Documents in: Bahasa Indonesia Deutsch Español Français Italiano Japanese Polski Português Russian Chinese Tagalog
International Communist League
Home Spartacist, theoretical and documentary repository of the ICL, incorporating Women & Revolution Workers Vanguard, biweekly organ of the Spartacist League/U.S. Periodicals and directory of the sections of the ICL ICL Declaration of Principles in multiple languages Other literature of the ICL ICL events

Subscribe to Workers Vanguard

View archives

Printable version of this article

Workers Vanguard No. 947

20 November 2009

Medical Science vs. Homeopathy


23 September 2009

Dear comrades,

In the otherwise excellent Women & Revolution article “Wealth Care USA” reprinted in the current WV (No. 943), I have objections to the following:

“In 1847 a small group of physicians had founded the American Medical Association primarily as a means to combat ‘sectarians,’ that is, nontraditional physicians such as homeopaths, who were seen as a threat to the wealth and social position of the medical profession. (The AMA even denounced the Surgeon General of the U.S. for cooperating with a homeopathic physician to save the life of Secretary of State William Seward, when he was shot the night of Lincoln’s assassination!)”

First of all, there is a factual mistake; William Seward was stabbed, not shot, in the attempt on his life.

I’m disturbed by the implied defense of homeopathy and other “nontraditional” (i.e., non-scientific) medicine. Two main principles of homeopathy (invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the early 19th century) are: 1) Like cures like. A substance which causes a symptom (such as poison ivy for a rash, or caffeine for insomnia) can be used to cure it. 2) Dilution. Said substance is made more effective by dilution. The curative substance is diluted so much that the remedy does not contain even a single molecule. But the water somehow contains a spiritual “memory” of it. This is obviously at odds with science, which as Marxist materialists we are champions of. Not surprisingly, it has never been demonstrated to work beyond a placebo effect. (A good new book with a discussion of homeopathy is Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science, by Robert L. Park.)

When so-called alternative medicines are shown not to work in scientific tests, their proponents often cry that they are victimized by the scientific establishment. Other current examples include HIV denialists and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.

The problem with medicine for profit is not that quackery is kept out. (Indeed, increasingly it’s not, with hospitals opening up centers for alternative medicine. See the PBS Frontline documentary “The Alternative Fix” for chilling scenes of a so-called holistic healer sitting in on a consult as an equal with trained doctors in a consult about a seriously ill patient, and a hospital staff homeopath treating an autistic child.) Engels noted in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845):

“Another source of physical mischief to the working-class lies in the impossibility of employing skilled physicians in cases of illness. It is true that a number of charitable institutions strive to supply this want, that the infirmary in Manchester, for instance, receives or gives advice and medicine to 22,000 patients annually. But what is that in a city in which, according to Gaskell’s calculation, three-fourths of the population need medical aid every year? English doctors charge high fees, and working-men are not in a position to pay them. They can therefore do nothing, or are compelled to call in cheap charlatans, and use quack remedies, which do more harm than good.”

A future international planned socialist economy will provide health care for all, and sweep away the material basis for the persistence of dangerous anti-scientific quackery.

Communist greetings,
Jeff T.

* * *

6 October 2009

To: Editor, Workers Vanguard

In what was otherwise a pair of outstanding, accurate and refreshingly honest articles on health care in the USA and elsewhere in the Sept 25 Workers Vanguard, in the second article, (“The Great Health Care Debate/Wealth Care in USA”) was the following paragraph:

“In 1847 a small group of physicians had founded the American Medical Association primarily as a means to combat ‘sectarians,’ that is, nontraditional physicians such as homeopaths, who were seen as a threat to the wealth and social position of the medical profession. (The AMA even denounced the Surgeon General of the U.S. for cooperating with a homeopathic physician to save the life of Secretary of State William Seward, when he was shot the night of Lincoln’s assassination!)”

This paragraph is uncritical of homeopathy, and indeed arguably can be construed as suggesting homeopathy deserves a place in the rational practice of medicine along with scientific evidence-based, clinically-tested treatments.

I have little doubt the AMA’s primary motivation for attacking homeopaths in 1847 was to protect the profits and power of its membership, but it makes for a pretty poor condemnation of the AMA to accuse them of trying to “combat” and crush an organization of outright total quacks.

In the century and a half that has elapsed since 1847, there have been many hundreds of good (double blind, randomized, with meaningful sample size) clinical tests of homeopathy. NONE of them have found ANY homeopathic remedy to be superior in efficacy to a placebo. NONE. Homeopathy, as quackery, has been responsible for immense harm to health. This BOTH by turning people away from effective, science and evidence-based treatments, AND by the tendency of homeopaths to counsel parents against vaccinating children against childhood diseases. It was a mistake for Workers Vanguard to treat such a gross fraud in that fashion.

Homeopathy is most prevalent in India, in large part because quality evidence-based scientific medicine is not available to its population.

Any high school chemistry student can tell you what Avogadro’s number is: 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd power, the number of molecules in one “mole” [a mole is the molecular weight in grams of substance]. Knowing this, any high school chemistry student can calculate that at the dilution of its active ingredients specified for a large fraction of homeopathic remedies, it is highly unlikely a single molecule of that active ingredient remains. [Avogadro and Samuel Hahnemann (the latter being the man who founded homeopathy) were contemporaries.] Thus, most homeopathic “remedies” are nothing but PURE WATER, with NO active ingredient what so ever in the water. The “theory” of homeopathy is total crackpot nonsense in the light of current scientific knowledge of pharmacology and biochemistry. As such, one would expect to find homeopathy to be absolutely worthless. This is what a century of testing its specific remedies has confirmed.

As a scientist, a physician, and a Marxist, I share your contempt for the AMA, for most of the reasons you provided in the remainder of your discussion of the history of medical care in the USA. I never joined that organization, in part because I was well aware of most of what you presented. However, to repeat, attacking the AMA for its attack on quackery (regardless of its motivations for attacking quackery) is NOT an effective way to expose it.

A subscriber to Workers Vanguard since the early 1970’s, I note you have repeatedly (rightly and wisely) endorsed Enlightenment rationalism and evidence-based science, and (again rightly and wisely) repeatedly condemned superstition and faith-based beliefs. It is inconsistent with such a position to present so uncritically a mention of homeopathy.

You are rightly proud of the fact that, historically, you have rejected trendy and opportunistic “in” positions of liberals and the pseudo-left, taking unpopular but correct positions regarding feminism, black nationalism, the nature of the Cuban state, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in support of a secular government, and other important issues. Why now even appear to be capitulating to current ignorant and fuzzy-headed (but popular in a segment of the left) knee-jerk and wrong ideas about “alternative medicine”?

As a side issue, I do note that in 1847, even mainstream medicine had little to offer in the way of effective treatments, and in fact was not at that time solidly based on science, and employed many untested, ineffective, and in some cases (such as blood letting) harmful to lethal “treatments”. It is doubtful that anyone in 1847…whether a total quack such as a homeopath, or a respected mainstream physician…had much to offer William Seward beyond bed rest. With few exceptions, it was not until roughly a century later, at the time of the availability of penicillin to the masses in the mid to late 1940’s, that science and evidence-based medicine began to provide substantial numbers of proven and effective treatments. None of this excuses your uncritical mention of, and arguable implicit support for the total quackery that is homeopathy in your article.

This is NOT, as I hope you understand, a political criticism. I find myself entirely in agreement with the political observations made in both articles, including (as mentioned above) your strong criticism of the AMA.

This is a matter of scientific and medical fact.

It behooves Marxists, when they refer to issues of science, to get their facts right. Scientific method (that group of approaches to examining the world which endeavor to minimize as much as possible the bias of the investigator), the greatest achievement of the Enlightenment and greatest advance in human thought, is the bed-rock on which Marxism stands.

I would urge you, comrades, to print a clarification regarding the matter.

Martin H. Goodman, MD


The best article I have read on that is exceptionally well-written, a delight to read, and extremely well documented with reference material the chapter on homeopathy in the book “Trick or Treatment” by Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh, published in 2008. Pages 93-143. This book also has chapters on acupuncture, chiropractic, and herbal medicine and attempts to cover all of alternative and complementary medicine. It presents the most up to date hard clinical scientific evidence regarding the efficacy...or lack there of...of “complementary and alternative” medical disciplines. The book’s introductory chapter expounds brilliantly what evidence-based clinical science is, and the inspiring history that led to its being adopted by honest, caring, serious healers. It should be read by all.

[All brackets and ellipses are the authors’. —ed.]

WV Replies:

We thank our readers for pointing out the error in the article “Wealth Care USA,” reprinted from Women and Revolution No. 39 (Spring 1991) in WV No. 943 (25 September). This error is particularly unfortunate given the growing popularity of quack “medicine” today. In the 21st century, these snake-oil treatments—homeopathy, chiropractic, “New Age” spiritualism, herbal remedies, acupuncture—are international multibillion-dollar businesses. While some of these treatments may be relatively harmless and may sometimes have a placebo effect, more often they are dangerous both in themselves and because they divert patients from needed medical treatment.

The distinction between science-based, mainstream medicine and homeopathy is stark and irreconcilable, though in the early 19th century “mainstream” medicine embraced many of the same mystical concepts. As physicist Robert Park explained in Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (Princeton University Press, 2008), vitalism was “the prevailing medical superstition of the time,” representing “the belief that life involves some spiritual essence beyond chemistry or physics.” Purging through violent emetics and copious bleeding were common treatments. George Washington is only the most famous American to be killed by his doctors: in the hours before his death, he was drained of half his blood!

As sociologist Paul Starr notes in his 1984 book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, historians point out that homeopathy and other “medical” sects “grew in the mid-nineteenth century because of the inadequacy of contemporary medicine, particularly the disastrous errors of ‘heroic therapy,’ which emphasized bleeding, heavy doses of mercury, and other modes of treatment now believed to range from the ineffective to the lethal.” At that time homeopathic therapy may well have been better than mainstream medicine: a treatment that is pure water at least will not poison the patient, as did calomel, antimony and belladonna, all popular tonics of the time.

In fact, American medicine in the mid 19th century was far behind its British and other European counterparts. As Dr. Dan Agin points out in Junk Science (2006):

“In 1875, there were 460 ‘medical schools’ in the United States (nearly four times as many as now), most of them diploma mills whose main function was to collect tuition fees. Students took courses consisting of two four-month or six-month terms at approximately $60 a term, and often the second term was a verbatim repetition of the first term…. In 1869, the dean of Harvard Medical School explained that the medical school had no written examinations because ‘a majority of the students cannot write well enough’.”

In the early years of the American Medical Association, its opposition to homeopathy was primarily motivated by a search for higher prestige and income. Nonetheless, the AMA’s main purpose was to improve the wretched state of medical education. Such medical professionalization was important and necessary. At the same time, the class, sex and race bias of capitalist society also meant that women, blacks and others were kept out of the practice of medicine.

The AMA later reconciled with the homeopaths over the fight to establish government licensing laws and regulation on the medical profession, and the opposition to homeopaths joining the AMA was dropped. But political squabbles continued to consume the AMA, and in 1886 the more scientifically minded members split off to form a separate learned association. In the 1930s, the AMA and homeopathic practitioners joined in their opposition to social insurance for health care, as described by Dr. Stephen Barrett of, which exposes medical and pseudoscientific quackery.

With the establishment of medical science—especially with the discovery of the germ theory of disease—the distinction between homeopathic quackery and real medicine became abundantly clear. What we know today in terms of science and medicine far outstrips what was known a century ago, and there is much more to learn, understand and discover; doubtless the knowledge of scientists in the next century will far outstrip ours. That said, science-based medicine has already “revolutionized medical practice, transforming it from an industry of charlatans and incompetents into a system of healthcare that can deliver such miracles as transplanting kidneys, removing cataracts, combating childhood diseases, eradicating smallpox and saving literally millions of lives each year,” as described by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst in Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine (W.W. Norton, 2008). Advances in public health such as immunizations, closed sewage systems and clean drinking water brought about enormous leaps in human health and longevity.

Any medical practitioner who professes to follow Samuel Hahnemann’s mystical principles of homeopathy is a menace to the public. Yet, astonishingly, homeopathic medications are protected under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938!

But scientific medicine is also not enough: Medicine for profit rations health care by class, race, sex and ethnicity, reserving the best care for the wealthy. The capitalist class can largely be blamed for the gullibility of the public: high costs place health care beyond the reach of many, and out of despair, many turn to something that promises miracles. Contributing to this problem is ignorance of the principles of science on the part of a population stripped of access to decent public education. As part of free, quality health care for all, a workers government would educate all in human biology and the principles of public health.

“Intelligent design” (i.e., creationism), medical quackery, anti-vaccine hysteria, religious delusions—these plagues are inherent to the capitalist order, which seeks to justify oppression and exploitation and to imbue the masses with superstition and submission to authority. As Marxists, we put forward a materialist understanding of reality, one based on scientific evidence and research. Marx famously called religion the “opium of the people,” and continued: “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusion.”

Key to casting off such conditions is science. As Robert Park noted: “What science is learning about the laws that govern the universe gives us the power to transform the world into the closest thing to paradise that any of us will ever see. This knowledge did not come from sacred texts, or the revelations of prophets. Science is the only way of knowing—everything else is just superstition.” In a world communist society—where social classes and all forms of oppression are part of a distant, barbaric past—mankind will finally be able to put into place the power of science in the service of all humanity.


Workers Vanguard No. 947

WV 947

20 November 2009


For Free Abortion on Demand! For Free, Quality Health Care for All!

U.S. Imperialism: Enemy of Women’s Rights

For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!


Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!

Free All Class-War Prisoners!

Build PDC Holiday Appeal


In Face of Offensive by SEPTA Bosses, Democrats

Philly Transit Strikers Stood Firm


Marxism and Science

(Quote of the Week)


Medical Science vs. Homeopathy



On Paid Sick Leave



Cleveland, Fort Hood, Obama



30 Years Later

We Will Not Forget Greensboro Martyrs


Full Democratic Rights for Homosexuals!

RCP: Anti-Gay Moralists Then and Now

(Young Spartacus pages)




Fighting Reformists’ Obamamania

WV Subscription Drive Success