Spartacist Canada No. 175
SYC Educational: An Introduction to a Marxist Worldview
Harper's War on Science, Native Peoples
Young Spartacus Pages
We print below, edited for publication, a wide-ranging presentation by comrade Nevin Morrison on the Marxist approach to science, religion and environmentalism delivered at a September 20 Spartacus Youth Club class in Vancouver.
This class has been billed as a talk about Marxism versus religion, but more broadly I want to deal with Marxism and science, so I’ll start by talking about some of the current attacks on science and scientific research. In Canada, these have recently targetted climate science, as the government campaigns to make Canada an “energy superpower,” including through massive polluting and trampling on the rights of Native peoples. Our approach to these questions is based on what Marxists call dialectical materialism, as opposed to the idealism of religion and of other political viewpoints. This may seem abstract, but we’ll see that in fact it is key to understanding how Marxism addresses the injustice and oppression that permeate capitalist society.
So far, Harper’s Conservatives have tried to be discreet about their ties to various religious, anti-science nuts in order to not scare off moderate votes. This party is riddled with Christian fundamentalists who need to be kept on a short leash to avoid embarrassing comments on abortion, homosexuality, evolution, other religious and ethnic groups, and who knows what else. But the religious right has reason to feel they have their guy in power.
One of Harper’s first acts was to axe even the inadequate national childcare program negotiated by the previous government, forcing more women to stay at home or leave their children with relatives. Harper has cut funding to numerous social services impacting women, and the Tories’ “foreign aid” plan for maternal health in underdeveloped countries denies funding for abortion, something reminiscent of George Bush’s cutting of condom distribution under USAID. Most recently, in an attempt to open the door to new attacks on abortion rights, Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth put forward a motion in parliament aimed at “reviewing” the definition of when human life begins.
The oil companies have to be pretty happy with Harper too, after he backed out of Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol which, while of dubious benefit to the environment, could have seriously reduced the competitiveness of Alberta’s massive oil sands developments with their staggering carbon emissions. The government has sought to push forward massive pipeline projects, especially Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, through shortcutting the review process for new developments. The Harper Tories have also attempted to steamroll opposition—mainly that of environmentalists and Native peoples, though frankly at least in B.C. the pipelines aren’t very popular with anyone—by tarring them as foreign-funded radicals. The government has committed extra cash to auditing environmental charities to discourage political activity, while they’ve had the RCMP spying on the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of B.C. Natives opposing the pipelines.
Harper & Co. have further sought to undercut opposition by muzzling government scientists and dismantling government-funded research that has helped to establish the reality of global warming and continues to monitor carbon emissions. This July more than 1,000 scientists and supporters held a protest on Parliament Hill, exposing cuts to basic research with a mock funeral for the “death of evidence.” Targets for government cuts have also included programs that don’t fit with the Conservative social agenda, such as Vancouver’s Insite safe injection site, despite extensive research proving its benefits. At the same time, the Tories have abolished the long-form census, which provided demographic data to support various social programs, replacing it with a voluntary survey which statisticians warn will not provide representative data.
The broader context for all this reactionary, anti-scientific nonsense here and elsewhere is the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. For more than seven decades, despite the bureaucratic degeneration that came with the rise of Stalinism, the Soviet workers state stood as a living testament to the possibility of humanity taking control of its fate, free from the pernicious oversight of any God or religious authorities. Since its destruction, religious backwardness and superstition have been on the rise not just in the former Soviet Union but internationally. In the United States, for example, a recent survey found that 51 percent of adults believe God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. In Canada it’s 22 percent, which is bad enough!
Marxism and Religion
Where did religion come from? Many millennia ago, as hunters and gatherers at the mercy of the forces of nature, we needed a system of explanations for natural occurrences. We came up with mysticism and religion to explain the world, give the individual a role in it and provide consolation. While it may still make some people feel better, mystical explanations are no longer needed for natural phenomena. Indeed, compared to modern science, religion has no more explanatory power than theories of UFOs and space aliens. We would do well today to emulate the French mathematician and scientist Laplace who, asked by Napoleon why he left out any mention of God from his book on celestial physics, proudly answered, “I had no need of this hypothesis.”
With the rise of class-divided society, religion took on the additional role of propping up the ruling class. It promoted the “divine right” of kings and consoled peasants and workers about their miserable struggle for existence by promising a better life in the next world—“pie in the sky when you die.” As the revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin observed, “impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters just as inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death as impotence of the savage in his battle with nature gives rise to belief in gods, devils, miracles, and the like” (“Socialism and Religion,” 1905).
With the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s and the Enlightenment in the century that followed, the domain of religion was trimmed back quite a bit in the interests of the emerging class of merchants and capitalists, the bourgeoisie. As a prop to the aristocracy and as the world’s largest landlord, the Catholic church got in the way of bourgeois aspirations, and natural science became a weapon for the bourgeoisie in this struggle.
The rationalist, scientific ideology of the Enlightenment challenged all existing authority and suited the purposes of the rising bourgeoisie in its struggle against the old regime. Of course, more than ideology was needed to overthrow the kings and priests. It took bourgeois-democratic revolutions in countries such as England and France to clear the road for the development of the capitalist system. The emergence of industry in turn demanded the further advancement of science, which to this day serves the bourgeoisie by increasing efficiency of production and discovering new ways of exploiting natural resources, not to mention people.
The parts of the world that had not undergone this modernization were sooner or later overrun by the ones that did. With the rise of imperialist capitalism, America, Japan and a handful of European countries came to exploit and hold back the development of entire continents, where many elements of pre-capitalist traditions and religious obscurantism continue today. This can be seen particularly in the oppression of women through the veil, dowry, “honour killings” and so on. Many of our opponents, even those claiming to be Marxist such as the International Socialists, falsely invoke “anti-imperialism” to embrace Islam in an opportunist adaptation to retrograde, non-working-class forces. We genuine Marxists oppose all religion as, in Karl Marx’s words, “the opium of the people,” and look to the example of the Bolsheviks who, in making the Russian Revolution, worked to win women in particular and workers and peasants in general away from religion to a liberating and scientific worldview.
Armed with socialist ideas and a scientific outlook, the class-conscious, urban working class will be able to throw aside religious prejudices and prescriptions and struggle for a better life here on earth. As Marxists, we fight for the separation of church and state—a basic, though unfortunately always partial, gain of the revolutions which formed modern capitalism. You can see its partial nature, for example, in the existence of a government-funded Catholic school system in many parts of Canada. We fight for universal, free, secular education.
We consider religion to be a private matter in relation to the state. No one should receive any special privileges or punishment for their religious beliefs or lack thereof. The state should not interfere in religious matters, just as the church should stay out of civil affairs. Marriage and divorce, for example, should be simple civil matters.
To break the hold of religion, the conditions must be created to replace it. The masses must be educated in historical materialism, the workings of nature and society, and the role of religion. But the issue can only be fundamentally addressed once the working class has swept away the capitalist profit system. We can look to the example of the Bolsheviks in Russia after the workers revolution of 1917, when they sought to undermine religion through education campaigns while weakening the church through the complete separation of church and state. Institutions like education and marriage were removed from the clutches of the priests and church property was appropriated for social use. It was necessary to deal with the higher clergy who openly supported the White Army in trying to overthrow the workers government in the Civil War. But the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky did not outlaw religion, which would only have created martyrs and driven more backward layers of the population into the arms of the priests.
Marxism and Science
Why does the working class need science? In one sense, for the same reasons the capitalists do. Socialism will never be built on the basis of primitive technology at a lower level than capitalism. To provide for the needs of all, it must be more efficient than capitalism. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the establishment of a state-owned economy, key prerequisites for socialism, are powerful tools to this end. Witness even the highly bureaucratic Chinese workers state, which has greatly outperformed the capitalist world in economic growth. But the only road to the all-round economic and social advance for all of humanity lies through world socialist revolution. An international socialist economy would require far greater energy production than capitalism just to begin modernizing the Third World, where billions live in desperate poverty. As Lenin angularly put it, communism is soviet power plus electrification.
Marxism itself is a methodology of social science—a means to understand society and history, as well as to act on it. It is based on dialectical materialism. As one of the readings for this class explained, materialism recognizes “that the world exists in reality; it was not created within the realm of the human mind.” And dialectics signifies “that the essence of our world (indeed our universe) is matter in motion. All things exist not in stasis but in a process of development. An analogy is the difference between a still photograph and a motion picture” (“In Defense of Marxism and Science,” Workers Vanguard No. 971, 7 January 2011).
This may seem rather obvious—that the world exists and changes—but from birth we are led to accept that the social structures and norms in this class-divided society are basically static: some people own the factories and others work in them, some rule and others are ruled, by right, sometimes with God brought in to bless the whole arrangement. With dialectical materialism, as Friedrich Engels explained, “a method [was] found of explaining man’s ‘knowing’ by his ‘being,’ instead of, as heretofore, his ‘being’ by his ‘knowing’” (Anti-Dühring, 1878). This allows us to find the source of the world’s injustice and oppression not in bad ideas or a few bad people, but in the economic relations and the political system that has grown out of those relations.
Origins of Our Species and Society
Marx considered Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution essential to a materialist view of the world. After reading Darwin’s work, he wrote that it “is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle” (“Marx to Ferdinand Lassalle,” 16 January 1861). Darwin’s theory was the key to understanding not only the origin of species and our species in particular, but also the rise of civilizations. In his excellent short essay entitled “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” Engels argues that, contrary to the views of his day, the development of the human brain was driven by tool use and the development of speech was driven by social labour, i.e., the need to work together.
The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky extended this aspect of Engels’ work in the 1920s and ’30s with experiments demonstrating the centrality of tool use to learning and showing that language in particular is socially constructed. Evolution creates the capacity for individual development, as in other species, and a high degree of flexibility. From that starting point, the human mind and even the physical brain are shaped largely by social processes occurring after birth. Scientists elsewhere have begun to catch up in recent decades with evidence of neuroplasticity in children, the shaping of the brain itself by learning. As Marx observed, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859).
The capitalist ruling class and its ideologues have taken every opportunity to divide workers and the oppressed with claims for the supposed genetic or biological superiority of one race, colour or gender over another, thereby sabotaging prospects for uniting against their rule. See, for example, the pseudo-scientific studies of Philippe Rushton and of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. In fact, the categories of race and gender are constructs of class society that are implanted in us from the culture that surrounds us. While some differences in abilities may exist in early childhood (such as a differential in spatial relations versus language skills between genders), humans are much more the same than they are different. Racist, anti-woman pseudo-science exists for the purposes of a capitalist class that reviles racial and ethnic minorities and fosters chauvinism in order to divide the working class.
In a later work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels goes on to analyze the rise of civilization. In brief, he argues that the development of agriculture from the previous hunter-gatherer societies created a surplus product beyond what was needed for subsistence, thus freeing part of the population for other pursuits. The question is then posed, who gets the surplus? From that point on, the history of all societies becomes, as Marx and Engels famously declared in the Communist Manifesto, the history of class struggles. Throughout history, slaves have fought with their masters, serfs with their lords, workers with their bosses, to decide who will get that surplus. Institutions of force—ultimately the state—were created to shore up the ruling class. At the same time, the family, which subordinates women to men, developed to ensure the inheritance of private property.
As the mode of production has changed from hunting and gathering to slavery, feudalism and ultimately capitalism, wars and revolutions have brought corresponding changes in the ruling class and its state. The product of all of this development has been a world capitalist system based on nation states, which grew explosively to exploit markets and resources around the globe, and has since begun to stagnate and decay.
Marxism and Environmentalism
It is a common misconception that capitalism is synonymous with consumerism and the limitless expansion of wealth through technology. Also common, especially among environmentalists, is the view that the problem with capitalism is an unsustainable “First World lifestyle” of big cars, big houses and the like; thus, they typically advocate the education of consumers to want less. The fact is that for countless millions of workers and oppressed people, the “First World lifestyle” is simply poverty. And why should anyone be against the best possible living standards for all? The capitalist system, despite all its triumphant rhetoric about “progress,” is actually a brake on development because the profit motive inherently condemns production to chaos.
Environmentalism can only take society backwards. Unable to look beyond the capitalist framework, its promoters are left with only liberal, idealist and even reactionary answers like corporate social responsibility and lowering the aspirations of the Third World masses, i.e., reinforcing their oppression. The more radical environmentalists glorify Native American and other hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies as supposedly a sustainable alternative to industrialization and capitalism. Some even advocate a reversion to pre-industrial “labour-intensive technologies” to provide jobs and supposedly reduce resource consumption. The hunter-gatherer is romanticized as living close to nature, understanding it and acting to preserve it.
Of course, hunter-gatherers did live close to nature—and suffered from hunger and short lifespans. Moreover, such societies were perfectly capable of causing deforestation, soil erosion, animal extinctions and all-round misuse of resources. Lower population densities made such behaviour perhaps more viable than it is today. At modern levels of population densities, we need centralized economic planning, scientific knowledge and the most advanced industrial and agricultural techniques to ensure the well-being of our species.
What limitations exist to the future expansion of material production, and the concrete nature of such limits, cannot be accurately judged within the framework of the capitalist system. We do know that even current technology is more than adequate to provide food and shelter for everyone. Yet, as famine plagues many countries, farmers are still paid not to grow food because higher prices mean higher profits. The environmental preoccupation with “consumerism” notwithstanding, the major problems of capitalism are not overproduction and overconsumption but rather underproduction and underconsumption. We need to produce more to meet human needs, but capitalism will only produce for those who can afford to pay for it.
To look at the capitalists’ squandering of natural resources and degradation of the environment in the interests of profit, one could easily conclude—as most ecologists do—that advanced industrial technology is inherently destructive. But technological considerations do not exist apart from class society. The organization of industrial production under capitalism necessarily leads to the degradation of the environment because the capitalist firms are motivated solely by maximizing profits. It’s not that corporate presidents and CEOs are necessarily malicious people who hate clean air and water. Their job, though, is to make money for their owners and shareholders—that’s what businesses are for. Cleaning up pollution and minimizing waste does not increase profits. This is the logic of capitalism at its most basic.
The Northern Gateway pipeline project is a prime example of how this capitalist drive for profit goes up against the interests and needs of workers and the oppressed. It only shows the irrationality of capitalism that such an inefficient and expensive energy source as the oil sands is made viable by monopolistic restrictions on supply inflating prices. The route, which has been chosen to save money, winds through extremely inhospitable terrain to a port which can be accessed only through narrow shipping channels subject to major storms, even though safer—but more expensive—routes are possible. Along with the environmental risk comes the contempt for the life and safety of workers that is the norm in capitalist industry, as the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster of 2010 showed once again.
Capitalist corporations are more than willing to take such risks for the payoff of billions of dollars in profits in their pockets. For the rest of us, the payoff from this pipeline is not so attractive: only a handful of permanent new jobs, higher gas prices and a tiny share to Native groups with claims on territory along the pipeline route. This project is not a dirty and dangerous exception to the norm of the capitalist market, as many of its opponents would claim, but goes to the modus operandi of the capitalist system: production for profit. Capitalists only respond to human needs, protect against pollution and so on where these happen to coincide with the drive for profit.
And capitalism definitely cannot guarantee Native rights. As we note in our Programmatic Theses,
“The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste demands that whatever residual rights Native peoples have been able to maintain, whether through treaty agreements or otherwise, be respected. In some cases, treaty rights and land claims run up against socially useful developments like railways, hydroelectric projects and oil pipelines. The aboriginal peoples should receive generous compensation for any deprivation of land or disruption of activity, based on completely consensual agreement. Only a workers government will guarantee these conditions.”
—“Who We Are, and What We Fight For” (1998)
Pipelines are indeed necessary to transport fuel. In this case, however, we solidarize with the Native peoples of the area, who are vehemently opposed to the Northern Gateway project and rightly maintain that such a development must be negotiated, not imposed. We are also not indifferent to its other deleterious effects. As Marxists, our opposition of course differs from that of the environmentalists, who are skeptical at best toward any oil-related projects. We also condemn the China-bashing of many opponents of the pipeline, for instance John Bennet, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club Canada, who rants about “oil for the Chinese” and demands an “Energy Plan for Canadians” (rabble.ca, 25 July). For its part, the Yinka Dene Alliance, whose outlook differs vastly from both the Beijing Stalinists’ and our own, captured the hypocrisy of the bourgeois outcry over “human rights” abuses in China by issuing a letter to President Hu Jintao in February that called on him to chastise Canadian rulers for their brutal oppression of Natives.
The Need for Workers Revolution
So what does a Marxist alternative offer? Certainly not a decrease in technology or production, but a total transformation in the use to which it is put. The key is production for social use rather than private profit—much of the world’s population does not have their basic needs met, not from any scarcity of materials or labour, but because they don’t have the money to pay. An increase in the application of the science we have and the development of new technology will liberate our productive capacity and eliminate economic scarcity, laying the basis for the disappearance of classes and the withering away of the state. Such a qualitative development of the world’s productive forces for the benefit of all can only be achieved in an internationally planned, socialist economy.
The qualitative superiority of a collectivized, planned economy over capitalist anarchy was demonstrated in practice by the historical experience of the Soviet Union. Even given the tremendous bureaucratic distortions due to the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy, the USSR was able to construct an advanced industrial economy almost from the ground up. And they did it twice—after the Civil War of 1918-20 and again after the massive destruction of World War II. What made this possible was the 1917 Russian Revolution, which took the factories and other means of production out of the hands of the capitalist class.
The Russian Revolution demonstrated in practice the ability of the working class to take state power and construct a modern industrial society in which workers had access to medicine, science, education and culture. As one example of such accomplishments, the Soviet Union instituted a system of polytechnical education to allow students to receive not just training in a trade, which you might get if you are lucky in a capitalist country, but a well-rounded academic and technical education. Such an approach, on the basis of the higher industrial productivity of an international socialist society compared to capitalism, can begin to overcome the division between manual and intellectual labour, agricultural and industrial labour. As Friedrich Engels put it, “productive labour, instead of being a means of subjugating men, will become a means of their emancipation, by offering each individual the opportunity to develop all his faculties, physical and mental, in all directions and exercise them to the full—in which, therefore, productive labour will become a pleasure instead of being a burden” (Anti-Dühring).
The revolutionary Marxist solution to degradation of the environment has as its necessary precondition workers socialist revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries of North America, West Europe and Japan. To the contrary, the environmentalist framework accepts the inviolability of capitalist class rule, with production driven by profit and wealth monopolized by a tiny bourgeois ruling class. The solutions environmentalism offers are either reactionary, back-to-nature utopias, or a liberal reformist perspective of begging the capitalists for more farsighted policies. Thus, joined by the NDP, many environmentalists advocate such schemes as cap-and-trade and carbon taxes, for which workers will pay the price. As Marxists we fight for a society that will provide more, not less, for the working people and the impoverished masses of the world.
When production is planned and directed at human need, decisions can be made about using different technologies—nuclear power, oil sands extraction and so forth—based on what is good for all of us. It will surely be necessary to generate more power and produce more goods, at least initially, but decisions about how to do so and manage the ecological consequences can be made by means of workers democracy and in the service of humanity.
Moreover, the development of communism will likely be accompanied by a downward drift in population, which will make a better standard of living possible in the long run. Evidence of this can already be seen under capitalism in the industrially advanced countries of the world, such as Canada, where economic and technological advancement has brought a substantial reduction in the birthrate. Under communism, both the division between town and country and economic dependence on the family will be overcome. No longer will poor peasants or agricultural workers be compelled to have more children in order to ensure enough manpower to work the land. Human beings will have far greater mastery over both their natural and social environments.
The continued prevalence of the superstitions, ignorance and bigotry of the Dark Ages—fostered by sundry leaders of the advanced industrial capitalist societies—is dramatic evidence of the decay of the capitalist system. Such backwardness and irrationality is mirrored in petty-bourgeois fads like faith healing, astrology and hostility to science and technology. That fulfillment of the most basic human needs is a luxury reserved to those who can pay the price, and that it comes at the cost of poisoning the resources we need to support future generations—this calls for a fundamental change. Socialist revolution will make modern technique, science, culture and education available to all, with a corresponding explosion in creative human energy. As Engels proclaimed in his widely publicized pamphlet, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” (1880):
“Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history—only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”