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Workers Vanguard No. 1008

14 September 2012

Dialectical Materialism vs. Bourgeois Rationalism

A Marxist Critique of the “New Atheists”

Part Two

Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 1007 (31 August).

With the decline of religiosity and the authority of the Christian churches in the working class in late 19th-century Europe, a current of bourgeois intellectuals sought to justify the capitalist system on supposedly scientific (materialist) grounds. An influential expression of this current in Britain as well as the United States was “social Darwinism” as expounded by T.H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer. They held up the “survival of the fittest” as the primary engine not only of evolutionary “progress” but also of human society. The bankruptcy of small, family-owned businesses and farms was likened to the extinction of species of birds or mammals that had failed to adapt to a changing natural environment. For Huxley and Spencer, a worker who became a foreman was analogous to a strong male tiger besting a weaker rival in fighting to mate with a tigress.

In the present-day English-speaking world, a somewhat similar intellectual niche is occupied by sociobiology. It is, as they say, no accident that leading “new atheists”—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris—are strong proponents of this doctrine and its offspring, evolutionary psychology. Adherents of sociobiology have made outrageous claims regarding supposedly innate racial and sexual differences. Steven Pinker, a member of the advisory board of Harris’ Project Reason Foundation, praised the “clear historical discussion” of IQ in Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein’s grotesque, pseudoscientific tract asserting black inferiority, The Bell Curve (1994). (For a debunking of this racist tract, see “The ‘Bell Curve’ and Genocide U.S.A.,” WV No. 611, 25 November 1994; reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 12, February 1995.) Similarly, when Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, infamously declared in January 2005 that women have less innate aptitude for the hard sciences, Pinker declared that there was “enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously.”

While Dawkins, Dennett and Harris steer clear of Pinker’s more outrageous claims, they all indulge in some variant of biological determinism, the view that genes dictate behavior. In The Selfish Gene (1976), the book that first brought him to prominence, Dawkins wrote that a society based simply on a genetic “law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true.” Such statements earned Dawkins sharp criticism in Not In Our Genes, a work of prominent scientists attacking the racist, pseudoscientific field of sociobiology, particularly its defense of bogus studies upholding the inheritability of IQ.

Even as he distanced himself from the racist arguments about IQ, Dawkins’ foam-flecked review of Not In Our Genes accused its authors of presenting a “bizarre conspiracy theory of science” simply for having argued that scientific research (like everything in class society) may be influenced and at times distorted by ideological biases. In The Mismeasure of Man (1981) and other works, the late, renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould exposed in great depth how “scientific” racism based on consciously or unconsciously twisted data is used to justify the lording of one class, sex or race over another (see “Science and the Battle Against Racism and Obscurantism,” WV No. 797, 14 February 2003). Gould was also among those evolutionary biologists who refuted the fallacy that Darwinian evolution by natural selection can be applied to human social development.

Where Dawkins and Dennett really indulge their pseudo-materialist itch is in discussing the basis of religious belief. Asking in his book Breaking the Spell why religion “means so much to so many people, and why—and how—does it command allegiance and shape so many lives so strongly,” Dennett answers with a confused and confusing hodgepodge, jumping back and forth between the animism of primitive hunter-gatherer bands and the Christian churches in present-day America. He relates later religious doctrine to universal psychological behavior that supposedly originates with our early hominoid precursors, such as the need for young children to accept the authority of their parents. One could just as well argue that a child’s awareness of the relation between cause and effect (e.g., kicking a ball with the front of one’s foot makes it move forward) predisposes him to scientific rationality in later life.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that religious behavior can be called “a human universal” demanding “a Darwinian explanation.” His “explanation” is the absurd notion of a religion “meme,” an obscurantist term defined as a unit of cultural inheritance. This concoction is presented as an analogue of the gene, supposedly replicating, mutating and responding to selective pressure. Dawkins asserts that “memetic natural selection” offers “a plausible account of the detailed evolution of particular religions” without indicating why one religious “meme” might be selected over another, or even the rules whereby such “memes” are transmitted. Here Dawkins has crossed over into the realm of vulgar pseudoscience. Unlike memes, genes actually exist—they can be sequenced, spliced, transplanted and traced. Memes are pure idealist sophistry.

Sociobiology purports to provide a materialist explanation for the inequalities, injustices, ideological currents and brutalities of modern society while rejecting the historical (dialectical) materialist understanding that these are fundamentally rooted in class divisions and class struggle. V.I. Lenin observed in “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” (March 1913) that “man’s social knowledge (i.e., his various views and doctrines—philosophical, religious, political and so forth) reflects the economic system of society” (emphasis in original). Protestantism, for example, arose as an adaptation of Catholicism in 16th- and 17th-century Europe along with the growing economic weight of the capitalist merchant class. This fact, which is accepted by far more than just Marxists, has no value in Dawkins’ realm of “memetic” fantasy.

Nationalism Trumps Religion in the Modern World

By focusing on the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, the “new atheists” disregard and therefore implicitly deny that national chauvinism is the main source of popular ideological support for wars, oppression and social injustice. Racism, too, is given short shrift. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues:

“Religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews v. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians v. Catholic Croats; Orthodox Serbians v. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims v. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims v. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims v. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists v. Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis v. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.” (emphasis in original)

In fact, in the modern world religion is a subordinate aspect of nationalism, the predominant bourgeois ideology. A basic common bond linking all bourgeois politicians—from social democrats to fascists—and all bourgeois intellectuals—from secular humanists to religious fundamentalists—is elevating the interests of their nation-state above all other interests.

Since the 18th century, almost all major wars (excluding some civil wars) have been fought on the basis of national, not religious, divisions. Indeed, coreligionists have often been pitted against one another. In both the First and Second World Wars, young American men who were Protestants, Catholics and nonbelievers fought and sought to kill young German men who were Protestants, Catholics and nonbelievers. And vice versa. The primacy of national identity over religious affiliation is also evident in wars in the Islamic world. In the almost decade-long war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, Arab Shi’ite Muslims fought against Persian Shi’ite Muslims.

The “new atheists” ascribe a religious character to what are actually national conflicts. Like Harris, Dawkins contends that religious fanaticism is the main factor underlying the “Israeli/Palestinian wars” and the Northern Ireland “troubles.” The state of Israel was founded in 1948 by Jewish settlers from Europe who were perforce culturally European and in most cases physically distinguishable from the indigenous Arab population of Palestine. The Zionist rulers cohered a new nation in the Near East with its own distinct and unique language, modern Hebrew. A large fraction of the Israeli population does not believe in or practice Judaism as a religion. Such non-believing Israelis are for the most part just as virulently hostile to the dispossessed and oppressed Palestinian Arabs as are their religious-minded fellow nationals.

Superficially, the communalist conflict in Northern Ireland does appear to be based on religious divisions, since the antagonistic parties are conventionally called “Protestants” and “Catholics.” In this case, religious affiliation has been an important factor in defining divergent national identities. Nonetheless, there are atheist and other non-believing “Protestants” and “Catholics” in Northern Ireland. What then is the source of the conflict?

In the 17th century, successive English governments promoted settlement in northern Ireland by Protestants (Calvinists), mainly from Scotland, to strengthen their colonial rule over the native Irish inhabitants. The latter retained adherence to the Roman Catholic church. In that era, the language of the Irish people was still Gaelic, not English, a national (not religious) factor differentiating them from the Scottish-derived community in the northern part of the island. In the 18th century, many members of that community emigrated to Britain’s North American colonies, where they were conventionally called “Scots-Irish,” indicating their primary as well as secondary country of origin.

The British bourgeoisie’s rule over its Irish colony was based on its profit-accumulating, imperialistic interests, as the Spartacist League/Britain noted in writing about Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Republic of Ireland last year (“Down With the Monarchy and the ‘United Kingdom’!” Workers Hammer No. 215, Summer 2011). The article stressed “intransigent opposition to all forms of nationalism—first and foremost the dominant English chauvinism” and concluded: “Our programme is for workers revolutions to overthrow all the capitalist regimes in Britain and in Ireland, North and South. The myriad forms of national oppression will be resolved when workers revolution has swept away capitalist rule on both sides of the Irish border and both sides of the Irish Sea.”

Oppenheimer, Heisenberg and the Bomb

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger all cite with approval an aphorism by prominent American physicist Steven Weinberg: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” As Marxists, we do not share in this moralistic framework. But even on its own terms the statement is wrong, implying that “good people” have never committed atrocities when motivated by nationalism but only when motivated by religious fanaticism.

An instructive counterexample was provided by two world-class physicists during the Second World War: J. Robert Oppenheimer in the U.S. and Werner Heisenberg in Germany. Oppenheimer, a left-leaning intellectual whose relatives, friends and colleagues included supporters and sympathizers of the Communist Party, was the chief scientific administrator for the development of the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project). In leading the work, he was motivated by conventional national loyalty. Also, like many other scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, he was driven by hatred of fascism (falsely conflated with support to the Allied imperialists) and fear that Nazi Germany would first develop and use nuclear weapons to win the war.

Germany surrendered two months before the A-bomb was first successfully tested at Los Alamos, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945. The decision was then made to drop the two bombs the U.S. had available on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one thought that Japan had the capability of building such a bomb, and a few top U.S. government officials and military men (e.g., General Dwight Eisenhower) expressed reservations about using atomic bombs against the Japanese civilian population. But Oppenheimer did not. He justified the mass murder of defenseless men, women and children in the name of liberal idealism. The very destructiveness of these weapons, he contended, would lead to a new, benign world order of peace and international cooperation. In a speech given when he resigned as head of the Manhattan Project in October 1945, Oppenheimer pontificated:

“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.

“The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish. This war, that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand.... By our works we are committed, committed to a world united, before the common peril, in law and in humanity.”

—quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)

This is the language of bourgeois secular humanism in the imperialist epoch. It should be noted that the U.S. dropped the bombs as a message of U.S. military superiority, intended not for Japan and its imperialist rulers, who by that time were all but defeated militarily, but for the Soviet Union, a degenerated workers state.

Werner Heisenberg was one of a small number of top-level German physicists who loyally served the Nazi regime through the war. He was not an adherent of fascist ideology and did not join the Nazi party. He was not an anti-Semite and had closely collaborated with Jewish physicists before Hitler came to power in 1933. During the Nazi regime, he defended the scientific validity of the theoretical work of Albert Einstein and other Jewish physicists against the demented advocates of “German physics.” Heisenberg served under the Third Reich out of conventional German patriotism. In her memoirs, his widow offered the following explanation of her husband’s mindset: “Heisenberg loved the country of his childhood and youth; he did not believe that the picture that was now looming so appallingly was the true countenance of Germany. Within himself he carried the picture of another Germany for which he thought he had to persevere” (Elisabeth Heisenberg, Inner Exile: Recollections of a Life with Werner Heisenberg [1984]).

In 1942, at a high-level conference on armaments attended by Albert Speer and other directors of the German war economy, Heisenberg explained the technical possibility of constructing an atomic bomb (“as large as a pineapple”) that could destroy a city. When Speer questioned him about the feasibility of producing such weapons, Heisenberg expressed uncertainty that it could be done in time to affect the outcome of the war. Speer decided not to pursue such a project. After the war, Heisenberg wrote that German physicists “were spared the decision as to whether or not they should aim at producing atomic bombs.” But he did not indicate that he and the others would have refused to do so out of moral scruples.

The bourgeois-rationalist “new atheists” do not acknowledge the pernicious role of national chauvinism in the world today because they are themselves loyal to protecting the power and position of their “own” capitalist nation-states. While religion has served as an ideological pillar for ruling classes since the advent of class society, bourgeois society cannot exist without basing itself on nation-states. Each of these states serves a nationally delineated capitalist class, which requires state power—i.e., armed bodies of men—to protect its rule and property against challenges from both the working class and capitalist rivals in other countries. Each bourgeoisie portrays itself as representing the entire people, holding that the workers and oppressed social groups share a common interest in preserving and bolstering the national economy and armed forces.

The aims of socialism are counterposed to all variants of nationalism. As Lenin stated:

“Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just,’ ‘purest,’ most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity....

“The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers; it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations.”

—Critical Remarks on the National Question (October-December 1913)

Patriotic jingoism in the imperialist (advanced capitalist) states expresses the predatory appetites of the ruling bourgeoisies. Nationalism in the impoverished and oppressed semicolonial countries expresses both the aspirations of the weaker, dependent bourgeoisies to exploit their own working people and their manipulation of the masses’ legitimate hatred of imperialist subjugation. Marxists support the just struggles of oppressed countries against imperialist domination. But in doing so we oppose nationalist ideology, calling instead for the internationalist class unity of the workers in oppressed and oppressor countries against the ruling classes of both.



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