Some Great Men: Marx

From Science Advances (1944) but probably originally published earlier in The Daily Worker. Haldane was the co-founder (along with Julian Huxley and R. A Fisher) of the Modern Synthesis of evolution.

J. B. S. Haldane

Sixty years ago Karl Marx died in London. Every year since his death he has had a greater influence on world history–above all since Lenin put his theories into practice in 1917. To-day even those who most abhor Marxism have to admit that he was a much more important historical force than such contemporary political figures as Gladstone, Disraeli, or Queen Victoria, or philosophers such as Herbert Spencer, Cardinal Newman, or August Comte, who seemed to be great in their own time.

He can justly be compared with contemporaries like Faraday, Darwin, and Pasteur, who are still influencing our lives and thoughts, because their ideas were important not only for their own time, but for many generations to come. These men applied scientific method to new fields. So did Marx.

The two volumes of his Selected Works, just published by Lawrence & Wishart, give some idea of the ground which he covered, and form an excellent introduction to his thought.

There were great socialists before Marx. They saw what sort of organization of society was needed. But they had not studied history deeply enough to analyse the process of historical change, and state the conditions by which socialism could come into being, as Marx and Engels first stated them in the Communist Manifesto.

There were great economists before Marx. But they were mostly content with describing the economic structure of society as they found it. Marx did not merely do this. He traced its origin and showed how it was decaying before his eyes, while the embryo of a new society was growing up within it in the form of the workers’ organizations.

Marx was also a great historian and philosopher. Of philosophers he wrote, “Other philosophers have interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” And here he was in agreement with the method of science. Hundreds of philosophers had interpretedthe motions of the stars and other moving bodies. Galileo started experimenting, that is to say changing the motion or rest of material objects.

He found that Aristotle’s and St. Thomas Aquinas’s theories did not work. Ever since then experiment has been the method which scientists applied wherever it was possible, the method which gives the most certain results.

Academic philosophers had tried to explain the world starting from our sensations, and some of them concluded that the world consisted of nothing but sensations. Marx saw that we are just as closely related to the world by labour which changes it, as by sensation, which only copies it, and that a philosophy in which labour is not as important as sensation is of little value.

In the same way we can only get to understand the nature of society by trying to change it. No living man has a clearer grasp of the nature of society than Stalin, who has played a leading part in two great changes, the overthrow of capitalism, and the building up of socialism. Marx learned the true nature of class society from his early revolutionary work.

Just as Darwin applied scientific method to the problem of man’s ancestry, and Pasteur to that of his diseases, Marx applied it to history, politics, and economics. In each case the result of the analysis was at first sight humiliating. It was pleasanter to believe that we were made in God’s image than that we were descended from monkeys, to regard an epidemic as a punishment from God rather than a result of a faulty water supply. So it hurt human pride to be told that history was determined by economic causes rather than by the ideas of great men, the judgments of God, or the racial soul rooted in blood and soil.

But humility is a condition for progress. If we believe that our ancestors were monkeys we can hope that our descendants will surpass us beyond our wildest imagination; if we know the material causes of disease we can hope to abolish all diseases as we have abolished many. If our history, laws, and morality rest on an economic basis, we can see the way to a progress which still seems impossible to many people.

By studying the laws of change in their most general form, Marx and his friend and colleague Engels not only illuminated history, but science. They did this in two ways. In the first place scientific discoveries are part of the historical process, and depend on productive forces and relations.

Newton’s work was possible because people needed exact knowledge of the movements of the stars for navigation, and of cannon balls for war. He showed that they obeyed the same laws. Darwin could make his great generalizations because the exploitation of colonies had disclosed the distribution of living animals and plants through the world, and the development of mining had disclosed the order in which fossil animals and plants had appeared and died out in the past.

In the second place, material systems develop and perish according to dialectical principles like those which hold for human institutions. Engels was almost alone in his time in thinking that chemical atoms were not indestructible. Rutherford showed that they are born; and that they are destroyed, not usually by external forces, but by their own internal stresses.

Marx did not live to see his theories applied by Lenin. Maxwell did not live to see Hertz, Lodge, Marconi, and others apply his theory of electromagnetic waves to radio-communication. Leninism is Marxism developed by the experience of socialism in action. But it is still Marxism.

Outside the Soviet Union there is a wide and growing distrust of science. The intellectual leaders of the capitalist world, both within the churches and outside them, tell us that science is leading to increasing unhappiness, of which wars are the worst but not the only symptom, because it is applied to machines and not to the regulation of human conduct.

They are right up to a point. Marx said much the same a century ago. But he took the decisive step of showing how scientific method could be applied to human affairs on the broadest scale. So far it has only been so applied in the Soviet Union.

We celebrate the anniversary of the great teacher who has shown us the way out of our present distresses, who has demonstrated that there are no limits to the application of science. We can best honour his memory by doing all that we can to hasten the day when Marxism will be the guiding principle in the government of the country in which Marx spent most of his immensely fruitful life.