false] needs. In the section of his Economic and Philosophic Mss. Of 1844 entitled “The Meaning of Human Requirements,” Marx follows Hegel’s view that capitalism creates such a”system” for the purpose of selling its products to hapless consumers. There is no concern on the part of the capitalist for the welfare, safety, or health, of the consumer in this transaction. There is only his concern to make a profit.
Is the rational general interest of the capitalist class strong enough within its own collective social relationships and collective decision-making process, sufficient to counter this natural mendaciousness and indifference when it comes to the general welfare of society and its consumers? No. The rationality and collectivity of the capitalist class, is simply too weak, due to the basic anarchic profit seeking of this class and of capitalist social relations, to effect this.
- The natural scientists? But then we are thinking of them as an independent force in capitalist society. Is that really so? The stories are legion, of how the natural scientists within the EPA, up in arms about such toxic, carcinogenic products as Malathion and Roundup, both produced by Monsanto, a corporation with which the top officials of EPA, and the oversight committees in Congress, are in bed with–the stories are legion of how these scientists, alarmed as they are about the dangers of these products, are routinely gagged by Monsanto, through its influence over these leading officials.
The lacuna between official optimism about natural science, and the actual “practical experience” we the public suddenly, repeatedly, and shockingly encounter in terms of premature death, morbidity, environmental pollution, etc., is profoundly unsettling to all of us. We live today in an environment that is bound up intensely with the products of capitalist science and technology, including the food we eat, the air we breathe, the vaccines we took when we were kids, etc. The very idea that these are unsafe, is profoundly troubling, personally speaking. Despite their brilliance, therefore, in understanding social relations, many of my Marxists fall into the same trap as ordinary people.
For their refuge from such cognitive dissonance, they unconsciously fall back upon, not practical experience–pathos–but ethos: the blind faith of Lassalle that science is classless because the State is. They place their faith in the allegedly scientific, regulatory Progressive–bourgeois–State. In this realm of the collective Imaginary, as Althusser might say, the Progressive State reins in the anarchic impulses and natural mendacity of the capitalist class; to grant to the natural scientists an independence of mind that in reality, if they actually every try to exercise it, will get them fired.
This accounts for the contradictions in even the hard Left’s response to toxic product scandals: which can only be described as a policy that shadows, rather than confronts, the capitalist “scientific” Establishment: first, denial, and then, quarantine and damage control, but never, critical thought about the broader implications for other industrial products. I refer to the inevitable response among these True Believers when a given toxic industrial product is exposed for being so, and the Progressive regulatory agencies are exposed for looking the other way, for decades, due to their corruption. Time and time again, the public has encountered these scandals: tobacco, or opioids, for example, and even the vaccine for swine flu. The mainstreamers, including the hard Left, will admit these facts, grudgingly (though in the case of the Spartacist League, vis-a-vis the dangers of passive smoke inhalation, not even then. They are still in denial, because their leader, Jim Robertson, is a smoker!). But then when dissidents like me point out the possibility that other industrial products could have the same stench of toxicity and official, “Progressive”-regulatory corruption about them–vaccines in general, for example, or psychotropic drugs–we are indignantly denounced as batshit crazy tinfoil hat wearers who have no faith in the scientific process!
Enlightenment philosophes conceived the enemy of science only as the feudal vested interests that thrived on dogma and superstition. But what of the new vested interests that now thrived under capitalism? Has not faith in science replaced the old religious faith? That might sound good. But the question is has “science,” as a result, become a new religion, manipulated by the new, corporate capitalist, vested interests?
As we have seen, while such Marxists as Trotsky are aware of the problem here, they seem a bit naive in asserting that as far as the natural sciences are concerned, the problem is pretty much self-corrective. They too, fall back on their faith–faith in the Progressive, scientific State–rather than critical Reason.
Faith is necessary for any society. Each and every individual cannot investigate every scientific question by themselves. So not only must the majority have faith in the process of scientific investigation. But also, the results of scientific investigation must at some level be accepted on faith. But how much faith in the latter, should be required? And what happens when faith is not checked and supplemented by a democratic understanding of logic, and evaluation of empirical results? Are not the new vested interests of capitalism—the corporations—free to get away with murder, to skew those results in their own interest, under the guise of “science”?
The central fallacy of the mainstream, and even the hard Left, champions of “Science,” is that they confuse doubts about whether or not the scientific process has actually been respected by “scientists,” and faith in the veracity of that very same process. There is, however, a difference, between the two sets of doubts. The latter may indeed be embraced by spiritual crystal-channelers, post-structuralists, and other irrationalists. But the former might just have a legitimate concern. They don’t question Science. They question whether it is Science that is really be employed to sell us vaccines, GMOs, hydrofracking, psychotropic drugs, nuclear energy production, etc. Where are the checks and balances here, and have they actually been operative, before the scientists of today pronounce a given technique, “safe and effective?” Is the scientific establishment, rather than science itself—none of us are questioning that– worthy of our faith?
The checks and balances that are supposed to keep the scientists scientific, and honest, are the educational institutions and regulatory agencies and oversight legislative committees, etc., that were created by and/or during the Progressive movement. It is these institutions, agencies, committees, etc.—and not some metaphysical entity hanging from the clouds called Science—that allegedly ensure this. My hard Left friends have a touching faith that this complex will produce scientific, safe, and effective outcomes. They seem to forget that all of this is engulfed and enmeshed in capitalist social relations!
At the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, a new movement of middle class reformers developed: the Progressive movement. Taking its cue largely from August Comte’s Statist, Positivist sociology, and aligned with Walter Rauschenberg’s Social Gospel movement, the Progressives saw their school as a weapon against all corruption: the economic corruption of the robber baron capitalists, as well as the machine boss politics of Tammany Hall. Yet it had still another opponent: the working class socialist movement. The Progressives saw their reforms as a way to stave off this threat to their middle class privileges under capitalism. They believed that they could offer a “third way” between robber baron capitalism and working class socialism. Capitalist business had become Big Business, extremely powerful, extremely corrupt. But capitalism, as opposed to socialism—or so the Progressives maintained—made for efficiency, and individual rights. The Progressives’ solution, therefore, lay in expanding the State staffing it, not coincidentally, with upper middle class, university educated experts like themselves, and thus reining in capitalism’s natural economic and political Corruption.
The reforms championed by the middle class professionals of the Progressive movement, were at different points similar, and in others, diametrically opposed, to the spirit of the political representatives of the old middle class. This class, instead of being the mainstay of Progressivism, was the backbone of the Social Darwinists, and of the Populists. Their demands were pilloried by Marx and Engels in their Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League.
The agenda of these two middle classes were similar in that both, “far from wanting to transform the whole society in the interests of the revolutionary proletarians, only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible.” As far as the working class was concerned, both middle classes favored reforms which amounted only to “alms… to break their revolutionary strength by temporarily rendering their situation tolerable.” These two classes also shared a desire for “the transference of the major tax burden into the large landowners and bourgeoisie.” But the professional middle class differed, of course, differed with the old independent middle class’s “demand above all else [for] a reduction in government spending through a restriction of the bureaucracy.”
If we look at the reforms instituted by the Progressive movement, we see the truth of Marx and Engels’ insight into the phony compassion evinced by the middle class, new as well as old. While the poor were supposed to be the targets of Progressive reforms, it was the upper middle and the corporate capitalist class who ultimately benefited, at the poor’s expense.
One example is the “Lung Block,” a whole block of Little Italy whose residents were displaced by “reformers” because of the alleged threat of tuberculosis. This was a threat, however, that was actually subsiding. It was a threat which the reformers, in xenophobic, racist fashion—so prevalent among the Progressives, confused with the alleged filthiness inherent in being an Italian immigrant. Thus the displacement of poor working class Italian immigrants, created the space upon which to build the Knickerbocker building complex, which served new middle class residents.
Far more extensive was the havoc wrought by Progressive “planner” Robert Moses. As Robert Caro relates in his biography, The Power Broker, originally, Moses was a wealthy Progressive idealist, who genuinely wanted to stand up to the power of the rich, and the machine bosses. Gradually however, as he worked with Belle Moscowitz and Al Smith, he came to shed his ideals, and seek power for its own sake. And he could do that, creating a far more powerful political machine than Boss Tweed ever did, through the newly expanded Progressive bureaucracy created by the New Deal. The results, at first relatively benign in the form of public beaches and freeways out in Long Island, became tremendously destructive when they took the form of bulldozing working class neighborhoods to make way for the Cross-Bronx expressway.
Yet as James Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, and Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism, pointed out, the Progressives’ solution was delusional. Instead of reining in the power of the fatcats, they got played. The anti-trust reforms they championed, for example, with the the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, were actually designed to get the public to think that something was being done about the problem of monopoly. But in actual fact, Monopoly used the new law to even more greatly secure its power over the market, displacing the small fry who could not meet the new industrial standards. This slavish service to the corporate elite was exemplified by Moses himself. He was, in the words of Marshall Berman, in his gloss on Caro’s biography in All That is Solid Melt’s into Air, Detroit’s man in New York. His building of expressways served the auto corporations’ agenda, and his “slum” clearance and ghettoization of public housing, served the City’s private real estate interests.
The educational institutions—universities, med schools, etc.—that grew up during the Progressive era, were financed and controlled by their corporate sponsors. The Rockefeller family, which made its fortune through petroleum mining and distribution, heavily sponsored the new medical schools, and made as its requirement for this sponsorship, the exclusion and marginalization of homeopathic treatment, in favor of the sale of drugs whose principal component was—petroleum. Those medical schools are now heavily financed by the pharmaceutical industry.
The regulatory agencies created by the Progressive movement and the New Deal administration of FDR, admittedly reined in the worst abuses—poisoned meat sold to the U.S. Army during WWI, for example. Yet in the main, because of an “iron triangle” of corruption, they have largely become shills for industry. The regulators are corrupted by those they purport to regulate. The industry purportedly regulated, due with its vast economic resources, can buy off regulatory bureaucrats with the promise of a lucrative job once they leave the government. They can buy Congressional oversight committee members, with campaign funds.
Yet it is upon this extremely flimsy basis that ‘Marxists’ urge us to have faith, not just in the scientific process, but in the alleged results of that process, presented to us “Science.” By doing so, such Marxists forswear what should be their intellectual as well as political independence from the upper middle class and the corporate capitalist class “Progressives.” They fall into the same trap as the Progressives, whether they know it or not: the trap of reformism. This is the belief, as Engels and Lenin pointed out, that the State can reconcile the interests of the exploiters and the exploited. As Karl Marx revealed in his On the Jewish Question, this has powerful roots in the structure of capitalist society. The “political revolution” of the bourgeoisie separates the old feudal sense of political and moral obligation from the harshly exploitative capitalist civil society, lodging these in the State: or so it appears. The miseries and insecurities of civil society prompt everyone, whether they have read and even memorized Das Kapital, or not, to place their faith in the State, for salvation.
Thus my ‘Marxist’ friends on the hard Left recuse themselves from the struggle of working class people to protect themselves and their children from the toxic products of capitalist industry, accepting as good coin that these products have been tested and found safe and effective, even though the profit motive for saying so, for lying that this is so, looms large over the “scientific” process today.
I am not for a moment claiming that every single result we get from “Science,” because it is profit driven, should be rejected. But nor do I believe they should be so childishly accepted, as many on even the hard Left do today. Above all, it should not be our role to attempt to ordinary people into such childish acceptance—especially, those people who have been victimized by vaccines, hydro-fracking, psychotropic drugs, etc. That is enormously insensitive, and it’s going to continue to alienate people from us. It provides a very good excuse for ordinary people to join the Right, and lump us in with the corporate liberals.
Rather, we should cultivate, and call for, a healthy, compassionate skepticism about these results. How exactly were they produced? Were they the result of dispassionate scientific inquiry–or a skewed, “sexed up” process guaranteeing the positive results sought by the industry sponsoring the research?
And we should demand what John Dewey in the 1930s—he had become at least a Social Democrat by that point—demanded: that science and technology cease to be presented as an article of pure faith, but instead, that its workings be made “transparent” to ordinary people, so they can learn how to do it themselves: and evaluate whether or not the scientific process that “proves” industrial products are safe and effective, has actually been conducted. Instead of browbeating ordinary people, we should get out in front of movements that challenge products whose safety and effectiveness have in fact not been tested, and especially movements, such as among nurses, teachers and students, against compulsory mass vaccination. It’s an insult to people to talk about the “herd effect,” of such programs. First of all, people, except among reactionaries like Nietzsche, are not herds. They have the right to choose whether or not they wish to be vaccinated. Second, it has been established by dissident scientists that many of the current outbreaks of disease, were among people already vaccinated.
Instead of a quasi-religious faith in Science, or rather, in the current pseudo-scientific Establishment, our insistence upon the transitional demand for a democratic, socialist science will create the balance, the three-legged stool of which I spoke earlier. Working people, through access in their own experience of a now transparent science and technology, can understand for themselves their logic. And if their own experience—a dead child, for example, or a child suddenly autistic—tells them the product of industry is toxic: we should take that seriously. What they can’t understand, for lack of training, they can have faith that others, not impelled by the capitalist profit motive, are not pulling the wool over their eyes–and will explain to them.