December 11, 2021
Marxism and STS: From Marx and Engels to COVID-19 and COP26
By Helena Sheehan
This article is co-published in Monthly Review Essays.1
At the recent conference of the Society for the Social Study of Science, I came to the conclusion that the history of Marxism in relation to science and technology studies is an increasingly forgotten story.
From the beginning, Marxism took science extremely seriously, not only for its economic promise in building a socialist society, but for its revelatory power in understanding the world. Marxism has made the strongest claims of any intellectual tradition before or since about the socio-historical character of science, yet always affirmed its cognitive achievements.
Science was seen as inextricably enmeshed with economic systems, technological developments, political movements, philosophical theories, cultural trends, ethical norms, ideological positions. Indeed, with all that was human. It was also a path of access to the natural world. There were studies, texts, theories, tensions, and debates exploring the complexities of how this was so.2
The objectivist/constructivist dichotomy could never capture its epistemological dynamic. Nor could the internalist/externalist dualism ever do justice to the interacting field of forces harnessed in its historiographical process. Knowledge was conceived always as interactive, so there was no object without subject, no access to an external world without the socially evolved apparatus of conceptualization of it, no ideas unshaped by history, but no reason to think this invalidated knowledge.
Marx and Engels were acutely attuned to the science of their times and integrated this awareness at the core of their thought process in developing the intellectual tradition and political movement that came to be called Marxism.
There have been controversies about the Marx-Engels relationship, with a tendency to counterpose a humanist Marx to a positivist Engels, especially to dissociate Marx from Engels’s posthumous work Dialectics of Nature. The dialectics of nature debate resurfaces periodically, including recently, and there is an even stronger tendency to vindicate Engels than when I entered the fray decades ago.3 What is at stake is the development of a comprehensive worldview embracing both human society and the natural world with a strong emphasis on cutting edge science.
The subsequent generation of Marxists, during the period of the Second International, also paid such acute attention to the onward development of science and there were debates among themselves and others about its implications and consequences, especially in response to trends such as positivism, Machism, neo-Kantianism.4
After the October revolution, there was an intensification of this activity in Soviet society. Science was a necessity in building a new social order. Scientific theory was thought to be not only a matter of truth and error, but of life and death. There were many debates, some between those more grounded in the empirical sciences and those who stressed the continuity of Marxism with the history of philosophy.
Intertwined with all the intellectual debates of the day was an intense struggle for power. There was tension around a more cosmopolitan Marxist intelligentsia, who had found their way to Marxism in difficult and dangerous conditions, exposed to an array of intellectual influences, accustomed to mixing with intellectuals of many points of view and arguing the case for Marxism in such milieux.
Increasingly they were coming under pressure from those who had come up under the revolution, never been abroad, knew no foreign languages, had little detailed knowledge of either the natural sciences or the history of philosophy, and never mixed with exponents of other intellectual traditions. Some were more inclined to cite the authority of classic texts or party decrees than to engage in theoretical debate. They were being fast-tracked in their careers and taking over as professors, directors of institutes and members of editorial boards, occupying positions of authority over intellectuals of international reputation. There was high drama and there was soon to be blood on the floor.
What is at stake is the development of a comprehensive worldview embracing both human society and the natural world with a strong emphasis on cutting edge science.
It was the more cosmopolitan intelligentsia that came to London in 1931 for what is perhaps the most memorialized conference ever. News of the Second International History of Science Congress spilled over into the mass media with the arrival of a Soviet delegation led by N. I. Bukharin and including B. M. Hessen, N. I. Vavilov and others renowned in the history of science. The 1931 congress brought forces already in motion into a new level of interaction with each other. At the congress, contrasting worldviews were in collision. The majority of those in attendance were professional historians of science or scientists with an antiquarian interest in history, who discussed the subject in a leisurely way with an implicit positivism. They were stunned by the Soviets discussing science in connection with philosophy and politics and in such a world-historical way. Those most touched by this confrontation were leftist scientists in Britain who shared the vision of the visitors from afar. The ideas of J. D. Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane and other leading scientists who became Marxists took hold among many of their contemporaries and gave rise to a dynamic radical science movement in the 1930s.5
Bernal saw Marxism as providing an integrated framework. It was a philosophy derived from science that brought order and perspective and illuminated the onward path of science. It provided a method of co-ordinating the experimental results of science and unifying its different branches in a deep socio-historical perspective. He called for a science of science—what came to be called Science and Technology Studies (STS).
After 1945, the influence of Marxism spread ever wider. In Eastern Europe, Marxism became the dominant force in the universities, research institutes, and academic journals of new socialist states. It spread to Asia, Latin America, Africa in liberation movements, some of which became parties of power.
There was serious work done in developing a distinctive approach to STS, particularly in exploring the philosophical implications of the natural sciences. This was the case in the academies of Eastern Europe, particularly in East Germany, in the intellectual life of communist parties, in journals such as Science and Society, La Penée and Modern Quarterly. It was very different from the narrowly methodological approach being pursued in philosophy of science elsewhere. It was also work of profound significance that was too little known outside these milieux.
Marxism combined attention to the advancing results of the empirical sciences, development of a philosophical framework capable of integrating expanding knowledge and awareness of the socio-historical context of it all.
The 1960s and 1970s put Marxism on the agenda in a new way in the rest of the world where capitalism held sway. New Left ferment pervaded North America and Western Europe especially. This was a time when all that had been assumed was opened to question, when the universities and the streets became contested terrain. Academic disciplines were scrutinized at their very foundations. Philosophy, sociology, literature, science—all knowledge—was seen as tied to power. University campuses and academic conferences were alive with passion and polemic. Journals such as Radical Philosophy, Insurgent Sociologist, Science for the People, Radical Science Journal, and Science as Culture gave expression to this ferment. Many of my generation threw ourselves wholeheartedly into this.
I was interested in Marxism as a comprehensive worldview and intrigued by the ways in which intellectual movements were rooted in socio-historical forces. I saw the whole history of philosophy that I had been studying in a new way. I saw everything in a new way, a way in which everything was interconnected: philosophy, culture, politics, economics, science. I decided to focus on science within this network of relationships. Researching my book Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History was an absorbing adventure, especially during my intervals in the USSR. I felt like a detective uncovering an intricate series of intersecting stories. I tried to write a Marxist history of Marxism and science, despite the enormous and opposite pressures on me as I strove to do so, pressures from east and west, from left and right, from old and new left, from commitment and career.
Sometimes, to my surprise, I felt more of an affinity with the previous generation than my own. I could not understand why my contemporaries, especially among British Marxists, turned their backs on the earlier generation of British Marxists and went flocking to Althusser or Foucault. New Left Review veered between obliviousness and hostility to the previous generation of British Marxists.
Radical Science Journal did engage with the earlier generation, however critically. Gary Werskey’s book The Visible College was perhaps the most substantial work mediating between these generations on the question of science. Robert Young’s “Science is social relations” was the most explicit and provocative exposition of a new left position on science. Reacting strongly against the view that science itself is neutral and that only the use or abuse of science is ideological, Young and Radical Science Journal held that science as such is ideological. From the premise that modern science, with its characteristic concepts of truth and rationality, and modern capitalism, with its alienating division of labour, arose upon a single edifice, came the conclusion that both would have to be totally dismantled. So, for Young, science equaled capitalist science. It was a far cry from the affirmation of science characterizing previous generations of the left.6
Living as if in some parallel universe much of the time, parts of academe proceeded as if the only story in philosophy of science was the one proceeding from the Vienna Circle through Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn.7 Philosophy of science in philosophy departments rarely took a sideward glance at this other tradition.
Meanwhile, Soviet delegations were no longer a surprise at international conferences. They were integrated into the organizing structures and gave papers in many sessions. However, how much of a meeting of minds occurred was another matter. The World Congress of Philosophy was held in Düsseldorf in August 1978. I spent much of that year in Eastern Europe, mostly in Moscow. The philosophers there were constantly talking about the upcoming congress. In fact, they were preparing for it as if for Warsaw Pact maneuvers. They kept asking me what Irish and British philosophers were planning. However, they weren’t planning anything. They were coming or not coming as individuals and thinking only about their own papers and travel arrangements.
At the congress itself, philosophers from the socialist countries and philosophers from the rest of the world mostly read papers past each other (as most academics at most congresses do). There were, however, several skirmishes and a cold war atmosphere. I felt myself to be in a similar situation to that of British Marxists at the 1931 congress. I moved between both sides in a way that very few did. People like me were constantly challenged at such congresses to prove that Marxism plus science did not necessarily equal Lysenkoism.8
There were other enclaves where there was sustained cross fertilization, such as the Boston Colloquium in Philosophy of Science, which resulted in many volumes of Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, edited by Robert Cohen and Marx Wartofsky. The Inter-University Centre in Dubrovnik was also a pioneering and important base for interaction between east and west, between Marxists and non-Marxists.
In 1990 it seemed that the world turned upside down. The USSR, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia disappeared from the map. I had often wondered how many of the intellectuals I met in Eastern Europe would be Marxists if there was a regime change, and I soon found out. I had several confrontations in the 1990s with those who had made their careers professing Marxism and then made their careers by denouncing it. Academic life all over the world is full of such people. They do what is necessary to advance themselves and they are rewarded, then and now, but they will never produce anything of real value.
I have returned over the years to Eastern Europe to see where all the Marxists have gone. I have been most impressed when visiting the vanquished, the Marxist intelligentsia who were still Marxists, who once occupied the apex of academe and subsequently led quite marginalized lives. Loren Graham of MIT, who spent his whole professional life studying Soviet and post-Soviet science and philosophy of science said of dialectical materialism: “This philosophy of science is actually quite a sensible one and corresponds to the implicit views of many working scientists all over the world.” Graham, not a Marxist, also went on to show that this philosophy had a lasting impact on Russian scientists, even after the demise of the Soviet state.
Science and STS go from one extreme to the other: from the minutiae of molecules to the “tao” of physics. It is either science stripped of philosophical or historical reflection or it is new age nonsense stepping into the philosophical gap and filling the bookshop shelves.
So what does Marxism have to offer to science and STS now? Science and STS seem to be flourishing in the sense that there is much funding, many metrics,9 all sorts of empirical studies. Much of this is interesting and valuable, although a lot of it is bland and bitty. Many studies are short and shallow and driven by market demand and fast-track careerism more than intellectual quest. There is not much in the way of thinking that is simultaneously empirically grounded, philosophically integrated, socio-historically contextualized. This is what Marxism could bring to bear. Instead, science and STS go from one extreme to the other: from the minutiae of molecules to the “tao” of physics. It is either science stripped of philosophical or historical reflection or it is new age nonsense stepping into the philosophical gap and filling the bookshop shelves. Both are commercially successful. Contradiction sells.
The intensification of the commercialization of science, as part of the general commodification of knowledge, is the strongest force in the field today. A new orthodoxy has taken command, not so much by winning arguments, but by wielding systemic power on a global scale. Universities are being harnessed to operate by market norms and survival of the fittest in commercial competition is outstripping all other forms of validation, particularly truth criteria, theoretical depth and breadth, moral responsibility, political engagement. There are powerful pressures disincentivizing, eroding and marginalizing critical thinking, creative thinking, systemic thinking.
Universities are contested terrain. The atmosphere has changed drastically from what prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s. Then there were large-scale contending paradigms in every area facing off with each other with great energy and passion. It has dissipated now. It is disconcerting, because it is not as if anything has been solved. It is that people have learned to live with problems unresolved or unacknowledged or to settle for resolution at a less than fundamental level. The confrontations of worldviews have given way to low-level eclecticism. There is a narrowing of perspective and a retreat from engagement, whether through myopia, ignorance, shallowness, conformity, fear or careerism.
So much of what I read or review in so many areas is so half-baked. Conceptualization is weak and confused. Contextualization is thin and random. Marxism has nurtured in me a demand for conceptualization that is strong and lucid, for contextualization that is thick and systemic. Many social studies of science, including some associated with the strong program, are still too weak in conceptualization and contextualization.
There have been periodic rediscoveries of the socio-historical context of science as if Marxism had never happened —from Kuhn to Edinburgh School to Latour or whomever. This is not to deny the significant contribution of the Edinburgh School, who have offered an impressive output of empirical studies of intriguing episodes in the history of science.10
The science wars of the 1990s took up the threads of this tension.11 I found myself on both sides, yet wholly on neither. I agreed with those who wanted to defend the cognitive capacity of science against epistemological anti-realism, irrationalism, mysticism, conventionalism, especially against anything-goes postmodernism. I also agreed with those who insisted on a strong socio-historical account of science against a reassertion of scientism. A better grounding in what the Marxist tradition has brought to bear on these issues would have illuminated the terrain.
I do not believe that the debunking of science in terms of its cognitive capacity is an appropriate activity for the left. It is neither epistemologically sound nor politically progressive. The left should take its stand with science, a critically reconstructed, socially responsible science, but with the possibilities of science.
STS has tended increasingly to back away from the big ideas that were once in play. It is becoming too small, too introverted, obsessed with mini-debates of micro-tendencies with only weak evidence of relevant intellectual history and thin social context.
As to philosophy, although it is central to the human condition, many professional philosophers have reduced STS to technicist esoterica or obfuscating nonsense. They have alienated many who have come to it seeking meaning, putting any defense of its declining status on dubious grounds. Some texts in philosophy of science seem to me to be equivalent to obsession with a game of chess while the house is burning down around it.
Marxism is still an alternative. It is still superior to anything on the scene. It is a way of seeing the world in terms of a complex pattern of interconnecting processes where others see only disconnected and static particulars. It is a way of revealing how economic structures, political institutions, legal codes, moral norms, cultural trends, scientific theories, philosophical perspectives, even common sense, are all products of a pattern of historical development shaped by a mode of production.
Marxism as a philosophy of science is materialist in the sense of explaining the natural world in terms of natural forces and not supernatural powers. It is dialectical in the sense of being evolutionary, processive, developmental. It is radically contextual and relational in the sense that it sees everything that exists within the web of forces in which it is embedded. It is empiricist without being positivist or reductionist. It is rationalist without being idealist. It is coherent and comprehensive while being empirically grounded.
Marxism is still superior to anything on the scene. It is a way of seeing the world in terms of a complex pattern of interconnecting processes where others see only disconnected and static particulars.
Marxism has been a major position in the history of philosophy. It has been a formative force in STS and other disciplines and it is a continuing influence. It is not as influential as it deserves to be on the current intellectual landscape, but it is still more influential than many might think. It is there in ways that are not always acknowledged. It is sometimes the philosophy that dare not speak its name. Moreover, many of its premises have come to be so accepted that it seems no longer necessary or opportune or even known from where they have come.
There are ebbs and flows and new waves of realization all the time.
The current push for decolonization of knowledge is important. I cheered as Rhodes fell at University of Cape Town in 2015, but I have watched as a lot of this progressive impulse has become unmoored with a year zero mentality denying what has been achieved by previous generations as well as a failure to see that the central force colonizing knowledge is capital. I am already seeing a lot of it co-opted into the bland and blind liberal agenda of diversity and inclusion.12
There is evidence of a revival of interest in Marxism in relation to science now in our current planetary emergency, particularly the looming climate catastrophe and the persisting COVID-19 pandemic. Positivist scientism has some limited potency, but is too narrow, too myopic to grasp the full picture. Premodern or postmodern anti-science is a blind alley. The postmodernist critique of science has evaporated. Because science has become so salient, so immediate, so crucial to our collective fate, no one wants to hear that we have no criteria for deciding between contending truth claims or that science is inherently deceptive or oppressive.
Yet science under capitalism has become problematic and only systemic analysis can deal with that.
The statistics on carbon emissions or loss of biodiversity only get us so far unless we address the system that created the problem, fuels the process onward and blocks possible solutions. There is so much being written about ecological crisis, but it is Marxists, such as John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, and Andreas Malm, who connect the science to philosophy, sociology and political economy, who bring the whole picture into clear focus and point the way beyond it.13
It is the same with the current pandemic. The statistics on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccinations and mitigation measures only get us so far unless we see what conditions have created this pandemic and persist to create future and fiercer pandemics. It is Marxists, such as Mike Davis and Rob Wallace, who predicted that such a pandemic was coming and showed when it came how it was bound up with the circuitry of capital. Whatever may have happened in the Wuhan lab or Wuhan market, the real source is deforestation, destruction of habitats, wildlife trafficking, the whole industrialized system of food production and the global circuitry of capital. Marxists and others have highlighted the downgrading of public health systems, the negative effect on patents and the stranglehold of big pharma in obstructing just distribution of vaccines and therapeutic medicines.14 We need a more open, cooperative, international science to deal with these problems. There have been moves in this direction in response to current crises, but the obstructions are still formidable.
Marxists have been to the fore in doing the systemic thinking demanded by these crises, not only in clarifying the causes, but in pointing to the solutions—solutions difficult to achieve, because the imperatives generated by ecological and epidemiological crises go contrary to the very logic of capitalism. I think this is being realized by more and more people, the sort of people who gathered outside the barriers of COP26 or those who couldn’t travel but followed news reports with dismay.
The history of Marxism and its relation to science is tied inextricably to the history of everything else. It is still the unsurpassed philosophy of our time.
Helena Sheehan is Professor Emerita at Dublin City University in Ireland where she taught STS as well as history of ideas more generally. Her books include Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History, The Syriza Wave, Navigating the Zeitgeist and Until We Fall (in progress). She has also published many articles on philosophy, science, politics, and culture. She has lectured in various countries in America, Europe and Africa. She has been an activist on the left since the 1960s.
- This article is an edited version of Helena Sheehan, “Science and Technology Studies: A Marxist Narrative,” online presentation, November 17, 2021, Youtube Video, 1:58:47, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYffCjK6dt4&t=1687s&ab_channel=Marx-STS.
- This article is necessarily sketchy, sweeping through decades and dealing with many thinkers, theories and debates. For the fuller story, see my more comprehensive account in Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (London: Verso Books, 2018).
- For a good account of the whole history of this debate, see Kaan Kangal, Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
- Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science.
- For more on this congress and its aftermath, see Gary Werskey, The Visible College: A Collective Biography of British Scientists and Socialists of the 1930s (London: Allen Lane, 1978); Christopher Chilvers, “Five Tourniquets and a Ship’s Bell: The Special Session at the 1931 Congress,” Centaurus 57, no. 2 (2015): 61–95; Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science. A book containing the Soviet papers from this congress was published as N. I. Bukharin et al., Science at the Crossroads (London: Kniga 1931).
- Werskey, The Visible College; Robert Young, “Science is Social Relations,” Radical Science Journal 5 (1977): 65–129.
- This tradition began with the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle and progressed through various forms of neo-positivism and post-positivism, generating a considerable volume of literature. It was narrowly focused on epistemology and scientific method, particularly demarcation criteria, rather than questions of worldview preoccupying Marxism.
- For a more elaborate account of these conferences and other events and movements of these years, see Helena Sheehan Navigating the Zeitgeist (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019).
- By metrics here I mean quantitative studies as well as impact statistics.
- The strong program in the sociology of knowledge of the Edinburgh School held that scientific theories considered both true and false should be treated equivalently in terms of their need for sociological explanation.
- The catalytic events were the publication of, among many, Gross and Levitt Higher Superstition in 1994, the infamous Sokal hoax in 1996 and the flurry of publicity surrounding it, the science wars special issue of Social Text with the Sokal article in it and the book without it, the New York Academy of Science conference published as The Flight from Science and Reason. For an overview, see Ullica Segerstrale, eds., Beyond the Science Wars: The Missing Discourse about Science and Society (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000) and Helena Sheehan, “The Drama of the Science Wars: What Is the Plot?” Public Understanding of Science 10, no. 2 (2001).
- Helena Sheehan “Class, Race, Gender and the Production of Knowledge: Considerations on the Decolonisation of Knowledge” Transform 7, 13-30, 2020.
- John Bellamy Foster, Marx and Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature (New York: Monthly Review, 2020); Ian Angus, A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017); Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (New York: Verso Books, 2017); Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Verso Books, 2020).
- Mike Davis, The Monster Enters: COVID 19, Avian Flu, and the Plagues of Capitalism (New York: Verso Books, 2020); Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016); Rob Wallace, Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of Covid-19 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).