Workers Hammer No. 212
Spartacist League dayschool
Against quackery, monarchy and libel laws
Defend scientific medicine!
The following article is an expanded and edited version of a presentation given by comrade Eibhlin McDonald at a Spartacist League dayschool in London on 8 May 2010.
On 14 December 2009 we issued a statement defending Simon Singh, a renowned science writer, against an outrageous libel action by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). The BCA sued Singh because of an article that challenged its claim that chiropractic could help treat childhood ailments such as colic, ear infections and asthma. Our leaflet noted:
“In the reactionary political climate of today’s post-Soviet world, we Marxists find ourselves defending the basic principles of materialism, secularism and the rational humanism of the 18th century Enlightenment. Against this ideological background, snake-oil treatments, commonly referred to as alternative ‘medicine’, are growing in popularity and many are even being funded by the state. The British government spent £20 million of taxpayers’ money on the refurbishment of the Royal London Homeopathic ‘Hospital’, while accident and emergency units are being closed down.”
— “Defend Simon Singh! Defend scientific medicine!” Workers Hammer no 209, Winter 2009-2010
The book Suckers, How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All, by Rose Shapiro (Vintage Books, 2009) opens with the statement: “We are witnessing an epidemic of alternative medicine. There are as many as one thousand different alternative therapies, most with little in common bar one rather important thing: there’s no evidence that they work. From chiropractic to colour therapy, reflexology to reiki, such therapies are now used by one in three of us”. Singh’s book Trick or Treatment? Alternative medicine on trial (Corgi Books, 2009), co-written with Edzard Ernst, provides a detailed critique of acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbal medicine. The book gives a cogent explanation of the difference between science-based medicine, which is subject to quantitative experiment and double-blind clinical trials, and “alternative” therapies which are based on anti-scientific nostrums and which reject rigorous testing.
In Britain as elsewhere, so-called alternative “medicine” has become big business, worth an estimated £4.5 billion per annum, which amounts to an increase of nearly 50 per cent in the last ten years. There are nearly 50,000 practitioners of “alternative” therapies, more than the number of general practitioners and an estimated 50 per cent of GPs now offer referral to such quacks or — even worse — dabble in these arts themselves. The House of Commons science and technology committee called for an end to government funding of homeopathy (which costs the taxpayer £4 million each year) and for an end to official licensing of products based on homeopathy, because there is no evidence it works other than as a placebo. But David Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition government rejected this advice. Presumably while facing savage attacks on healthcare spending, patients may console themselves with placebo pills consisting of sugar and water.
Appropriately enough, a foremost exponent of anti-scientific quackery in Britain is Prince Charles. The heir to the throne was president of the Foundation for Integrated Health (FIH) which in 2005 produced a report by Christopher Smallwood recommending that the government could save the National Health Service £3.5 billion by offering manipulation therapies and could cut £480 million off the national drugs bill by issuing homeopathic prescriptions for conditions such as asthma. The FIH milked £900,000 from the Department of Health to “help initiate voluntary self-regulation of other complementary professions” (Suckers). So-called “voluntary self-regulation” is a scam which means universities are squandering public money on anti-scientific courses and qualifications. As academia becomes quackademia, Westminster University is offering a Bachelor of Science (!) degree in a “Chinese medicine” course which, according to Ben Goldacre, teaches students “that the spleen is ‘the root of post-heaven essence’ and is responsible for the ‘transformation of qi energy’, ‘keeping the muscles warm and firm’ ” (Guardian, 20 February).
Prince Charles’s parasitic FIH was ignominiously closed down in April amid a criminal investigation that saw two of its senior officials arrested and £300,000 “unaccounted for”. As an exponent of quackery, Prince Charles is a worthy heir to his namesake, King Charles II, who came to the throne in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy which had been abolished by the English Revolution. Charles II made England a haven for quacks and charlatans “by shamelessly issuing his own medical patents that gave nostrum sellers exclusive rights to peddle their powders”, patents which have been aptly described as licenses to kill (Quacks, Fakers & Charlatans in English Medicine, Roy Porter, 2001). Charles II also revived the practice of laying his “royal” hands on the sick to cure them of scrofula (a manifestation of TB) and it is estimated that over a period of 21 years he “touched” some 91,000 people.
Modern science-based medicine developed through rejection of pre-scientific and anti-scientific practices and philosophies which are today making a comeback. While some popular “therapies” may be relatively harmless, at most they have only a placebo effect. Often they are dangerous in themselves and divert patients from the necessary medical treatments. As a result of reactionary anti-science ideology, vaccination rates are so low that Europe is expected to miss the World Health Organisation’s target of eliminating measles and rubella by the end of 2010. Anti-vaccine hysteria was given scientific credibility by the Lancet, a prestigious scientific journal, which in 1998 published an article by Andrew Wakefield falsely linking the measles, mumps and rubella triple vaccine to autism. Despite subsequent studies showing no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, it was only this year that the Lancet finally issued a full retraction of this study. In May Wakefield was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council for serious professional misconduct.
The Lancet was founded in the early Victorian era under Thomas Wakley and others who led a campaign against quackery and for reform of the medical profession. A series of major reforms such as the Apothecaries Act of 1815 and the Medical Registration Act of 1858 placed medicine on a more scientific plane. The separation between quackery and scientific medicine required material developments in science and was achieved “in part through erecting a tighter cordon sanitaire between it and what it abhorred as money-mongering quackery” (Quacks, Fakers & Charlatans).
Promoters and practitioners of quackery today have increasingly resorted to England’s draconian libel laws to intimidate and silence scientists who expose “alternative medicine”. With the backing of the Libel Reform Campaign, Simon Singh won his case against the BCA. But the cost of defending oneself against libel in England is so high — over 100 times higher than in most other European countries — that the laws often work by intimidation. In order to fight his case Singh first had to pay out legal fees of £100,000. He recovered his fees, but others are not so fortunate. In 2007-08, Guardian journalist Ben Goldacre, author of the book Bad Science who writes a regular column of the same name, was sued by vitamin pill magnate Matthias Rath. Rath published advertisements in South Africa condemning AIDS drugs while promoting his own vitamin supplements. Although the Guardian won the legal battle against Rath, the newspaper only recovered part of its £500,000 fees. Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital faces financial ruin as a result of a libel suit by US firm NMT Medical. Wilmshurst, who was sued because he dared to criticise the research data used by the company to promote their new heart implant, said he was prepared to risk losing his home to take the case to trial because “victory would set a precedent protecting other scientists from ‘legal bullying’” (Times, 26 November 2009).
Down with the monarchy, and the libel laws!
The libel laws are so notoriously weighted against the defendant that London has been labelled the libel capital of the world. (In August the US Congress passed legislation aimed at protecting American authors and journalists from English libel laws.) The chilling effect of these laws on press freedom was seen last year in the case of Trafigura, a company that was secretly dumping toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. Trafigura’s libel writ against the Guardian led to a “super-injunction” preventing the paper from reporting that there was a question in Parliament about Trafigura’s activities, what the question was, who asked it, or why the paper was prevented from reporting it. As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger noted: “Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret” (guardian.co.uk, 13 October 2009).
As we noted in our leaflet defending Simon Singh, the English libel system is nothing but a protection from the truth for the rich. The late Peter Carter Ruck, founder of one of London’s most feared libel law firms, acknowledged the real purpose of the laws: to protect a “gentleman’s” honour and reputation. In his memoirs Carter Ruck quoted the Duke of Norfolk in Shakespeare’s Richard II on honour, saying:
“Mine honour is my life; both grow in one: Take honour from me, and my life is done”
— quoted in “Bunfights” by Paul Foot, London Review of Books, 7 March 1991
Or, as Claud Cockburn, who published a news sheet called The Week in the 1930s, pithily noted, England’s libel laws “seem designed to prevent a man being kicked until he is down”. During the crisis surrounding the abdication of King Edward in 1936, Cockburn said, “the distributors of Time magazine in London were so uncertain and alarmed that they sat up for hours with scissors, cutting out the revealing or offensive references to the blazing affair”, between the king and Mrs Simpson (quoted in The Years of The Week, Patricia Cockburn, 1971).
Our leaflet said:
“The libel laws in this country are part of a system, including the institution of Parliament, that exists to keep the working class ‘in its place’. We look forward to the day when the libel laws and the system of lies they uphold — including feudal relics such as the monarchy, the House of Lords and established churches — will be swept away by socialist revolution.”
—Workers Hammer no 209, Winter 2009-10
Marxism and the Enlightenment
Modern, science-based medicine is very recent in historical terms and although it is far from being able to treat all diseases, the use of antibiotics and widespread vaccination has made possible the control of many infectious diseases like measles, polio, diphtheria and mumps that were mass killers only half a century ago. Before it was eradicated, smallpox threatened 60 per cent of the world’s population and killed every fourth victim (some 500 million in the 20th century alone). The Marxist programme is based on a dialectical materialist worldview, thus we defend science against religious and other forms of obscurantism. We defend science-based medicine against the alternatives, which are based on anti-materialist philosophy and consciously reject historic scientific advances such as the germ theory of disease. For the first time, the cause of deadly epidemics such as cholera and typhoid was proven to be micro-organisms, and not evil spirits or bad karma.
At the same time, we are primarily concerned with the fundamental problem which is the social system under which science and medicine operate. Under the capitalist system medicine is driven not only by social use but by the pursuit of profit. Government spending on healthcare, which is grossly inadequate and today is under renewed attack, results from the fact that the capitalist class has to give up part of its surplus value to maintain a basic level of health for the working class, to maintain productivity. But to achieve a qualitative development in medical science and to put those achievements in the service of all humanity, providing good quality healthcare for all, requires a socialist revolution that will free the productive forces from the fetters of the capitalist system of private property.
Modern science had its birth in northern Italy during the Renaissance of the 16th and early 17th centuries in the city states of Venice and Florence where mercantile capitalism flourished. The Renaissance brought advances in knowledge about anatomy, including through post-mortem examination of the human body which the Catholic Church regarded as disrespectful to God. The Catholic counterreformation, led by the absolutist monarchies of France and Spain, sought to crush the early scientific revolution. Galileo was threatened with torture by the Inquisition unless he recanted his view that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. Capitalism would later emerge in the Protestant countries of Europe, including Holland, England and also Scotland — which became a centre of the Enlightenment and of scientific and technological innovation.
Marxism has as its foundation the gains of the Enlightenment and bourgeois revolutions which freed scientific and social development from the shackles of feudalism. As noted by Joseph Seymour in our 1998 pamphlet, Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism:
“The Enlightenment was the link at the intellectual level between the English bourgeois-democratic revolution in the mid-17th century and the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. The Enlightenment was in its original and central axis a defense of science against religious obscurantism and religioussanctioned dogmatism.”
It’s not at all surprising that science is under attack today. Like all other human behaviour, science takes place not in a vacuum but within the framework of class society. Today’s assault on science takes place in the context of the triumph of capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92 which ushered in a period of theoretical, political, social and not least sexual reaction. Many liberals today also defend science and uphold the values and achievements of the Enlightenment against what they describe as today’s climate of “endarkenment”. Thus David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology at University College London Hospital and prominent campaigner on behalf of science against “alternative medicine” has written that:
“The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?
“The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.”
— “The age of endarkenment”, guardian. co.uk, 15 August 2009
In a similar vein Gerald Weissman, editor-in-chief of the journal published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), wrote that while on one hand the prospects for science “have never been more splendid” than they are today, on the other hand:
“much of society at large is beating a hasty retreat to the dark ages: the wars of religion are back, superstition threatens our schools and Bible-thumpers preach that Darwin got it wrong. Our heritage of reason, formed in the enlightenment, is becoming eclipsed by what a cynic might call the endarkenment. It’s no trivial matter when the editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, asks us whether it’s ‘Twilight for the Enlightenment?’ ”
— FASEB Journal, 2005
The English Revolution
In contrast to liberals who support the capitalist order based on private property and look back to the Enlightenment as a “golden age” of capitalism, Marxism is a programme that aims to liberate humanity from the yoke of capitalism through proletarian socialist revolution on an international scale. This will lay the basis for overcoming scarcity and achieving a qualitative leap in the development of the productive forces. Only then can the achievements of science and technology be placed at the service of all humanity. As Marxists, our attitude to the Enlightenment is shaped by our understanding that the bourgeois revolutions had a two-fold character. When it was an ascending class , the bourgeoisie embraced the Enlightenment in its struggle against the old feudal order and against its ideological bulwark — the Church.
The bourgeois revolutions broke the power of the feudal order in Europe — the rule of the Catholic Church and the nobility — and cleared the way for a new capitalist order, bringing about unprecedented liberty. But that liberty was restricted to the rights of private property and soon after the capitalists triumphed they used religion as a means to prop up their class rule. Against any perceived threat from the oppressed classes they resorted to military subjugation abroad and the suppression of the “lower classes” at home, as can be seen during the reign of Oliver Cromwell.
In the English Revolution the capitalist class came to power in a civil war in which Oliver Cromwell’s army defeated the Royalists backed by the aristocracy and the Anglican Church. In order to succeed, Cromwell had mobilised the lower social classes, who made sure the Civil War was fought to the finish. The execution of King Charles I in 1649 marked the decisive defeat for the feudal order in England. Although it was carried out under the religious doctrine of Puritanism, the liberating effect of the English Revolution was enormous. It put an end to the “divine right” of kings, abolished church and crown courts as well as compulsory attendance at church and church taxes; the monarchy and House of Lords were formally abolished and England became a republic. At the same time the new state was the instrument of class domination by the rising capitalists. This was seen in Cromwell’s suppression of the revolt by the Levellers, the radical democratic current in his army that represented the plebeian orders.
Cromwell’s crushing of the Levellers was a prelude to his subjugation of Ireland, from where the merchant capitalists of England drew large profits. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the French Revolution, which inspired a slave rebellion in the then French colony that is now Haiti. But the revolutionary class that came to power in France under the banner of “liberty, equality and fraternity” was horrified at the prospect of abolishing slavery in Haiti, because the wealth of the capitalists in France depended on the enormous profits that flowed out of the Antilles.
The republic ushered in by the English Revolution was relatively short-lived. Following Cromwell’s death in 1658 the monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles II. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (so called because there was no bloodshed and no mobilisation of the lower classes) was merely the removal of King James II of England who was dragging the country back towards Catholic absolutism. He was replaced by the Dutch Protestant King William and his wife Mary and political power shifted from the Crown to Parliament, which was elected by the propertied classes. But the restoration of the monarchy did not mean a reversion back to the old feudal order, nor could it. As Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia explained in a 1925 essay on Britain:
“In dispersing parliament after parliament Cromwell displayed as little reverence toward the fetish of ‘national’ representation as in the execution of Charles I he had displayed insufficient respect for a monarchy by the grace of God. Nevertheless it was this same Cromwell who paved the way for the parliamentarism and democracy of the two subsequent centuries. In revenge for Cromwell’s execution of Charles I, Charles II swung Cromwell’s corpse up on the gallows. But pre-Cromwellian society could not be reestablished by the restoration. The works of Cromwell could not be liquidated by the thievish legislation of the Restoration because what is written by the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.”
— Where Is Britain Going?
The English Revolution led to an unprecedented development of science and technology. According to JD Bernal, a Marxist scientist and historian, the decades 1650 to 1690 saw an outburst of activity which, “in less than 50 years, virtually created modern science in most of its fields” (Science in History, London 1969). Bernal described this growth as “more intense than at any time before or since”. The Royal Society, which celebrates its 350th anniversary this year, was founded in 1660 to study and promote science. According to conventional British history, credit for the scientific advances of this period belongs to the stability that followed the restoration period. But that misses the point. The rising bourgeoisie needed science to develop the productive forces; however the new social order that placed them in power would not have been possible without the revolution. As our pamphlet Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism noted:
“The England of Newton and Locke was possible only because there had previously been an England of Cromwell based on the revolutionary mobilization of the lower classes against monarchical absolutism and the old feudal order.”
Scientists were no longer dependent on royal patronage and were stimulated by challenges presented by the quest for British mastery of the seas. The drive to improve navigation led to significant advances being made in pumping and hydraulics as well as in gunnery. Isaac Newton, the great English physicist, who was born in 1642 and grew up during the English Revolution, made history with his studies of optics, the mathematics of moving bodies such as the planets and the enunciation of the inverse-square law of universal gravitation. In the early 17th century, Francis Bacon projected the possibility of unlimited progress in scientific discovery and technological innovation. Unlimited progress was a revolutionary concept, but one which capitalist society, for all its achievements in science, could not provide.
In England, the most influential Enlightenment figures sought to reconcile scientific discovery with belief in God. Newton used his authority to prop up the Church of England while mainstream Enlightenment thinkers developed a quasi-religious doctrine called deism and viewed science as the study of God’s laws in nature. The big names in the Enlightenment — Newton, John Locke in England; Voltaire and Rousseau in France, Thomas Jefferson in America — were hostile to atheism. The ascendant bourgeoisie had been forced to break the power of the established church, but they saw the existence of a hierarchical society as God-given and feared that if the common people ceased believing in God they might begin to challenge the very existence of private property.
In England, intellectuals like Newton and Locke were representatives of the already completed English Revolution. However in France, Voltaire and Diderot confronted the old feudal order that resisted change right up to the fall of the Bastille in 1789. The French Revolution had an immensely radicalising effect on Enlightenment thinkers and provided the theoretical basis for a revolutionary movement of the exploited classes. But although left-wing currents developed, such as the Levellers in the English Revolution and the Jacobins in the French Revolution, it was simply not possible to organise the working classes to overthrow the existing social order at that time. The economic preconditions for socialism and communism had yet to be created by the industrial revolution and the new social class it would create — the proletariat.
Scottish and English political economists of the Enlightenment — from Adam Smith in the late 18th century to David Ricardo in the early 19th to James Mill in Marx’s formative years — were leading intellectual representatives of liberalism. Central to the liberal worldview was a belief in raising the level of production and productivity through the application of science and technology. They maintained that the wealth of nations — the title of Adam Smith’s classic work — would be maximised by the competitive market economy. In order to maximise profits, capitalist entrepreneurs would supposedly be compelled to reduce the costs of production through technical innovation.
From radical egalitarianism to Marxism
Many Enlightenment thinkers were materialists, but science remained in constant battle with religion, most notably over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Regarding this conflict, JD Bernal wrote:
“The very persistence of the struggle, despite the successive victories won by materialist science, shows that it is not essentially a philosophic or a scientific one, but a reflection of political struggles in scientific terms. At every stage, idealist philosophy has been invoked to pretend that present discontents are illusory and to justify the existing state of affairs. At every stage materialist philosophy has relied on the practical test of reality and on the necessity of change.”
— Science in History
Darwin unshackled biological science from the chains of religion by providing a materialist explanation for the evolution of life on earth through his studies of variation of species. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection continues to be explosive in capitalist society today because it indicates that all modern humans came from a common African ancestor, and hence there is no scientific basis for separate “races”. The truth — that race is not a biological category, but a social and political construct — has profound political implications and the teaching of creationism in schools is inextricably bound up with reinforcing racism.
Darwin explained the origin of species by demonstrating how an accumulation of small quantitative changes produces an entirely new biological quality. Without being aware of it, he applied the method of dialectical materialism, in practice if not in theory. Mendeleyev’s Periodic Law, a historic breakthrough in chemistry, is also based on dialectics. Despite the fact that the brilliant Russian scientist scorned dialectics, Mendeleyev’s law deduces qualitative changes in the elements from quantitative differences in atomic weights. The concept of quantitative changes turning into quality owes much to dialectics. Regarding the relationship between Marxism and science, JD Bernal wrote:
“Knowledge of Marxism is essential to the understanding of the place of science in history. Without Marxism natural science would have remained as a growing accumulation of interesting facts about the universe and useful recipes for controlling it; human history would still be restricted to the simple narration of political changes without any coherent thread of explanation.”
— Science in History
Karl Marx brought together three elements as the basis for scientific socialism: the democratic egalitarianism identified with thinkers like Rousseau; classical political economy developed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo which laid the foundations of the labour theory of value; and a dialectical conception of history derived from Hegel, stripped of the latter’s idealism. (See “How Marx Became a Marxist”, Workers Vanguard no 846, 15 April 2005.) The term “dialectical materialism” was explained by Trotsky saying: “What does this terrible word ‘dialectics’ mean? It means to consider things in their development, not in their static situation” (“On the ‘Workers’ Party”, August 1940).
Marx’s dialectical historical materialism, which Lenin described as “the greatest achievement of scientific thought”, emerged following the birth of the proletariat, a new class which entered the historical stage with the industrial revolution in Britain and gave rise to the first revolutionary working-class movement, the Chartists, in the 1830s. This period also gave rise to the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, the first attempt by the new working class to take power. The year 1848 also saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto, authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who insisted on the inevitability of revolutionary events in the near future.
The goal of communism is an egalitarian and harmonious society. But such a future society can come into being only through the overcoming of economic scarcity by qualitatively raising the level of production and labour productivity through the further progressive development of science and technology.
The Communist Manifesto made the point that the history of all human society, past and present, has been the history of class struggle. But this was not new. In 1852 Marx summed up what his particular contribution was, namely: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat and 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. But he did not regard the outcome of the class struggle as inevitable and put forward a programme for victory through the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The October 1917 Russian Revolution took the Marxist doctrine of proletarian revolution out of the realm of theory and gave it reality, creating a society where those who laboured ruled. Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks broke the capitalist chain at its weakest link, understanding that unless the proletarian revolution was extended to the major capitalist powers, an isolated dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia could not long survive. Under the pressure of imperialist encirclement, the devastation of the Russian working class in the Civil War and the lengthy isolation of the Russian Revolution, a bureaucratic layer headed by Stalin usurped power in a political counterrevolution beginning in 1923-24, resting on the proletarian property forms of the Soviet workers state. Our programme for the USSR was unconditional military defence against imperialism and internal counterrevolution; for proletarian political revolution to oust the bureaucracy and return the USSR to the road of Lenin and Trotsky. The 1991-92 social counterrevolution in the USSR was an unparalleled defeat for working people all over the world.
Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher commented in his speech, “On Socialist Man” (1966), that “Trotsky, for instance, speaks of three basic tragedies — hunger, sex and death — besetting man. Hunger is the enemy that Marxism and the modern labor movement have taken on.... But is it not true that hunger or, more broadly, social inequality and oppression, have hugely complicated and intensified for innumerable human beings the torments of sex and death as well? ” When the wealth, tremendous resources, scientific developments and medical technology of this society are put to the service of the many, not the profits of the few, we will be able to build a society, freed of cruel and crippling religious superstitions, where human life, human worth and human dignity count.